Monday 24 April 2017

Code Seven: The destruction of Barnet Libraries

The former children's library in Hendon, created by pioneering children's librarian, Eileen Colwell: now gutted, to make space for rented office space ...

There was an Audit meeting, one night last week, at Hendon Town Hall: a meeting of some interest to Mrs Angry, as a report had gone to the committee admitting that, four years into the contract with Capita, there were serious failings in their management of health and safety compliance - an issue which became clear when investigating the story, featured in previous posts, regarding the contamination of water in our local library buildings. 

The legionella and bacterial test results scare, kept quiet for reasons we have yet to establish, was a development that might appear to be almost inevitable as a result of the contracted out enforcement of health and safety breaches to the same company responsible for the maintenance of these neglected properties. The library buildings are part of a service that has been deliberately de-funded, and down graded, over the years, in order to justify the massive programme of devastating cuts now in place.

Many Barnet libraries, of course, are now closed for several months, subjected to a shock and awe campaign of assault, and 'restructuring', as a result of the Tory councillors' scheme, one which has already seen the mass sacking of staff, to be largely replaced by the introduction of a DIY, unstaffed library system. 

The prolonged period of closure will also enable the part of each library which is still to be used as - well, a library -  (if that is what you can call it) to be created in a corner of its former home, like an occupying army taking over your house, and allowing you to live in the garden shed, or under the stairs. 

These newly 'refurbished' libraries will be part of a corporate lie equivalent to the contemporary property developers' adoption of 'facadism', in which beautiful and historic properties in the way of profit are demolished, behind one remaining front facing wall, to allow developers to give a nod in the way of 'heritage', and gain planning permission for the destruction of the rest of the building.

In Barnet, our Tory councillors are well aware of the political impact of library cuts on their electoral well being. They have therefore formulated their own form of 'facadism', and tried to pretend that they have 'saved' all our libraries from closure, and indeed extended the service, by increasing accessibility.

This is of course a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. 

What remains in many of the former library buildings does not equate to the definition of a proper public library service, and access to library services, for most people, but especially the young, the elderly and disabled, our most vulnerable residents, will most certainly be severely affected.

Before the Audit meeting last week, Mrs Angry took the opportunity to take a look at Hendon Library, which stands right next to the Town Hall. 

This building was once the central library in the borough: with three floors, a fully staffed reference library, a music library, local history archives - and a wonderful children's library. 

It now stands with doors firmly shut, closed until September, a period during which it must endure the onslaught of corrective restructuring which will turn it into a token service, on only half of the ground floor. 

This was supposedly in order to be able to rent out the rest of the library building to Middlesex Uni - although rumour now has it that the university has pulled out of the deal.

The doors may be shut, but Mrs Angry, undeterred, decided to tiptoe through the tulips in the flower beds - still lovingly managed around this particular library, for fear of offending the Tory councillors next door - and peer through the windows, to see what was happening inside. 

What was happening inside ... came as a genuine shock: like a punch to the stomach.

A desolate sight: a library robbed of books, with empty shelves, and worse: as in the children's library, in which a portrait of Eileen Colwell, the pioneer of children's libraries looked on in horror; lines of shelves marked with sinister signs - CODE 7. 

Sinister, if you know what Code 7 means. *Updated:

* Rumour has it that after being outed in this blog, this is now a toxic branding, and has been replaced by the application of ... green stickers ... 

And if you don't, read this letter published in the local 'Barnet Press', written by a former library worker who left at the end of last month, along with the other 46% of staff considered surplus to requirements, having given so many years loyal service to a job she loved, working with the public, in a public library: 

Let's be clear: the stock which is being culled from your local libraries is not just unsold donated material, but a vast number of library books in perfectly good condition. They are being removed because the newly shrunk libraries (except in the Tory stronghold of  Chipping Barnet, funnily enough) will have no room for them.

Where are these books going, and what is happening to them? 

Last month, a concerned parent living in East Finchley asked senior officers to explain:

Firstly, I’d like to reassure you that we will not be removing stock from East Finchley library in any volume as it will be returning to the library ready for reopening in July. We will only be removing stock which is in poor condition or which contains out of date information. This is something we do regularly to ensure children have access to books which are attractive, accurate and meet the needs of the current National Curriculum. We do not feel that is appropriate to offer poor condition or out of date stock which we have categorised for removal from the council’s stock, to a school. Instead, we generate income to invest in new stock for our libraries through sending stock that is in a reasonable condition but no longer required to our charity partner for which we receive a financial payment. This recycling process enables us to maintain good quality and relevant stock across our libraries. Removing this recycling process would impact on the quality of stock available to all.

