Recently, I got quite involved in the Carnegie Library occupation. A group of local residents occupied their library to protest against its closure and conversion into a private gym. Lambeth council argue that the library will reopen in 2017 but the majority of the building will be a private gym with limited library facilities in just one section of the building which will be staffed by volunteers rather than highly skilled and trained staff. The occupation lasted for 9 days. There’s a great little piece in the Guardian by one of the library’s younger occupiers here.
Carnegie library is about 25 minutes walk from my house so I went down to the occupation on a couple of days to show my support and see what was going on. The level of support shown from the local community was completely overwhelming. People inside the occupation were actually giving food to supporters outside (they’d been brought so many supplies and gifts from people supporting their action that they were giving it away). People from all walks of life came by to make signs and write their memories of the library in the visitors book. One woman, Wendy, was there day after day, all day, standing out the front with her ‘honk for the library’ placard. The air was vibrating with car horns.
There’s a common misconception that libraries are out of date, defunct and that any fight for them is an idealogical and middle-class preoccupation, that we love the idea of books and reading but nobody does it anymore anyway.
From my personal experience I can say that libraries are about so much more than books. Most importantly, for me, libraries are about space. I am a freelance artist pretty early on in her career, I have very little money and frequent cash flow issues. I share a room with my boyfriend in a shared house with 5 other people, it’s the only way I can afford to pursue my career and live in London (where it’s useful to be to pursue said career). I love my home but it is in veritable chaos, I can’t work there. I lounge around, distracted and consequently depressed. I certainly can’t afford to sit in a cafe all day nursing cappuccinos. When I’m in London, I use my local library at least 3 times a week and I have to make sure I get there as soon as it opens because otherwise I won’t get a seat. That’s how well used it is.
And of course it’s not just people like me who need space. Teenagers who need a quiet, distraction-free place to work completely fill London libraries after school and libraries are particularly vital for those who often find themselves isolated: new parents with young children and older people. The positive effect of getting out of the house should not be underestimated. With the new and welcome focus on mental health issues, councils (and the government that is imposing austerity upon them) are being bafflingly short-sighted by making cuts to services that contribute so positively to so many people’s wellbeing.
Anyway, I bang on about all of this in the poem I wrote in support of the Carnegie occupation and the movement to save libraries in general.
On Saturday 9th of April, the occupation ended with an incredible rally and march down to Brixton via Minet library which has also recently shut down. Over 1000 people showed up which is absolutely incredible for a local protest. I felt honoured be asked to perform my poem at the final rally in Windrush Square.
There is now going to be a government investigation into Lambeth’s plans for its libraries, there is hope for Carnegie library yet. I left the experience with a new faith in community and the importance of fighting for our services, of fighting for libraries as community hubs. If a community in London can occupy and put council cuts under scrutiny then other communities can too. For these people, occupation was a last resort: they tried petitions and responding to consultations but their concerns fell upon deaf ears. Whatever happens to Carnegie Library, the occupation did an excellent job of raising awareness of the importance of libraries and their significance to so many people in the communities they serve. It was also thoroughly heartwarming to experience the friendliness and kindness of the occupiers and the supporters. London isn’t as unfriendly as some might think…
To find out more about libraries that are under threat and to support them, check out The Library Campaign and Voices for the Library. If you’re in London, check out Defend the Ten for news of the fight to save Lambeth Libraries.
I urge you to get involved. At the very least, appreciate and use your libraries while they still exist.