Lip-service webinars fail to consider libraries’ community future

CROYDON COMMENTARY: As the council pays lip-service to a legally required consultation process, there’s a sense of inevitability about proposed closures for up to five of the borough’s public libraries. After sitting in on one of the council’s virtual Q&A sessions, LUCIA BRIAULT was unimpressed

Yeah, look: Oliver ‘Ollie’ Lewis now wants the borough to live within its means

So I’m tuned-in to one of the library webinars with our esteemed cabinet member for culture and regeneration, Oliver Lewis, the councillor who spent tens of thousands of pounds of public cash on art performances in the Town Hall that featured shit and butt plugs.

Ollie’s theme today is that we have to live within our means. 

Yeah, look: this time, Ollie managed to keep it clean. Despite starting every sentence with “Yeah, look”.

Overall, the council came across as very cognisant of the importance of libraries to the community and very keen to keep them open. As long as the community steps in to run them and pay for them. Simples.

Yeah, look: we have to live within our means.

We couldn’t see the other webinar participants, or even how many there were. They disabled the chat and added their own Q&A section. Very clandestine.

Sarah Hayward, a council director, was very good at reading out the questions. After being caught out a couple of times at the beginning, she stopped reading them verbatim and summarised them, to cut out any criticism of the council.

For example, I asked a question about using the Community Infrastructure Levy, highlighting that none of the CIL monies raised by all the developments in our area have actually been spent here. I stressed that CIL money is supposed to be ring-fenced for spending on infrastructure and can’t go into the general pot to be spent on core services. This was summarised as, “Lucia Briault is asking whether we can use CIL monies to fund the library”.

Protest: in South Norwood, where their library faces closure, protesters have already taken to the streets

Apparently, the webinars will be uploaded to the libraries consultation page (so you’ll be able to see Ollie in full, hair-flicking swing) and all the unanswered questions will be addressed (allegedly).

We’ll see.

The current Labour-run council seems extraordinarily determined to alienate its traditional voter base.

First, it tries to squeeze a load of ugly new blocks of flats into the teeniest spaces in its existing housing estates… playgrounds, drying areas, sheds, garages… nowhere was safe from the publicly-funded horrors wrought by Brick by Brick and its merry band of consultants and contractors.

Then the bankrupt council tells us it has to cut services across the board, while still increasing our Council Tax. The inappropriately named “renewal plan” points to huge overspends in adult social care and children’s services that will have to be curtailed if we are to “live within our means”. A message that sends our most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents – who were already super-stressed by the pandemic – into a total tailspin.

And now, as if to reinforce the very social divide Labour usually fights to bridge, the council wants to close libraries in areas where the less well-off rely on them for internet access and computer use, for free children’s activities, or as places to get much-needed support and advice.

I haven’t set foot in Bradmore Green Library for years. I read voraciously but I like to read complete series of books in the correct order, so I stopped using the library when it became more expensive to reserve a particular book than it was to buy it (albeit usually second-hand).

Under threat: Bradmore Green Library

I’m lucky enough to have had a PC and broadband for most of my adult life, so I’ve never needed to use the library’s digital services. I did use the library a lot when my daughter was little – as a single mum on a shoestring budget, we wouldn’t have got through the long school holidays without the Summer Reading Challenge and the free fun-filled craft activities.

My main issue with the threatened closure of Bradmore Green and four other of the borough’s public libraries is that the council’s consultation focuses on the role the library plays now.

Everyone thinks of a library primarily as somewhere to borrow books. But times have changed. Not everyone reads paper books anymore; in fact, not everyone reads anymore. There’s a YouTube video for everything – who needs reference books? You could even ask Alexa. Why strain your eyesight reading when you can listen to the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry on Audible?

In the multimedia age of smartphones and other such devices, the library isn’t sustainable as a vehicle to access books and the internet.

What’s more, the library has limited opening hours and is not accessible to the growing number of people working shifts in our 24/7 society. Only 15 per cent of the available IT sessions are booked, the council tells us. That’ll be because the poorer members of society are busy trying to hold down two or more jobs, just to keep their heads above water.

Plus the library is no longer a quiet place to study or work, due to the other activities going on there. The statistics are clear: the trend in Croydon and nationwide is one of falling footfall and dwindling library usage.

Shirley’s public library could also be closed under the council’s cost-cutting plans

But in an increasingly secular society, the library is often an important community hub, particularly for the elderly, the isolated, the less mobile and those with young children. For many, the library is a safe and free destination that’s within a short, manageable walk.

For me, libraries are in a similar category to high streets and shopping centres. They are not like they used to be a few decades ago (they were dying even before covid-19). The way we use libraries needs to evolve.

How do I imagine the library of the future?

A series of flexible rooms and spaces, with access to provide extended hours. For quiet study or remote working, for business meetings for those who work from home, for group activities and community events.

