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Saturday, 2 January 2016

Loving Lambeth's libraries, part 4: rising above it all at the Upper Norwood Joint Library

On the edge of the abyss:  Upper Norwood Joint Library enjoys a suitably lofty view of the vanity-towers and money-pots of the City of London
Let's pull the plug on another non-series of blog entries by visiting a library that is definitely in Lambeth  - and very much part of the Save Lambeth Libraries campaign - but which is not entirely of Lambeth.

The destination is Upper Norwood Joint Library, 'joint' because it is, uniquely in the UK, funded by two local authorities, Lambeth and Croydon Boroughs, but independent of both.

It has been this way for all 115 years of its existence, and the proud spirit of independence and difference is palpable as soon as you enter the Victorian red-brick building, with that great panoramic view of London as a backdrop.

It's at the far southern boundary of  the borough, the point where Lambeth meets the similarly extended fingers of Southwark, Lewisham, Bromley and Croydon.

To get here we have to trek across the foothills of  Brixton, Streatham, Tulse and Herne Hills, then rise again above West Norwood and onward again to the greater slope of Gipsy Hill, and still ascending, up Westow Hill  to the edge of plateau, with its dizzying views across south London and the towers of the City. Apparently we are only 380 feet above sea level but it feels a great deal more.

From across the street, the library seems to be perched on the edge of an abyss, and it's true we're not far from the edge of the known world here. You find  the last stop for London bus routes 322 and 137, and then this drop away into the blue hills of Surrey and Kent….a different world.

An old poster by the entrance explains it all:

"Upper Norwood and Crystal Palace
Exceptionally healthy because of the prevailing wind from the coast
380 feet above Thames therefore out of the valley of fogs..."

You get the feeling people up here are a bit hardier, hill-folk with bigger lungs and sturdier legs…but they are very friendly….

This area has a romantic name, in memory of the palace of glass which once stood here, until one evening in 1936 it caught fire and burned so bright it lit up London, pre-empting the Blitz by four years. The great Paxton building continued burning so fiercely that it singed the sky. The footprint of that building is still there to this day, a massive patch of windswept grass with a few damaged statues, low walls and wide flights of steps remaining as the only solid evidence of what was once there.

If you want to know more about the Crystal Palace, there's no better place to do so than this library, which holds a unique collection of books, documents and cuttings on the subject.

But it also has specialist collections on various other aspects of local history, including the Victorian-era   poet, Chartist and spiritualist Gerald Massey (born in Tring, Herts, died South Norwood Hill, 1907).

It's a truly delightful building, with the bustling lending library downstairs and light, airy, quiet reading room and reference library on the first floor. The basement used to house a reserve collection of classic literature: it's not entirely clear if that's still there, as the library now rents out part of that space as a meeting room and event space.

It almost goes without saying that this library runs an incredibly full programme of activities for the whole range of community groups. It's also - perhaps sadly - true that it has been fighting plans for its abolition much longer than most. Because of its unusual constitution, the library has been at the receiving end of cuts programmes from both Croydon and Lambeth councils for much of the past decade. And as a result of this a strong and active campaign group has developed to protect what is clearly an invaluable and irreplaceable community resource.

In 2012 this group of supporters decided to create a charity with the aim of taking the library into the control of its community. As you can read on its website, the resulting Upper Norwood Library Trust is still working energetically towards this aim, as well as playing a big role in the wider campaign to fight library cuts nationally and locally.

At this point on the long haul up Gipsy Hill, you turn and look back and there's the beating heart of global capitalism.

As with so many threatened public libraries, one of the biggest problems is to secure long-term funding to pay the salaries of professional library staff. Isn't it odd. can you imagine the uproar if someone tried to run a gym without properly qualified trainers, physios and so on?

Meanwhile, the harsh reality is that Lambeth's plans to close or re-purpose half of the borough's 10 libraries are still on track. The massive protests of the past year, reaching some sort of climax in November, have not deflected the clique of councillors who seem to be staking their professional reputations on the plans to convert libraries into gyms run by GLL (Greenwich Leisure Limited).

On Christmas Eve,  a tweet from Zezi Ifore reminded us that there were just 100 days left to change their minds…

And now, with only 91 days left, anyone who likes using their local libraries in Lambeth needs to go to the Defend the 10 website for advice on how to resist this bad idea.

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