Sunday, 2 April 2017

Barnet Libraries: The End

A defiant message of support from the children of Martin's School, East Finchley, to the library next door, that appeared on the last day of opening as a fully functional service

*Updated 6th April

Last night the eagle eye of fellow blogger 'Mr Mustard' fell upon a very interesting advert in London's Evening Standard paper:

This is the week in which two 'partnership' 'libraries' run by a charity, 'Inclusion Barnet', are supposed to begin their new lives, staffed by unpaid volunteers, taking over the jobs previously held by Barnet library workers, who were made redundant at the end of March.

Yet Inclusion Barnet is still trying to recruit volunteers to run these libraries, in an advert which appeared the day after South Friern was supposed to open, and two days before the East Barnet venture is meant to begin.

If they are struggling to find enough volunteers even before these pretend libraries are opened, how likely is it that they will be able to provide a permanent and reliable service of any sort? 

Highly unlikely, as is the pattern of all similar enterprises elsewhere.

In Barnet this all works to the advantage of those Tories who wanted to see the number of libraries drastically reduced, but lacked the political courage, the year before local elections, to be seen to shut branches (rather than kill them, as they have, by death through a thousand cuts), and have pretended that they are 'saving' all fourteen libraries. 

These partnership libraries, when they fail, which they will, will become the subject of handwringing by senior officers and Tory councillors, and will then be closed, with 'regret' - and the buildings put up for sale. 

Don't say you haven't been warned.


April Fools' Day came early, this year, in Broken Barnet, for a number of workers in our local library service. 

For half of them, in fact: the half who no longer have a job, as of yesterday.

These are the people who used to greet you with a smile at the counter, help you find the book you want, help your child with her homework, or show you how to use a pc, or maybe just engage in conversation with you. 

Some of these members of staff have worked for Barnet Libraries for twenty, thirty years or so, loving their jobs, despite working in an increasingly, and deliberately, underfunded, undervalued service because- they believe in the value of service. 

Earlier in the week, days before April 1st, an absolutely hilarious stunt was pulled by their soon to be former employers at Barnet Council, and was spotted at venues around the borough, and in the latest edition of the council's propaganda rag, 'Barnet First'.

Yes: even before the last library assistant had closed the door, for the last time, on one of the libraries about to be gutted, cut into pieces, turned into a DIY parody of whatever a library once was, our Tory masters and their newly acquired PR men wanted to boast about what they were going to do, now that they had put these people out of work. 

They could not resist the opportunity to roll out another line of attack in their new campaign: evangelising on behalf of the new self basting borough, all wrapped up in easycouncil plastic, ready for a roasting, next year at the local elections, one hopes.

Take a look at Barnet Council's twitter account profile picture. 

It shows a collection of middle class, middle aged people very kindly doing the council's work for them - maintaining one of our borough's parks and open spaces. 

The message to residents and taxpayers is clear. 

We are not here to provide public services. 

We are here to take your money, and waste it on private contractors to deliver, badly, and at inflated cost, most of the functions for which we are nominally responsible. 

We will take your money and spend it on endless ranks of senior officers, consultants, and agency staff. 

We will take your money and give it away to national museums with loads of funding, while closing our your only local museums, and now gutting your library service. 

We will also take your money and spend it on extra PR posts to manage the council's reputation, before next year's election. 

But we won't take your money and spend it on stuff we think we can persuade someone else to volunteer to do, and do for free. 

There you go: it's quite simple. We know these people can't actually replace the service itself, but we don't care. 

And that, readers, is how you have lost your library service. 

The Tory councillors in Barnet, who would not know one end of a book from another, and probably have rarely crossed the threshold of any library, do not understand the purpose of them, have no respect for the profession of librarianship, or care about the social value that libraries have. 

They see no contradiction in the lack of enthusiasm they have for volunteering their own increasingly pointless civic roles without the reward of generous allowances, and free parking permits. 

And they are easily persuaded by scheming officers and consultants with their eyes on the potential future profit in selling the buildings that the service can be torn apart, stuffed with volunteers, and allowed to decline to the point where closure, and sale is inevitable.

Funny, isn't it, that the neo-Thatcherites sitting on the Conservative benches in Hendon Town Hall, whose gilded heroine famously stated there was no such thing as 'society', who recoil at the idea of community, are so keen to promote their bastardised version of the concept, where people must come together, not to give support to each other, but to their council, even while they are paying that same council to do a job of work, on our behalf?

