Tuesday 5 February 2013

The Library that Lived: Victory for the people of Friern Barnet

The tale of Friern Barnet Library: what can you say that has not already been said? 

Perhaps today we'll let the pictures speak first. 

Arriving at the Library today: proof that direct action works - a stunning victory for and by the people of Friern Barnet, acheived by a partnership of local campaigners and the occupy movement.

Inside the library it was packed with residents, activists, occupiers, campaigners, camera crews, journalists - and one solitary representative from Barnet Council: Bill Murphy, another of our interim consultants, working as Assistant Director of Customer Services.

Where was Councillor Robert Rams, who has responsibilty for libraries? Or Leader Richard Cornelius?

TV news crew filming Barnet officer Bill Murphy as he was explaining that the council had found a new source of money from One Barnet 'savings' and could now manage without selling the library. (Mrs Angry making impertinent faces behind his back, and observing loudly that this was 'RUBBISH' ... )


 Residents made a ritual tour of the village green and cherry tree outside the library

Rabbi Jeffrey Newman,  trustee of the new community library

                                                         and we did, didn't we?


Occupier Phoenix addresses the crowd 

In his address to the gathering, Phoenix spoke passionately about the wider issue of the threat to libraries, and the need to preserve our public library service. He has always urged everyone to continue to fight for the retention of professional library support from Barnet, and this is a crucial point for many of us who celebrate the saving of the library building, but furiously condemn the actions of Barnet Council in their assault on our library service, and the removal of professional posts from the library structure. 

At the moment, after a humiliating and protracted restructuring process, Barnet librarians are facing the loss of their jobs in what amounts to the most savage cull of professional staff, and a degradation of the standard of service provision. This policy is an act of cultural obscenity, and it is a mark of the sheer philistinism of the Tory administration in Barnet that for a negligible amount of money they are prepared to sanction an act that will destroy what has been,  until now, one of the best value and highest standards of library service in the country. 

As Maureen Ivens, campaigner and Chair of the local library campaign group observed later, in a world beset by recession, only in Britain are we destroying our public library system: all part of an assault on the principle of easy and fair access to education.

Phoenix also reminded everyone of the fact that squatting is a survival mechanism for the poor and dispossessed members of our society: criminalising such action has had a brutal impact on those who otherwise have no access to housing. 

In his own speech, Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, one of the new trustees of the library, also commented on the neat irony that this successful occupation by community squatters should have taken place in the borough which is part of the constituency of MP Mike Freer, the instigator of the new anti squatting legislation. 

He looked forward to the time when these new laws were overturned. He mentioned this, he said, not to be party political, but to broadcast on behalf of humanity. Earlier, in fact, he had commented that a result of the experience of the library campaign was a recognition of our humanity, that we can learn from one another. 

Looking on at the diverse collection of new friends which this story has brought together, one can only conclude that he is absolutely right.

Friern Barnet Library: closed by the Tory council in 2012, reopened by a Labour councillor, Pauline Coakley Webb, in 2013

Barrister Sarah Sackman, who acted for residents and occupiers in the court case, spoke about the campaign: what has happened here, she said, is extraordinary - it demonstrates the value ordinary citizens place on shared and public spaces, and a willingness to fight for them. Together, we saved this library: it was a perfect illustration of what grassroots politics can achieve.

A resident and local mother who has two children who are regular users of the library read a really touching poem she had written, 'The Book Thief' ... when you steal a book, she said, you steal it again and again from every child, from his children, and his children's children.

Mrs Angry looked around the room at the ten thousand books placed on the library shelves by residents, in lieu of those stolen by our Tory councillors. It is a magnificent sight.

                      Maryla Persak-Enefer and a special cake by Emily

                Reema Patel blows out the candles on the bookworm cake

Residents and campaigners Keith Martin and Fiona Brickwood

Will Self came to the occupied library late last year to give a reading from his book 'Umbrella', which is set in the former Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, just across the road from the library. 

He explained that he had been shown round the building, now converted into luxury housing, by a woman from the site developers. As she took him around the former asylum, she had expressed the hope that he was not one of those people who believe in pyschic phenonema, and the presence of spirits ... 

In fact, he told us, he thinks everything has a pyschic presence, even crumbs ... Mrs Angry thought to herself that he was right, and the idea of the asylum being cleansed of all its history, and emptied of the full significance of its history, might well be one which the developers might want to believe in, but is unlikely to be the truth.

And surely, as Mrs Angry has observed before, there would appear at times to be some indefinable, pyschogeographical explanation for the curious events which occur in parts of our borough. And the retaking of Friern Barnet Library has been one of those events. 

It is curious to reflect upon the thought that the library was closed on the 5th of April, occupied five months later on the 5th of September, and officially reclaimed for the people of Friern Barnet, after another five month interval, on the 5th of February. And the new licence for the library was agreed on the palindromically notable date of 31/1/13.
In an attempt to deny the power of place and time, of course, here in Broken Barnet our Tory councillors have tried to expunge the mark of history from our borough. 

They closed our Church Farmhouse museum, and sold the contents in a village hall auction in the midlands, far away. They would love to have been able to shut Barnet Museum too, but can't find proof of ownership. 

The museum, with its collection and model displays of the Battle of Barnet survives, fiercely defended by its supporters. Elsewhere in the borough, the battle continues.

They shut Friern Barnet library, our Tory councillors - no, not shut it, stole it, like the book thief taking the book from countless generations of children -stole a library built with money from the Carnegie Foundation in an age where philanthropy was a duty, and a privilege, torn away and lined up for development as a mini supermarket or block of flats.

 They tried, but they were stopped in their tracks by the sheer force of will of local residents, campaigners and occupiers, who took back into their possession something which was theirs all along. 

Our libraries, our public places, our public services, these things belong to us already: our elected representatives have no right to take them away, or give them to others to make profit from, at our expense.

Today's ceremonial reclamation was a triumph for the people of Friern Barnet, but not just for the people of Friern Barnet. 

As campaigner Maureen Ivens suggested, this story bears a message for the world beyond: libraries provide a way of bringing people together, and empowering them. People must be encouraged to fight for their public services: scrutinise the actions of your local councillors and hold them to account.
And as another speaker commented wrily today, local MP Margaret Thatcher famously remarked that there was no such thing as society: this campaign proves that that was a fallacious statement. 

Or, Mrs Angry thought to herself, perhaps the truth is this: the Tories would like to convince us that what has been created here in Friern Barnet is part of the Big Society. The Big Society, of course is one big lie, a cover for Coalition cuts

Here in Broken Barnet, temporarily at least, we lost a library. By default, and in the process of our resistence, we have discovered a community.

Stuck on one of the shelves at the back of the library, there is a small, hand written notice which reads: 

'Stand up for what you believe in, even if you are standing alone'.

The great strength, and the great joy, of the Barnet insurgency is this: we do not stand alone.

Friern Barnet People's Library, February 5th 2013.

This is what community looks like.

1 comment:

PatPending said...

Fantastic job done by all of the campaigners, to Pheonix & friends I say Bloody well done!
Now lets get this One Barnet crap booted out along with the idiots who conceived it.