Libraries are our long-term investment. Don’t squander it

CROYDON IN CRISIS: On World Book Day, RICHARD PACITTI outlines why closing any of the borough’s libraries is a very bad idea

Think of an ideal public service.

Shirley Library: one of five public libraries under threat of closure by the council

It would be one that was accessible to all members of the community irrespective of their age, ethnicity, social standing or financial means.

It would be a service that gave people opportunities that perhaps they didn’t have at home – access to knowledge, learning, art, culture – and thereby promoted social mobility.

It would be a service that reduced the possibilities for loneliness and isolation and kept people connected.

It would be staffed by skilled and dedicated professionals, supporting people to make full use of the services on offer. It would be a service that had very modest running costs compared with the thousands of people it supported in so many ways.

That service is called a public library.

Yet because our council is bankrupt and is desperate to save money, it is now suggesting that as many as five local libraries should be closed. This is a terrible idea.

To be clear, public libraries in Croydon aren’t being faced with closure because they are underused or under-appreciated. They are very well used community assets that benefit thousands of citizens.

According to the council’s own figures, even the libraries that are least well-used have 30,000 to 35,000 visits per year. Saying that these libraries aren’t well-used because they receive less footfall than Croydon Central Library is like saying former 100metres world champion and Olympic gold medal-winner Yohan Blake is a bit of a dawdler because he can’t run quite as fast as Usain Bolt.

The five libraries earmarked for closure also provide 19,479 PC sessions a year and many other activities that support children, parents and other community groups. When you look at books issued, those libraries that the council thinks could be closed issue 144,473 books a year.

8% of all books borrowed from Croydon libraries are borrowed from Sanderstead Library

Sanderstead Library, one of those on the hit list, alone issues 46,091 books, 8per cent of Croydon’s total. That’s a huge figure given the opening hours and footfall. The running costs are extremely modest, the value for money astonishingly good.

The money proposed to be saved by closing these libraries is a drop in the ocean.

The loss on the sell-off of the council’s failed house-builder, Brick by Brick, is estimated at £100million.

The £500,000 a year in running costs that the council suggests it might save if it goes ahead to close five libraries is about 0.5per cent of those Brick by Brick losses, therefore. Compare the “savings” on libraries with the council’s overall debt, £1.5billion, and it is an even more insignificant amount.

And my understanding is that Croydon actually spends less than comparable boroughs on its libraries. Croydon’s main area of overspend is actually adult social care.

One of the most concerning things about a council closing libraries is that the people most likely to be badly affected – children, the elderly, the socially disadvantaged – are the least likely to be able to defend those services.

Of course, it’s easy to save money by deleting rows of expenditure on a spreadsheet.

But what of the long-term repercussions of this? What if those rows of expenditure relate to a service that has an effective role in saving lots of public money elsewhere? Or is an investment in our children’s future?

There’s no point in saving £500 if that need pops up elsewhere costing £3,000. We require a level of intelligence and foresight when making such decisions. I’m sure if council officers and elected members got their thinking caps on they could come up with creative ideas whereby libraries could be part of the programme to promote health and well-being, or even reduce crime, and so actually save council spending overall.

Under threat: Bradmore Green Library

A crucial point about a library is that it is a service for our children and their children’s children. Looking after our libraries for our children is analogous to looking after the planet for our children. We should not be taking a short-term panic measure of closing libraries when libraries are a long-term investment in our community.

Council officials and councillors should see themselves as guardians or caretakers of local services and community assets – not asset strippers. If, in discharging their public duties at the taxpayers’ expense, they aren’t able to make things better, they should at least make sure that they don’t leave things considerably worse. Like the oath sworn by doctors, they should “first do no harm”.

I have no political affiliation myself, but I do find it astonishing that a Labour administration should be proposing the closure of libraries. If you were to think of a service that exemplified what I understand to be Labour ideals – social mobility, equality of access, the support of excellent public services and the people who work in them – then that service would be a public library.

Ask most people, “what are the services that your Council Tax pays for”, and I would think that people would mention libraries along with schools, parks, refuse collection and planning. I think, on the whole, people don’t mind paying reasonable taxes for high-quality public services. Having their Council Tax increased to help plug the gap in the local finances caused by disastrous property speculation won’t sit well.

Losing libraries through no fault of their own (even though they paid for them with their Council Tax) means the residents of Croydon are like the children of a parent who has gambled away all the family’s money at the betting shop being told there’s now no money for food or clothes.

The first book I remember reading was Emil And The Detectives. At Elmwood School, our teacher, Mr Davies, read us The Hobbit. My sister is four years older than me and was at a grammar school. I raided her bookshelf and read Coming Up For Air by George Orwell.

Reading the back cover I learned he was most famous for writing Animal Farm and 1984. Armed with this knowledge and my library ticket, I was able to borrow these books and have access to one of the greatest writers of all time. Thereafter, I was able to supplement what I learned at school by borrowing books from the library.

Just the ticket: which books would you miss being able to read without a library?

It’s hard to think of anything more egalitarian than a book.

Irrespective of our means or our standing in society – whether we are rich or poor, billionaire or benefit claimant – we all have equal access to the greatest literature in the world, so long as we can read and have access to a library.

If you haven’t seen the film The Dig yet, I would recommend it. Not least for how it credits Basil Brown, the self-taught archaeologist and astronomer who discovered and excavated Sutton Hoo. Look him up if you want to find out more about the role of books, libraries and evening classes in supporting working class autodidactism.

By the way, my library also allowed me to borrow records, sheet music (someone told me that he had been able to borrow prints of works of art from his library) and I also used the beautiful reference library (now the Brathwaite Hall) to look up things with the assistance of the knowledgeable and skilled staff.