During the last few days I visited a few of our libraries, to say goodbye, take photographs, and think about what we were about to lose. It was an intensely sad experience. Sad, in a personal way, because these libraries had meant so much to me, especially in my childhood, but also when I worked there - and sad because of the way in which the library staff were being treated, especially those who were losing their jobs at the end of the week.

Staff members who have spent many years working for Barnet Libraries - and may struggle to find another job, because of their age - were left to empty their lockers & clear off, with no thanks from senior officers, no acknowledgement of their loyal service. Simply appalling. 

Note to Barnet Tories: this is a community library - library workers, residents, union members and local Labour councillors uniting in the fight to preserve a public service ...

At one library, where several were leaving this week, at closing time on their last day, managers and consultants reportedly arrived unannounced just before closing time and insisted all the  library workers leave at once: instantly, no time to wrap presents, or write cards. Their colleagues were forced to  prepare cards and gifts in the car park - some staff members were not even allowed time to go to the loo, or collect their belongings. 

Why? Because senior managers wanted to test the technology for switching over from staffed to unstaffed hours. No time for sentiment, in the new regime. Workers are redundant, to be replaced by electronic doors, and a cctv camera.

Of course when the unstaffed library hours begin, once the regime is in place, anyone on the library premises will have to pack up and leave, and wait outside, so as to let themselves back into the unstaffed library with their pin numbers. What will happen if people don't want to leave: refuse to leave? No one knows. That man hiding in the loo: will he be spotted? Maybe not. Staff must leave on the dot, before the doors close - but will they be able to clear the library in time?

Visiting Hendon Library for the last time was particularly difficult. 

This lovely thirties building is next door to the Town Hall, and used to be the borough's flagship library, with three floors: the adult section, a children's library, a reference library, and a music library. The reference library alone had a large team of specialist information librarians. 

(For more information about the architecture of Barnet's Libraries, please visit 'Modernism in Metroland').

The children's library still - or at least until last week - has this plaque on the wall, honouring the work of pioneering children's librarian Eileen Colwell, who worked there for forty years, and whose example was followed across not just the country, but internationally. How sickened she would be, to see her life's work destroyed, and access to reading, and the educational and developmental benefits associated with library use by children, ruthlessly ended by this grubby, philistine council.

Apart from wanting to take a last look at the place, I had gone there to finish some research in the local archives. Necessary to do this now, as Archives, and indeed the whole library building, will be closed until September. Closed, and never to be the same again.

While I was sitting in the Archives area in the Reference library, I could not help but hear how staff members were obliged to bear the brunt of residents' fury when they questioned why the library was closing - and for how long.

April, May, June, July, August, September? Asked one man, stabbing the words at the poor library assistant, as if it were her fault ... That's just not feasible!

A female student asked anxiously about the closure: oh, but, she said ... she needed to come here to study ... and what will your opening hours be, when it does re-open? Well, said the assistant, politely, from seven in the morning ... you can let yourself in ... but we won't be here. No one will. The student looked at her in disbelief, as if she thought she had taken leave of her senses.

And of course when Hendon Library does reopen, it will be not be in anyway recognisable as the library it once was.

The two upper floors will be entirely lost: and only a small section of the remaining ground level will retain any library service. Yes, hard to believe, isn't it?

The children's library so lovingly created by Eileen Colwell will be destroyed.

The cafe will be ripped out. 

Of the remaining space downstairs, only half will be a library area: the rest will be used by other services.

This corner of the building is what your Tory councillors insist will still be a library. 

All the libraries, they claim, are being retained - a marvellous demonstration of how they listen to you, their constituents - and voters. They think so little of you, that they think you will believe them, and not the evidence of your own eyes, when the newly emasculated library service begins.

It is not true: they have handed the buildings over to Capita to run as part of the assets portfolio, and for a while a token library function will be allowed to run in a corner of those buildings. In some libraries there will be no trained staff, only unpaid, untrained volunteers - if they turn up. Untrained, and it is unclear if they will all be, like library staff, DBS checked - or any of them, apart from 'supervisors'.

Libraries will also spend much of the time completely unstaffed. No one present at all, neither trained library workers, or volunteers: you will have to let yourself in with a pin number, and hope that you will be safe in an unsupervised space, with no one to help in an emergency. But smile: you're on camera - providing the CCTV is being monitored, and can see you, round the corners or behind the shelves. Oh - the loos won't be available, by the way. Make sure you go before you arrive. If the doors fail, and you can't get out - in an emergency you'll have to use a waste bin, like the library occupiers were told to, by management, once upon a time.

