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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The five libraries being considered for closure by Croydon Council are South Norwood, Broad Green, Shirley, Bradmore Green and Sanderstead
- The council’s consultation has been extended until March 14. Find out more here
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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