Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor for the paper has supported our campaign from the start and we would like to extend our thanks for attending our event. We would like to say a big thank you for the coverage in The Independent and of course to Boyd Tonkin, for sharing his fond memories of Friern Barnet library and hoping like us, Barnet Council keep our library open for future generations.
Boyd Tonkin: Our libraries need to study success
Whatever you think of the high-visibility Tory MP Louise Mensch, she has – as Louise Bagshawe, the prolific author of spicy romances – reached more real readers than anyone else in the House of Commons. In the Lords, of course, sit Baronesses James and Rendell.
As both professional novelist and member of the culture committee, Mensch had good reason to question Ed Vaizey when the arts minister came to talk about his department's action – or inaction - during Tuesday's final session of evidence on library closures. Until now the mouthpiece for a doctrine of laissez-faire localism – councils fund and run libraries and if they choose to board up branches, so be it – Vaizey did agree (prompted by Mensch) to discuss the effect of job losses among librarians with CILIP, the professional umbrella group.
Vaizey well knows that the buck would stop with his department if a court review proved once and for all that branch-shutting councils have flouted their duty to offer a full service under the 1964 libraries act. Campaigners against closures – who also gathered at Westminster on Tuesday for a rally and lobby – often scoff at the inconsistency of a minister who in opposition called for the government to intervene (on library cuts in Wirral) but in office prefers to sit on his hands. His remarks hint that he understands that joined-up policy, or at least research, might help to maintain standards – even though he refused to specify national benchmarks for libraries a couple of weeks ago.
Library cuts lose votes, many of them Conservative: the Women's Institute this week presented a 70,000-strong petition against closures. And Vaizey certainly needs some top-level expert advice if the best example of library innovation he can produce is a book-filled phone booth in Philadelphia. Don't call us, Ed...
Unless you're a rampant statist who thrills at the prospect of more tax-funded bureaucrats, Occam's Razor should apply to proposals for new official agencies. Like concepts in philosophy, unless they need to exist, they should not. In the case of libraries, we may have reached the point where a slim and nimble body to study, advise and hold to account might escape the razor. As an interest-group of senior staff, CILIP can't do this job. The now-defunct MLA largely failed to do it. Arts Council England, which formally inherited the MLA's roles, has only a quarter of the former budget to pursue this remit. Libraries will not occupy the centre of its stage.
At the rally on Tuesday, shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis called for the government to examine the creation of just such a "national libraries body". Now, Jarvis's jibes at Vaizey as the "Dr Beeching of libraries" might sound more impressive if he dared to challenge Labour councils – with Brent the worst offender – that have wrecked their own services. On this matter, however, he may well be correct.
It seems extraordinary that a popular service that still commands the active loyalty of around 40 per cent of adults should have such primitive mechanisms for sharing good practice. Time and again, the consultant-campaigner Tim Coates has to make sensible suggestions for smarter estate management, customer service and stock control in libraries as if he enjoyed official status. He doesn't, but perhaps he should. It's as if clinical standards in the NHS depended not on NICE but on the spare-time goodwill of public-spirited surgeons and GPs.
However, no one in Westminster has yet suggested that well-meaning amateurs who fancy trying their hand at neurosurgery or obstetrics should replace trained staff. That, of course, is precisely what the government wishes to see in libraries as volunteers take on more and more responsibility.
A slender and flexible agency devoted to excellence in library services would more than earn its keep – but, just now, its first task would have to be a draining rearguard battle against rampant deprofessionalisation. And in the end, I suspect, only crude and messy politics has much chance of restocking empty shelves and re-opening closed doors. In the past, the threat of hospital closures has won, and lost, by-elections. Might the same happen with libraries? That sounds fantastic. But, given a highly marginal seat, a knife-edge campaign and a lot of local noise, it could be more than a fairy-tale.
The week in books
Friday, 10 February 2012
This week, the parliamentary culture committee has heard evidence into the closure of public libraries. More than 130 bodies have made their submissions. Most sound keen to defend both all library buildings, and the trained staff who run them. But not quite every party has sung in harmony. The most discordant enemy within has been the councils' own umbrella body, the Local Government Association. In a fit of Orwellian Newspeak, the LGA blithely maintains that "closure of a library does not automatically mean a decrease in access to library services". Yes, and (if you remember Nineteen Eighty-Four), war is peace; freedom is slavery; and ignorance is strength.
Last Saturday, at the library that nourished my childhood reading, I had another chance to learn what these closures really mean. A 200-strong contingent of campaigners marked National Libraries Day with a march to Friern Barnet Library. Week after delighted, excited week, I used to plunder this small but graceful branch in north London - built in 1934, with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation - for my maximum quota of loans.
Barnet council wishes to shut it, and has as a concession offered the Save Friern Barnet Library Group the upper floors of a handsome but unsuitable building in the middle of the local park as the base for a volunteer-run venue. In response, the Group has drawn up a tightly-costed rescue plan that makes provision for the library, the last public building left in Friern Barnet, to host a range of community services. Of course, there's nothing unique about the threat to this branch, or the fight to keep it open. Dozens of other campaigns will echo every note. It just happens to be where my life as a reader began.
Inside the library, I listened to an invigorating talk by local writer Shereen Pandit, who came to London from apartheid South Africa in 1986 and devoured the free cultural riches of the capital. Later, I heard a little more about today's dedicated users of the branch. They include, for example, a refugee from Rwanda who is a single father of four. Via the library, he can access the Latin texts that he loved in Rwanda, but lost when his house was burned down during the civil war. Again, every library campaign will have such extraordinary, uplifting stories to recount.
My trip back to this pocket-sized power-station of the imagination also brought a surprise. Maybe because my usual walk home from the library took me in the other direction, I had half-forgotten just how close it stands to the gates of the stupendous edifice now known as "Princess Park Manor". Opened in 1851 as the Second Middlesex County Pauper Asylum, boasting the longest corridor in Europe under its fine Italianate dome, this was the dreaded Colney Hatch – a blood-freezing byword for the miseries of mental illness for generations of north Londoners.
The Versailles of asylums, Colney Hatch, which at its peak housed 2700 inmates, became Friern Mental Hospital in 1937. Under the policy of "care in the community", its long, strange, tragic history ended with closure as a medical facility in 1993. Now the 300-odd converted apartments of "Princess Park Manor" offer, the developers say, "a luxurious living link with the glories of Victorian England". A four-bedroomed penthouse will cost you £1,250,000.
What relation can the compact, welcoming space of the library have to the overweening grandeur of the former asylum? Colney Hatch, you might argue, dates from a time of excessive faith in institutions to warehouse, control and (in theory) heal users. Its splendour bespeaks a brutal, misplaced confidence in the coercive public realm. Branch libraries tells a much gentler story about the bond between the state and the citizen: one in which the public authority empowers, enlightens and liberates, a friendly neighbour not a terrifying ogre.
Thanks in part to the legacy of places such as Colney Hatch, the strong-arm state has lost all credibility. Yet we have tumbled from undue deference towards institutions into equally unthinking disdain for them. This extreme individualism leaves millions hungry for connection, for community, in places that set us free rather than lock us up. No public space does that better than a library. I'm tempted to say that only a madman would close one.