The remaining library spaces in the former library buildings will be gutted, and 'refurbished' - supposedly to be let as offices to local businesses. This, as we shall see, is sheer fantasy.

On Friday I visited East Finchley Library: a much loved library, which, if it had not have been in a ward that is a Labour stronghold, and centre of the most vocal opposition to library cuts, would no doubt have received a more favourable treatment in the new regime. 

As I arrived, my attention was immediately caught by a display on the fence to the left of the entrance, with a range of laminated, illustrated letters of love to the library by local children: children at Martin's, the school next door, who had taken advantage of their back fence to send a message of support: We Need Our Library ... Library campaigner Emily explained that there were about 400, in total, from local schools.

As well as a vital resource for the community, East Finchley is much loved because of its unique architecture: it is a listed building, with protection, thankfully, for the internal fittings, including the oak shelving that curves around the central part of the building, which is coiled, and circular, like the inside of a shell.

In the library, even though it was a weekday afternoon, all the pcs were in use. Mums with small children and babies came in, and elderly residents sat reading the papers. It is a calm, safe space, for those who need it: a resource, a meeting place, and a focus for the community.

I sneaked upstairs to take photographs of the lovely features soon to be out of the reach of library visitors: listed or not, once Capita get their sweaty hands on the upper floor, (as well as the much used computer room), will these features be safe from damage?

One resident has tried to ask the council about the permission sought from Historic England in regard to the 'modification' of this building. Their response was evasive, and worrying. Let us be quite clear, friends at Capita, and Barnet Council, if anything happens, accidentally or otherwise, to the fabric of this listed building, there will be consequences.

Peeping inside the meeting room, Mrs Angry's eye was caught by what appeared to be graffiti on a notice board at the end of the room. Someone had written: LIBRARIES DESTROYED, in large letters, amongst other things (no, not Mrs Angry. Although she may have left a few messages in Hendon Library, if you can find them, councillors ...)

Standing at the top of the stairs, rather to one's surprise, especially in its position by the door to the gents, in the lovely round lobby area, is a statue, in a perspex box. 

A notice explains that it is a copy of the Apollo Belvedere: described by Kenneth Clark as once 'the most admired piece of sculpture in the world'; an icon of the Enlightenment, much admired by Goethe, Schiller and Byron. The Apollo Belvedere was also featured in the official logo of the Apollo XVII moon landing - the days when it seemed mankind was progressing to a better version of itself, rather than where we are now, teetering on the edge of the abyss. 

Now Apollo must stand forever in ignoble isolation, outside the gents, on the forbidden floor of an outsourced library, waiting for the sound of footsteps of the men from Capita, scurrying up the staircase with their laptops and calculators. 

The age of enlightenment, in Broken Barnet, in case you were not aware, appears to have come to an end.

On leaving the library, I had decided to take some more photographs outside, but had to keep stopping, because so many local residents were coming up to the display of the children's letters, reading them, and standing there, helplessly, like the mourners at a roadside shrine.

On Saturday, Mrs Angry happened to be in North Finchley, and decided to take a look at what was going on in regard to the library there. This branch had already been closed for 'modification', and 'refurbishment'.

What a sight it is now.

No longer a library, but an active construction site, covered in dust, surrounded on all sides by fencing, and warning notices. Downstairs in the former children's library, with the beautiful, oak framed bow windows, the blinds were drawn. 

Former children's library, North Finchley 

Round the side of the building, however, it was possible to see through the window frames, which they council had deliberately left unpainted, and rotting, into one of the rooms: gutted, thick with plaster dust, one solitary chair left, looking forlorn amongst the emptiness, pushed up against a table covered with building plans. 

The staff entrance door told its own story: years of neglect, the last few overseen by private contractors Capita, who appear not to have been required to do much maintenance for the enormous fees we pay them. 

Staff entrance, North Finchley Library

As it is on the outside, so it is inside, with staff expected to work in dirty, delapidated environment. 

And of course previous posts have covered the scandalous issue of the water contamination of these ageing and poorly maintained libraries, and the suppressed tests which showed legionella and coliform bacterial traces.

