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Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Love letters to Lambeth's threatened libraries

Here's a case of a campaign banner which intrinsically explains why the campaign is necessary. Tate South Lambeth Library, November 2015
I'm not Joni Mitchelll's biggest fan, but two lines of one of her old songs have been playing over and over again in my head of late.

You know the lines…."Don't it always seem the way….", and if you live in Lambeth (and plenty other parts of London, etc) you will know how horribly meaningful it has become, in relation to pubs, cafés, shops, music venues, much-loved murals and even whole council estates…and now, of course, our libraries as well.

And that nagging refrain is driving me mad, sending me out to make sure that at least I will know what we had until it was gone, if the plans laid out in the borough's "Culture 2020" programme actually come to pass.

So it became essential to revisit all of Lambeth's libraries, and especially the ones which are under threat of closure or having their hearts ripped out. There was a practical reason for this pilgrimage as well. I need to go out of my home to work. I don;t like working in cafés. Libraries are by far the best place.  But every time I've been to my own local library (Clapham) over the past few weeks it has been a problem finding somewhere to sit. The place has curiously limited desk space, there are strange little rooms where I don't think I'd be appreciated, and there some incredibly uncomfortable benches.

So - I'm off. Over the next few weeks I want to visit all 10 libraries in the Borough. I already use Brixton quite often (and that's at capacity as well).  A few weeks ago I wrote about the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, so that, retrospectively, can be the first of this occasional and probably never-to-br completed series.

The Tate South Lambeth Library was next  on this itinerary, admittedly because it was on the route home from where I was working last week.

What becomes immediately apparent, as you enter each of these libraries, is how very different each is from the next. And how expertly each one has adapted itself and developed services to meet the needs of their surrounding populations, again so different across this hugely diverse borough.

This handsome old library was a case in point. It was also where the protest march of three weeks ago ended, and where the Councillor who devised the 'healthy living centre' plan was holding her surgery. It's a well-positioned building, bang in the middle of the Little Portugual section of South Lambeth Road and facing that colourful parade of  Portuguese cafés, delicatessens and restaurants.

The big banner outside, "SALVE A NOSSA BIBLIOTECA" says it all really. This library is real hub of the local community, including the large Portuguese-speaking community.

From the outside it's an imposing Victorian municipal building, red-brick with ornate terracotta tile work, grand but inviting. Inside the two main rooms are light and airy, but every square foot of space is being used - and even at this quiet time (2.30 on a Tuesday, before schools are out) there's a good mix of people using the building, the photocopiers.

Given to the people of Lambeth nearly 120 years ago, the
library has survived two world wars, depressions and
recessions, only to face the indignity of perhaps being turned
into a gym. So much for social progress.
It's only when you look at the noticeboards or the Friends' website that you realise wheat an amazing range of activities are held here - from a gardening club through to IT sessions for blind and partially-sighted people, a classic film screenings, ESOL classes, a knitting group….the list goes on. In other words it is doing exactly what a branch library should be doing, and would do much more of if it had the resources.

Lambeth's ongoing so-called consultation on the future of this and other libraries has put forward the idea that either Tate South Lambeth or the Durning Library, a mile and a half away in should become a "Town Centre" library for this part of the borough.

Whichever one is chosen, the other will be doomed for conversion into a bookish gym.

This is a desperately unfair and invidious tactic, pitting two of their own libraries, one  against the other, when the staff in each  are working so hard to meet the needs of their own users,  with quite different needs despite their proximity. Is this how a co-operative council behaves?

Next stop: The Minet Library

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