Voluntary organisations or fundraising groups shouldn’t have to pay room hire (or should pay only a nominal amount) – these volunteers are already giving up their time.

A drop-in centre for the community, with designated areas for those who feel stressed or lonely, who want to talk to someone or just have a safe place to sit and relax. Some low-cost food and drink options would be good – not an expensive café franchise, just a kettle, a sink, a fridge and a few supplies. Or a café whose profits are ploughed back into the centre, like the Tea Room at the Honeywood Museum in Carshalton.

A regular repair café, which will cut down on our excessive consumption of stuff and reduce waste. Not only good for the environment: repair cafés are also great places for local residents to get together, share knowledge and pass on skills. This can give renewed purpose to the older generation and do wonders for our mental health.

A community re-use shop (perhaps selling some of the things repaired in the repair café). One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, after all. Did you know that all the “decent” stuff taken to Croydon’s (for now) three household reuse and recycling centres ends up in a community re-use shop in the London Borough of Sutton?

A library of things, like the one in Upper Norwood. Imagine a world where not everyone needs to own a pressure washer that they use twice a year. Or a four-man tent bought for that once-in-a-lifetime camping holiday. We really can’t keep manufacturing more and more stuff. The double whammy of pollution and bleeding the planet dry.

If the library has some outdoor space, how about a community orchard or a kitchen garden in accessible, raised beds? Particularly for all those people Councillor Paul Scott and his developer chums are determined to shoehorn into flats (affordable or otherwise).

Obviously this community garden is never going to feed the whole community, but it’s another way of inspiring people to learn new skills, even if it’s just helping you learn how to grow baby cucumbers in a pot on your balcony.

The library can still be a place to borrow books, of course, but I see this operating on a “Select and Collect” basis from what remains of the council-run library service. We won’t really have space for all those racks of books anymore.

Goodbye Bradmore Green Library, hello Old Coulsdon Community Centre.

Now all I need to do is work out how to fund this lovely asset at the heart of the community. “Hello, is that Abundance Investment? I wonder if you can help…”

Anyone else up for a challenge?

Read more: South Norwood library needs £900,000 more to be fit to open

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4 Responses to Lip-service webinars fail to consider libraries’ community future

  1. Lewis White says:

    Great, thought-provoking article ! Lots to mulll over.
    Let’s hope that Councillors are receptive to creative thinking as embodied in the article.

    Covid has made most of us realise how we have been rushing around, and neglecting our local areas, and the good things that can be had by shopping, doing — and talking –locally.

    One thing clear from the Council’s useful information sheet on each library proposed for closure is that everty libary has a different profile of use. In some, the same books are being borrowed again and again. That suggests to me popular fiction borrowed by regular laibrary users. In other libaries, there is a huge number of “computer users” who are probably people studying.

    It is clear from the article that usership has changed over the decades. Some of us have space and income to buy books. Others don’t.

    The idea of libraries as hubs for the community has real appeal.

    Every area seems to be different. Old Coulsdon is different from Coulsdon Town. No doubt, Shirley is different from Addiscombe, and from Sanderstead, etc etc etc.

    It would be lovely to keep all libraries, but they can’t be kept in aspic, gradually fading away.

    My guess is that some will be sold and used for redevelopment as flats. I am not against that, but only if the options lead clearly to that solution, and , IF the benefits are substantial and real.

    The problem with trying to save money is the municipal context is often that in the attempt to save £2 million, the cash raised is actually ony £1.5 million.

  2. Michael Hembest says:

    A very insightful article. A long with pubs and churches the things that we need as a community are disappearing. Community assets do not bring loads of money but if we do not have them the costs of social deprivation will be huge.

  3. Alan Wylie says:

    Jeez what an incredibly privileged and badly researched/thought out view, “I haven’t used libraries for years and have no need to so let’s throw them and Library Workers under a bus by undermining them and turning them into community centres” – does the author realise that this is a statutory service that she pays for? If she hadn’t used the NHS in years would she say “I don’t have any need for it so let’s just put an aspirin in a tin outside my house and call it a community hospital”
    If public libraries are properly funded/resourced and staffed they can fulfil their true/core duty/mission, but you have to be prepared to fight for this for the sake of the whole community.

  4. Tim Coates says:

    In a survey before the pandemic, 80% of people in the U.K. said that they read or made use of a book in the previous 12 months. Half of reading is of non fiction. 80% of reading is of print books, not eBooks . There is no reason to believe that people living in South London are less interested in reading than anywhere else in the country. The point of a public library is that it gives everybody free access to books they might not know about or want to buy. That is the virtue

    All the figures we have indicate that reading has increased during the year of the pandemic

    The reason why use of libraries falls is because they aren’t very good. Not because people don’t want them

    For libraries to be a successful Council activity – as they could easily be- they need to improved, not made worse

    The saving that is needed to be found lies, not in the front line operation of the libraries themselves but in the expensive overhead costs of both the library service and the council directorates

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