At the front of the former library, now caged off, and covered up from public view, like a dangerous, wounded animal in a zoo, people turned up, one a father with a child on a scooter, looking at the notices in amazement. 

The children's library is being removed from this library, despite the perfect, purpose built areas that are integral to its original design. Why? All part of the 'master plan': allegedly space is being robbed from these buildings, reducing the library function within them to a nominal corner, because we must rent out our libraries to the business sector.

When I asked Val White, a senior Barnet officer, about this scheme, at an 'information session' at North Finchley library last year, she was remarkably relaxed about the possibility that this proposed pimping of the library buildings might never happen. I asked her where was the business plan, that supported the idea there would be demand for such rented space, when there appears to be a surplus of offices remaining unrented throughout the borough? It appeared there was no basis for the plan, in that sense. But it didn't matter, I was told: the library budget did not depend on such income. Oh. Really? 

I was puzzled by this, at the time. Not to mention the fact that in order to save a couple of million quid from the library budget, the council was willing to spend up to £14 million - yes £14 million - on ruining our once magnificent library service. (Read more on the real story of the bogus budget argument here, the impact of the library cuts in a useful summary by Barnet Unison).

And then I heard a rumour that senior management intend to use the office space for their own staff, or Capita staff, which may well be necessary as the new council offices in Grahame Park are so small. Perhaps Capita will award itself a well earned gainshare payment for successfully renting the library space to itself? And what would it matter, after all, that our libraries have been attacked and eviscerated, on a false premise? 

Well: there is every reason to believe the alleged rental space being created in our library buildings will never see large scale use by commercial tenants. 

Hendon Library, you may recall, must lose its upper two floors because it is going to be rented and occupied by Middlesex University. 

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer the good old days, when libraries were occupied by campaigners, protestors, and highly principled, well mannered anarchists, rather than academic institutions with too much money, and not enough sense.

Ah but: is this really going to happen, the letting of Hendon Library?

Because several sources have suggested to Mrs Angry that Middlesex Uni has pulled out of the deal, leaving Hendon about to closed for six months, while it is gutted, and rebuilt for their new tenants, at enormous cost - not to mention huge inconvenience to residents - for no good reason. Well, no - there could be no good reason, but in this case, to no purpose. 

If the deal has fallen through, this development would be a repetition of the shameful story of the Church Farmhouse Museum, just around the corner: our only council run library, in a beautiful, listed building. Exactly six years ago, our conniving Tory councillors shut it, grabbed the donated collection, flogged the contents at auction, and put the Farmhouse up for sale. 

No one wanted it. It has cost us an untold amount of money to keep it going, empty, decaying, a visible metaphor for everything wrong with this rotten borough.

For years we were told Middlesex Uni were desperate to have it: now, as the inimitable Gerrard Roots, former curator explained in the Barnet Eye blog last week, our council has had to beg them to take it on, for free. 

It is whispered that the men from Capita have been seen showing unimpressed punters around Hendon library, desperate to find an alternative taker. Could this be true?

It seems East Finchley library has no customers lined up to take on the listed building. 

And Mrs Angry has heard of no other arrangements with other libraries being finalised.

Ever feel like you've been had?

If so, you may feel you wish to express your views to your Tory councillors, all of whom voted for the library cuts, and 'modifications'. 

In May 2018, you may wish to express your views via the ballot box.

You may recall the story in the Mirror about the night they were so bored by the tedious debate about budgets and library cuts, one of them sat there reading a golf magazine: the rest could hardly stay awake.

Councillor Reuben Thompstone has pushed through the library plans with great enthusiasm. He will be very pleased to hear your opinions on his brilliant scheme. 

He can be contacted by email:

Tory leader Richard Cornelius, funnily enough, and this is very funny, has said he only got involved in local politics because he was so outraged by the closure of his local library in Totteridge. 

You know what to do:

The rest you can find on the council's website. 

Time to remind your elected representatives that they are accountable to you, for what they do, and that our libraries belong to us, and our children, and not to them, or their contractors. 

They think this battle is won. 

It isn't, and it won't be, as long as people in this borough have any fight left in them.


Bookworm said...

Utterly disgraceful. If this is how our libraries are treated,we have reason to fear for other services! How can they decimate a much needed community resource and take away people's jobs so readily? Absolutely not getting my vote next year.

O said...

The Verbrennung of Barnet.

Anonymous said...

He needs to look at Barnet too