April 11, 2016

Authors and patrons agree, Lambeth needs librarians, not a “healthy living centre”



Image via the Friends of the Carnegie Library

When, late last year, the Cabinet of the South London borough of Lambeth decided to convert Herne Hill’s Carnegie Library into a “healthy living centre,” people got angry. And they acted accordingly: Petitions were signed. Public meetings and rallies were held. They made their voices heard.

Nonetheless, the decision was made, the council didn’t budge: the 110-year-old Herne Hill institution would be converted into a for-profit gym and “neighbourhood library” the following year.

Now, that doesn’t sound great (gyms are gross), but it also doesn’t sound awful (libraries are good), that is, until you peel away at the council’s language. In a cabinet report, a healthy living centre is defined, simply, as “a gym with a lounge.” Fine, but flip a bit further, and you come upon a strange vision for the “neighbourhood library,” one that any good patron will struggle to recognize: “a self-service facility in the gym’s lounge offering ‘a small selection of books,’ [2], Wi-Fi access and computers. [3]”

By Lambeth’s definition, the neighbourhood library is a thing confined to a gym’s lounge. It is a depressing and, frankly, useless, little space—one without many books and not a single employed librarian. This is in stark contrast to what libraries really are: amazing places where people meet and mingle, read and perform research thanks to the assistance from library professionals, places where people can learn to speak new languages, learn to code, learn to correctly format a résumé, and tons more. These are vital, useful places. Not like gym lounges, which are mostly just the domain of back sweat, loud phone calls, and bad smoothies.

It comes as no surprise, then, that, as of March 31st (the Carnegie Library’s final official day as a library), the institution has been the site of peaceful occupation, with an increasing number of patrons occupying benches and steps on in a bid to prevent the plan from progressing. One protester, a teenage volunteer at the library, writes in a The Guardian, that

[N]o gym or any other facility could ever replace the wonderful Carnegie library, so we have to keep it open. We, as the people of Lambeth, will continue to occupy the building for as long as we need to because this library has to stay open to continue serving the community.

Another protester notes that,

This is not Lambeth Council’s library to close after 110 years, it belongs to the locality. We are staying here to publicise just what Lambeth’s Labour council is doing to our local libraries – ripping the heart out of them to turn them into unwanted gyms.

In an effort to open a dialogue with the lawmakers, as well as increase the visibility of the protestors’ efforts, the English writer and academic Toby Litt and writer and theatremaker Stella Duffy drafted a letter to the council, which was subsequently signed by 220 writers, including Neil Gaiman, Nick Hornby, Colm Tóibín, Sarah Waters, and George Saunders, who notes that “We’ve seen this trend in the US, too – the idea of libraries having to step up and be profitable and ‘appealing’. Next thing you know, there’s a Starbucks in there and a stripper pole.”

So far, as Litt notes, the council has responded poorly, if at all:

Lambeth council’s response to the occupiers’ message of defiance has been patchy. One councillor tweeted a picture of a yawning cat, then took it down. Another referred to “a small number of people” who had “decided to be obstructive”. A possession order has been served to the occupiers

For more information and updates on the protest, visit the Friends of Carnegie Library.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.