The ongoing campaign to save all ten public libraries in the Borough of Lambeth, against the schemes of an aloof and unresponsive council has prompted a great deal of debate around here.
Some people wonder why we get so passionate about these places. They ask, with local authorities facing truly savage budget cuts, isn't it more important for the "core" services of housing and public health, social services and education to be safeguarded?
Thing is, for many of us, libraries are – and always have been – core services. We've depended on them for access to information, for advice, for education. For books, magazines, and archives. Now the roles of libraries are much wider - almost by default they have become a vital part of the social fabric of communities, especially communities like Lambeth's.
If you need to be convinced, listen to the latest episode of the brilliant ResonanceFM radio show, Daniel Ruiz Tizon is Available. In his latest show, he explains how the threatened libraries of Lambeth are right at the heart of his community in Stockwell. He makes the point much better than I ever could: you can also listen to it via iTunes, here.
Daniel's bit about libraries comes towards the end of the 30 minute show, which as usual is a delightful, hilarious and occasionally surreal auditory excursion through the streets of SW8 and beyond. This week touching on the joys and horrors of municipal swimming pools in winter, the perennial problems of men's winter outerwear, Close Encounters on Stockwell Road, the Nine Elms development, cafe life, and Vauxhall's place in TV drama. Oh and much more. Just be careful you don't become an addict like I have.
Anyway, back to the matter of the moment (especially as Brixton Buzz reports that all libraries have closed today due to staff staging a protest walkout, all strength to them!)
Yeah, just to say, public libraries have always been about more than books, and in the past decades, library staff have worked wonders to transform their old buildings into real playgrounds of the imagination for children, into learning zones for people with disabilities and access problems of various types; places where adult literacy classes can be held, and where less formal learning of IT and language skills is happening all the time.
Check the noticeboards of any Lambeth library to see the amazing range of activities and meetings and entertainments that are held every single day.
But now, with the decline of the old-style (i.e. cheap and cheerful) local pubs and the replacement of cheap cafes with expensive coffee houses, libraries are one of the last refuges for the lonely, the unemployed, the homeless, the skint, the wanderer, young or old, looking for a bit a warmth and someone to return a smile.
This is why they must not close branch libraries: the bigger town centre libraries they say are safe are already over-subscribed. I use the new Clapham Library on the High Street. It's an interesting place which I've described elsewhere. It's doing well providing space for children's activities, and study space used mainly by school and college students doing coursework or revising for exams. But it's often hard to find a seat.