Access to books and libraries provided me with social mobility. I went to university, held down an important job and moved from Broad Green to central Croydon to Sanderstead (Broad Green Library, like Sanderstead’s, is among those under threat of closure).

Later, my wife and I helped our own children join the library and, before they could speak, let alone read and write, they attended baby rhyme time. Later they took part in the summer book challenge and numerous other events. They attended library workshops with their grandmothers, recording their intergenerational heritage. My youngest son developed a love of books and reading and is currently completing an English Degree at King’s.

Lucia Briault’s article on Inside Croydon invited us to re-think our libraries. She makes some excellent points.

Shouldn’t libraries be part of the One Croydon strategy to transform how health and social care is delivered in Croydon, focusing on the wider determinants of ill health and being proactive in preventing ill-health?

Shouldn’t the council be more joined up with its thinking? Are those in charge of libraries and culture talking to those in charge of health and social care, children’s services and community development?

If you feel strongly about this, please be an active citizen. Take part in the council’s consultation on the closing of libraries. But get your skates on, you only have until March14. Sign the petition against library closure, get involved with the Save Croydon Libraries campaign. Contact your MP and councillors and tell them how opposed you are to any library being closed.

Once the libraries are closed (especially if the buildings and land are sold off, which is suspected as being the real driving force behind proposals that the council has been kicking around since 2018,  long before they went broke), it’s unlikely they will re-open.

If you or your children have ever used a library, even if you don’t use them very much now, make sure this vital community resource will still be there for future generations.

Read more: South Norwood library needs £900,000 more to be fit to open
Read more: Lip-service webinars fail to consider libraries’ community future
Read more: ‘We are all victims’: time for a residents’ Council Tax strike
Read more: ‘One of the biggest casualties of council crisis is our trust’
Read more: Council Tax-payers pay for politicians’ game of cat-and-mouse


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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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7 Responses to Libraries are our long-term investment. Don’t squander it

  1. Visited Oxford a couple of years ago. Had a tour of the old part of the Bodleiam Library. Books and access to them is viewed as crucial to “learning” in that great University City. Croydon Councillors might like to reflect on that, particularly if they still harbour ambitions for Croydon hosting a University/Campus.

  2. Ian Kierans says:

    Richard makes very good points and an overall article. Must be something about Elmwood as my children went there also. I do feel that the Social Care cost is very high in Croydon and will look at what it is in general as there does appear to be higher than usual cost factors but no evidential clarity as to why this is so. But at what stage does the line get drawn and Central Government told this is our budget for this section of expenditure and no more as statutory services must be maintained- or should we just all move to areas that do not have this handicap on local costs?
    On the Libraries could they not be used to have after school groups for study or research – many families would benefit from this as it would hep with childcare and ensure that homework study was actually done in a quiet environment?

  3. moyagordon says:

    Thanks for highlighting this issue. I hope people take the chance to put their views across in the council’s consultation.

  4. Ian Kierans says:

    Read an interesting analysis by the Kings fund on social care costs across England. Many areas are suffering from this but not many are cutting services or failing in their duties albeit with some they are tight.
    I t would be interesting to hear from Ms Kerswell why she is unable to manage to drive down costs and if there is a real issue or issues then she should come clean now. It is hypocritical to not respond to Inside Croydon stating it is not a newspaper when it clearly is a modern media source in the digital age. Croydon have repeatedly stated they have gone digital and refuse in many areas to deal with matters in print themselves – you know like letting residents know when works are being carried out on streets. Sounds like Kettle calling Pan etc.
    So in this digital age of saving money by doing things digitally I have to ask the question what exactly did Croydon pay Capita Secure Information solutions limited £402k for in January alone? That is a neat sum to fund a library with – so how important was this work and why such a high ongoing cost? What exactly is this payment for? £80k to Homes2Let UK Ltd for rental also in January. I am sure this all is really required and very important and there are quite a lot of these type of payments if you are bored its at https://www.croydon.gov.uk/democracy/budgets/payments-over-500/2021. Notably Croydon pays to schools out of the Borough and also with the linked transport costs – is it not better to have those schools within the Borough and lose those transport costs and perhaps get a better service within the Borough?
    How about the Council instead of naval gazing and undertaking lip service consultations actually do some hard work around what it is paying for to external sources and finds out if it can deliver this in house cheaper and better and stop cutting our services and Libraries?

  5. If what’s left of Croydon Labour had any intelligence, after kicking out Newman, Hall, Butler and Scott, they’d refuse to set a budget that would lead to cuts. Let the Tory government take the blame for what would then inevitably happen.

    As we’ve seen, Robert Jenrick has been generous with our cash to Tory marginals, so it’s not like there isn’t the money to help put things right.

    What’s happening right now is the government is doling out collective punishment to the entire population of this borough because of the sins of a few with the plan being to help Croydon Tories regain power next year. Think they’d then reopen the closed libraries? Take a look at the police stations they closed – they’re still shut.

  6. Alison Leigh says:

    Reading this reminded me of the importance of local libraries – especially for the under privileged. Local libraries provide knowledge, resources and a warm, comfortable space for learning. Not everyone has this at home. The beautiful old children’s library in Ashburton Park was a haven for doing my homework. The Central Croydon Library supported my study needs when I went to college. It was a gateway to me getting a degree – the first in my family to do so.

  7. Sheila Freeman says:

    Sanderstead Library is a great lifeline especially for those living alone. These days books are being read more and more and I, personally, am missing the pleasure of attending our library. Apart from books, the library has provided many community activities for both young and old. s freeman 12 Sanderstead Hill

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