Sunday 23 July 2017

Save Our Libraries: Barnet's children take their protest to Whitehall

Children from Martin's School explained what the library next door meant to them, and put up this display to mark the last day of opening - last day as a real library

They call it 'refurbishment'. 

We call it destruction. 

Yes: libraries again, and if you are sick of it, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, you ain't seen nothing yet. 

This is going to go on and on, up until the local elections next year and beyond: and as for our quivering Tory MPs, balancing on a knife edge in their newly marginal constituencies, waiting for the next General Election, well: don't say we didn't warn you.

In December, library campaigners wrote to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, to complain about the terrible fate designed for our library service by the Tory council, backed, it must be said, by our local MPs. 

Tory councillors have shut the children's library at Golders Green: here in a corner of what remains of the adult section is the selection of books for younger children

The full letter may be seen here - it was a long, detailed analysis of the impact of a truly devastating programme of cuts, especially on the children of this borough, and other vulnerable groups, supposedly protected in law from the grievous inequality inherent in such a violent assault on what had been a magnificent, beacon award standard of service.

After six months, the Minister, Karen Bradley, had still not replied, and campaigners agreed it was time to take rather more direct action. It was decided that children from Barnet would visit DCMS and hand in some of the four hundred and more postcards that were so lovingly displayed outside the East Finchley branch, on its last day of opening as a real library: beautiful letters of love for their library, from the children of Martin School, next door. 

Here is the press release which announces the action children will take tomorrow.


At Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS)

“Don’t lock us out of our library!”

Children from Barnet are descending on the offices of the Culture Secretary in Central London armed with 440 postcards, demanding a reinstatement of their independent access to libraries.

Primary school children turned a World Book Day project into a call for government action against the loss of their access to Barnet libraries.

Year 6 pupil Zara Lobley, from Martin Primary in N2, wrote to DCMS and local MP Mike Freer in April 2017 asking for a meeting to present these postcards, to no avail. Pupils are now visiting the offices of the Culture Secretary themselves, determined to have their say.

Zara says “My friends and I are very worried about the ongoing changes to our libraries in Barnet which mean that we are going to miss out on so much. Over 440 children have designed postcards addressed to the Culture Secretary so that she can understand what the library means to us”.

Libraries in Barnet, recently shut despite it being exam time, are now reopening with electronic gates requiring pin-code access outside staffed hours. Staffing has been reduced to between 15.5-23.5 hours per week; children under 15 cannot access libraries independently outside of these hours. Even older children will need permission from their school as well as a parent or guardian before they can be issued with a pin code. Toilets will be locked, affecting families with children and making the service far less accessible to vulnerable members of the community. Space, including book stock, computer rooms and study space have been drastically reduced. Once famous children’s libraries at Golders Green and Hendon have been destroyed .

Over the past few years, thousands of Barnet residents have been consulted then ignored about the fate of Barnet libraries. A recent FOI request revealed that local MPs have been complicit in this process. In December 2016 resident-led campaign, ‘Save Barnet Libraries’ submitted a formal complaint to DCMS, pointing to government guidance about children’s independent access to libraries. The Minister has failed to respond. 

Children are calling on the Minister to step in and force Barnet Council to reinstate a proper library service with safe access for all. 

Parents and library campaigners from 'Save Barnet Libraries'

Once we began to publicise this action: well, a miraculous result - a letter arrived, ignoring the reasons for the children's intended visit to Whitehall, and mouthing nonsense about the opening hours. 

Just to remind readers, children under the age of fifteen may not enter Barnet libraries in the new unstaffed hours - even secondary school children needing to study - unless they are accompanied by an adult:

Quite why it took the Minister six months to come up with this feeble letter is unclear, but there is of course virtually no acknowledgement of the extent of concerns raised in the formal complaint.

Again, the completely and deliberately misleading excuse of libraries being closed only for 'refurbishment' is used, when, in the case of East Finchley, and all others, the buildings are in fact being gutted, ransacked, staffing cut, book stock culled, study space removed - and the library function reduced to a fraction of the footprint of the building. 