The parent in question had asked for the children's books to be lent to local schools while the library was closed (in fact this will now be at least until August): a sensible suggestion, but this request was refused.

Let's look at all this in closer detail.

First of all the statement: 'we will not be removing stock from East Finchley in any volume'. 

Really? And does this apply to all branches, (except Chipping) - a merely minimal removal of stock? 

At a meeting in March last year, in answer to a public question, the council stated the stock of 445,000 books was to be cut by 12%. 

This is in addition to any routine 'weeding'. But this figure was given around the time of the catastrophic Capita run library IT system crash, which saw a massive loss of data relating to stock, as well as borrower details. Much of this was irretrievably lost. The stock had to be manually re-entered onto the system. We do not know how much was lost, or not re-entered - or trashed. 

And archived FOI responses on the council's own website demonstrate that since 1999-2000, the level of stock has already been halved - from a total of 865,558. 

More admissions to the parent in East Finchley here, taken from a FOI response which picked on an earlier one, that referred to a 'charity partner': 

Q: How many books are sent each year to the 'charity partner'?

A: Between 2014 and 2017 (to date) a total of 60,481 books have been either recycled,
reused or sold via our partner organisation.

Q: Who is the charity partner?

A: The organisation is called Better World Books.

Q: How much revenue is received from the charity partner each year ? Is it
possible to break this down by individual library within Barnet?

A: Between 2014 and 2017 (to date) the library service has received £2,996.89 for the
sale of items through Better World Books. It is not possible to break this down by


Q: Please can you indicate how many books last year were removed from
circulation and not sent to the charity partner (presumably due to not being in
'reasonable condition').

This data is not held.

Note that what had been a 'charity partner', in the first response, has now become a 'partner organisation'. That clarification was necessary, it would seem, because 'Better World Books', of course, is not a charity, but an American founded commercial company, that states it directs 10% of its revenue to charitable causes. 

£3,000, in three years, raised from the sale of books is not terribly impressive: very disappointing that for some reason there is no data available to tell us how many of the removed books were not sent to Better World Books, but the evidence suggests that the bulk of the 60,000+ books may well have been dumped. 

And that was before the cull demanded by the new cuts regime.

And that new regime is being rolled out now. Some libraries now have the 'technology enabled' DIY, pin entry, staffless hours timetable in place.

Mrs Angry thought it was time to test this out, last week. After a trip to the osteopath, in Barnet, it was a short walk - or rather a long hobble - to Chipping Barnet library, just around the corner.

At the service desk there was a queue of mums with babies in buggies. Mrs Angry tagged along at the end, and then sat down, with a polite smile, expressing a wish (clearly insincere) to sign up to the new robot libraries. With commendable diplomacy, the staff gave her the relevant forms, and a biro. (One of the staff members clocked who she was, took a deep breath, and turned round their ID badge, with the look of someone who was saying a silent prayer not to be identified in a post in this blog. Your wish is granted).

The forms asked some interesting questions: date of birth - OVER 16 and mind your own business, was the scrawled response, Mrs Angry not trusting Crapita with any personal data. 

Oh: do you consider you have a disability that could affect your ability to evacuate the building safely in the event of an emergency? Well, yes.

Hearing: tick.

Mobility: tick. 

Reduced ability to lift, carry or otherwise move everyday objects? Tick.

Learning disabilities: tick. (two specific learning difficulties).

Physical coordination: tick. (Dyspraxia). 

At the end of this confession, and probing questions which had an uneasy whiff of Capita benefit testing about them, Mrs Angry felt entirely unsure if she ought to be allowed out on her own, let alone left in an unstaffed library during an emergency, but there was no problem in signing up. It would seem they want to pretend to care about disability access, and safety, without actually doing anything about it. 

Ah: no, Mrs Angry - here is some advice, at the end of your 'Self -Service Opening, Essential User Guide' - (must remember to carry this with me at all times, when stuck in a library, with no one to hear me yelling for help: apart from that man in Swansea that is supposed to watch the cctv camera):

What to do in the event of an emergency'... dum di dum. Leave the building. Good idea. Don't go back into the building. Ditto. Oh. If the power fails, the emergency light will come on. Make your way to the exit and leave the building

What if I need help, to make my way to the exit, because I am disabled? 

