The Herne Hill Carnegie library – one of over two thousand libraries opened and funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the early 20th century – was closed by Lambeth council on Thursday. Officially, anyway. There are still people in the library, using it to play chess or study for A-level exams – all as part of a sit-in protest against the council’s plans.
Lambeth council intend to repurpose the library, turning it into a “healthy living centre” which would include gym facilities and a “neighbourhood library” – without librarians or indeed dedicated library space. The BBC has reported on the story here.
The Friends of Carnegie Library stated a few weeks ago that market research, both in 2000 and in 2014, has shown significant support for the library retaining its existing uses and location. There is strong opposition to converting part of the building into a gym:
In the assessed responses to the 2014 survey 84% of respondents opposed having a gym in the building even if the library stayed in its current position.
Lambeth council have attempted to discredit protesters by accusing them of being “misleading” as the library will reopen – but have failed to address that it will not be a library that’s reopening, but a gym with a few bookshelves.
A library is more than books. It is more than computers. It is more than study space. It is a community asset where learning and reading are nurtured. It is a supporting environment that brings communities together and promotes happiness. It is a motivating place where anyone can change their future, can strive to make more of themselves than they might otherwise have had a chance to do.
Libraries have been the breeding grounds for writers, academics, researchers, revolutionaries for decades. They are the fertile ground in which people can grow. They enable and encourage social mobility. They nurture curiosity and creativity. If the government wants artists and scientists propelling the British economy in the next few decades, it should be investing in libraries, supporting them, expanding them. Not cutting librarians and turning libraries into gyms.
Lambeth council’s plans are regressive. They plan to give the library building to a private gym company, while maintaining what essentially amounts to a book room. No librarians, presumably considerably fewer books, and none of what makes a library a library. It’s certainly not what Andrew Carnegie would have envisioned when he provided money to build and stock the library and maintain it. It should be owned by the community, not by a private company seeking profit, and it should be for the purpose of encouraging and enabling learning.
If Shropshire council ever threatens to close my local library – or indeed convert it into a gym – I would certainly consider joining a sit-in protest. I use my library regularly for knit & natter meetings, and read a lot of books from it. I’ve printed off my CV in it, learned local history in it, made friends in it.
I absolutely and wholeheartedly support the residents of Herne Hill who have decided they are not going to let their library close without a fight. And I condemn Lambeth council for ignoring the people they are meant to serve.