The reduction in library size within their own buildings was allegedly made in order to free up room to let as rented commercial office space. This is absolute nonsense: a Freedom of Information response not so long ago demonstrated this by revealing there were no rental agreements in place, and even the much vaunted tenancy contract with Middlesex Uni that was supposed to justify the massive loss of size in Hendon Library had proved to be worth no more than the paper it wasn't written on.

In East Finchley, we have the only library in which there was any sign of even a possibility of rented space being used - library managers claimed to be in talks with someone who wanted to use the library for a 'business hub' - which turns out to mean charging people to rent a desk, while local children and young people in what is one of the borough's highest areas of social deprivation lose much needed space to study.

Before it closed for 'refurbishment': local residents make use of access to computers. Now there are plans to charge for the rental of desks in this library

This library had already built a healthy income from letting space in a purpose built meeting room to local groups: not any more. 

Business speaks louder than the word community, even when that community pays its way. Ideology before economic sense or social value every time: this is the Barnet Tory way, facilitated by its private contractors, who of course now manage the library buildings and continue to milk the income opportunities afforded by all those variations the Tory members didn't bother to read, when they signed the contracts.

In case you haven't noticed, the state of our library service is in complete meltdown now: buildings still closed, their re-opening delayed as the terrible damage wrought on the service is installed, blow by blow.

North Finchley Library, safely contained behind bars during the 'refurbishment', which saw the loss of another children's library

Those which have re-opened are libraries in name only, serving time until as is clearly going to be the case, visitor numbers rapidly diminish and they will be shut, and the buildings sold for development as luxury housing, like every other publicly owned asset in this borough.

In the meanwhile, the operation of the so called 'unstaffed' hours is a farce, with senior officers masquerading in 'Here to Help' Barnet library t shirts hovering outside and inside with security guards in attendance, at who knows what cost - all in the pretence of making 'savings'. 

If you recall, achieving those savings, of a couple of million or so, in staffing and so on, is to be accomplished by spending ... £14 million on the evisceration of our libraries. 

Cheaper, you might think, to keep the staff, and well, you know, maybe do a bit of genuine 'refurbishment'. Or even investment, as more some rather more astute authorities are now doing.

What a library means to Wissam: or meant - lots of books about rabbits

Why don't they dare to leave the unstaffed hours to operate as they intend - with residents left to access the buildings on their own, and remaining on their own? 

Because they dare not. 

The anger and confusion of residents confronted by the changes in their newly cut libraries is massive: the difficulties of those with disabilities absolutely apparent - and the fear of 'incidents' as a result of the ludicrous new automatically opening and shutting doors well founded. Automatically opening and shutting - but not always when they are supposed to.

Many problems have already occurred with this new technology, and it would only be a matter of time, once left unsupervised as was always the intention, before someone comes to harm, is trapped in the building, or the victim of assault, or the building itself is at risk due to failures in security. 

The other consequences of the new library service will take more time to become evident: this sort of impact is more widespread, more insidious, more long term, and more shameful: the effect will be on those most dependent on a free and accessible provision of  books, information, study space, computers. 

Those who for whom a library is not just a resource for all of those things, but a much needed community centre, whose value is indefinable, and immeasurable - and irreplaceable. The elderly, those with disabilities, and other members of society dealing with social isolation, or exclusion, for example. 

But not least, and perhaps first of all these are the children of this borough. 

For more than eighty years, this was the children's library at Golders Green. Now closed by Tory councillors.

Even if they are lucky enough to have parents with time to accompany them to one of the newly cut libraries, and even if they can find enough books left over from the massive downsizing in stock, and even if they still feel welcome in a building that has had its children's library ripped out, standing empty, waiting for tenants that will never appear, standing as a metaphor for the gutless, mindless Tory council that has done this terrible thing - the cost in terms of education, literacy, and social mobility for those children from less advantaged families will only become apparent in years to come, when standards in educational achievement fall, and the division in opportunities between those with means and those without becomes even more extreme than it is now.

Tomorrow some of our children will be going to Whitehall, to deliver those postcards that no one wants to read. 

Perhaps those postcards will go into an archive, somewhere, and be rediscovered by future historians, who will try and understand what led to the death of the public library system, in the twenty first century.

Well: like the NHS, our public library system won't die, and will survive - until the fight ends, and the protest dies down. 

In Barnet, at least, that is not going to be for a very long time.

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