Looking at the current opening details, here was an extraordinary admission, hidden away in the small print, in the information about Chipping Barnet library:

Please note there is no lift access to the first floor in Self Service Opening hours.


Half of the book stock in this central library is held upstairs, on the first floor.

Yet library managers have now decided, as a matter of practice, to prevent the lift from working, whenever the library is unstaffed.

This means that any disabled, or elderly resident - or any parent with a child in a buggy - is unable to access any of the non fiction or other books on the upper level. 

I would say to make such a decision, as a matter of policy, is discriminatory, and I hope this will be challenged. 

What this says, however, is very interesting. The refusal to allow access to a lift is presumably the result of concern about the clear risk of individuals being trapped, unnoticed, while the library is unattended. 

But there are many other risks which are being ignored - such as those alluded to in the library service's own registration form, as described above, in regard to disabled users who might not be able to leave the building without assistance, in the case of an emergency. 

Oh, and - back to the users' guide: in the event of an incident in the library, you can contact the emergency services by using the phone located at the reception desk

Hmm. An incident. Dependent on your ability to do so, without placing yourself at further risk. 

The FOI response below, to a question about incidents requiring calls to the emergency services in one twelve month period, highlights the very real risk presented by events of this nature. 

Some of these types of incidents are very common, although not always leading to calls to any emergency service, or logged in this way - such as aggressive customers, users with mental health issues engaged in rows, etc - everyday occurrences. These incidents are mediated by staff, putting themselves at risk, in order to resolve the problem. 

What will happen now, either in the unstaffed libraries, or where untrained volunteers are left in charge?

The registration form implies that you will be on your own, in the new DIY libraries, in every sense - a disclaimer at the bottom of the page states:

As the building is unstaffed during Self-Service Opening hours, access to the library is made available by the council without responsibility to users. The council is not responsible for any theft, destruction or loss to your personal belongings or for any loss or damage suffered by you as a result of any cause beyond our control.

Oh. Not responsible for anything 'beyond our control'. Please define what is within your control?

But then it says:

We do not exclude or limit in any way out (sic) liability for death or personal injury caused by our negligence or for fraud or fraudulent misrepresentation.

In which case, I hold you, London Borough of Broken Barnet, responsible for the fraudulent misrepresentation of these unstaffed buildings as a public library.

After signing up for the DIY system, I had intended to test out the new technology, as soon as the unstaffed hours had begun. But on approaching the library, it was evident that the so called unstaffed branches are still being staffed, or at least monitored, by the attendance of senior library officers, in the cunning disguise of Barnet Libraries t shirts, hovering by the entrance, waiting to pounce on any poor resident turning up to use the library, not realising the changes, and to convert them to the joys of 'libraries' run with ... no staff.

It seems that, as they were during the pilot scheme, security officers have also been used to welcome visitors to the new robot libraries, as spotted by a keen eyed resident, via twitter:

Probably more people (inc 2 staff & 2 security guards) outside Chipping Barnet Library than inside as 'self service operation' starts.

Welcome to the unstaffed library: greeted outside by ... senior staff - managers & security

How much longer are they going to keep this up? Why are they so worried about leaving the libraries to function, unstaffed, as they intended? 

After taking the photographs of the ransacked interior of Hendon Library last week, I had stepped back from the windows, gingerly picking my way through the flower beds, back to the path outside the doors, when I noticed a mother and child standing outside the entrance, looking rather perplexed. 

The woman, wearing hijab, was holding the hand of her little boy, of about four years old. He was looking very disappointed.

She stopped me and asked if I knew why the library was closed. 

Her English was not perfect, but she was clearly determined to find out what was going on. I tried to explain, but she could not understand why the library was going to be shut for so many months, and then would be reduced to a fraction of its size, when it did eventually re-open. 

She lived in Brent Cross, she said, and this was their nearest library. Her son loved to come here: she did not know where else they could go. 

I could not think of any Barnet library that was nearby, and still open, or that was near to her, and easy to get to on a bus, with a small child. In the end she said  she thought she might try Swiss Cottage. Yes, I said: that's a good library. And in another borough, so likely to be still open. 

The truth is that for the next few months at least, gaining access to a public library, in Barnet, is going to be very difficult for everyone.

Four of my nearest libraries are now completely closed, until the summer, or longer: East Finchley, Golders Green, Hendon, North Finchley - and Osidge. Perfect timing for children and students preparing for exams: although of course there will be little space in the re-opened libraries to study, and children under 15 will not be allowed in at all into the unstaffed branches, without an adult.

On Saturdays, the day most popular with most users, in the whole of the borough now there are only four libraries open, with some staffing. By an extraordinary coincidence, three of these four branches ... are in staunchly Tory wards: Chipping, Church End, and Edgware. Who would believe it?

Of the so called 'partnership libraries', which are supposed to be run for the community by charitable concerns, none of them can be bothered to stay open for longer than three hours on a Saturday - and Childs Hill has decided not to bother at all. 

This may be a blessing in disguise, of course, as Mrs Angry is hearing tales of how deeply these volunteers are clearly out of their depth, for example responding to a query from someone needing legal support with the suggestion, not as would be provided by former library staff, as to where one might find free advice, but simply to 'go to a solicitor' ...

So what can we do about all this? Well, don't sit back and let them get away with it. 

Complain to the Tory councillors who approved this destruction of a vital service on the pretext of savings, while happily splurging money on Capita, consultants, agency workers, spin doctors, and gifts of half a million quid to the RAF Museum.

Complain to your Tory MPs, all of whom have sat back and allowed their colleagues on the council to press ahead with these devastating cuts. 

Of course they had not calculated on the timing of this general election - all of them now caught on the hop, with little public involvement to show in support of their communities - so long, as they thought, before the next hustings began. Oops. 

The last general election was at a time when the library proposals were at the first stages: yet the howl of protest from normally loyal, Tory voting constituents was a real source of concern for all three candidates. This snap GE, however, has been called just at the point when the cuts are beginning to become a very evident reality. 

So: don't let them get away with it: write to your MP, tell them what you think, and demand to know what they are going to do about it. 

Failing that, well: you might as well accommodate yourself to living in the age of Code 7: where books are not burned, but thrown in skips, and the face of your librarian has been replaced by the keypad of a self entry system:


Mrs Angry said...

Anonymous, 8.01: I am not going to publish your offensive comment - Childs Hill Library is run by not one but two groups, Kisharon and Mencap, supposedly on behalf of the local community, and there is absolutely no reason why this branch should not open on a Saturday - if there are sufficient volunteers, which clearly there are not.

And unfortunately, because the branch is also closed on Friday, it means that any Jewish members of the community cannot come to borrow books for Shabbat, a practice which, as I know from the many years I worked in Golders Green library - regrettably now closed for several months - is a vital resource for Charedi families in the area, who particularly rely on borrowing books for children on this day.

Sadly, the much used children's library in Golders Green will now disappear forever, as a result of our Tory councillors' devastating cuts. This will be a terrible blow for parents and children in the area, and I hope they make their views known to their local representatives, library spokesperson Reuben Thompstone, and Dean and Melvin Cohen.

In Childs Hill, residents unable to access their library on Fridays and Saturdays may like to bring this up with Councillors Ryde and Zinkin - I think we can absolve our friend Cllr Jack Cohen, as he was the one who told me, with disbelief, about the Saturday closing in the first place?

Unknown said...

Mrs A, I am genuinely devastated for you. Libraries, in my view, aren't an optional service, they're not a luxury, they're a vital part of the fabric of a local community and the way that they're treated speaks volumes about how that community is viewed by those in control.

As an Enfield resident, I'm better off in terms of libraries, as none of ours have yet closed (although my local one has been closed for months and rumours that it won't reopen in its current, beautiful, building have been firmly denied by Enfield Council).

In order to keep them open, we have reduced opening hours, most staff have been made redundant, to be replaced by volunteers (unsurprisingly they've found it difficult to recruit, competing, as they are with more traditional users of volunteers). Children's facilities have been particularly hit, with the timetable of activities we used to enjoy across all libraries now limited to the four 'hubs' and space reduced (to little corners in some cases).

These complaints seem insignificant when I read of the wanton destruction of Barnet's library service.

I can't offer much more than my heartfelt support and admiration for you and your colleagues who are fighting against the cuts, but I hope that you can take something from that.