People’s Library defies Tory vandals
When Tory-controlled council closed Friern Barnet library in north London, they gave 24 hours notice. Then, in an act of sheer vandalism, the shelves were cleared and the books removed. Now a People’s Library is up and running. Photo report by Peter Arkell.
When the Tory-controlled council closed Friern Barnet library in April, local residents resisted, at first sitting in and collecting a petition of 3,000 names, then setting up a small book exchange on the green outside the library.
Then they got together with Occupy London to reopen the site as the People’s Library three months ago. The council have done their best to thwart the plan, but their efforts were knocked back in October when a judge blocked the council’s attempts to close it.
The council however has a further court hearing on December 17 as it persists in its “duty to its taxpayers to protect its assets”. According to the activists running the library, the council want to sell the building and the land for £400,000 to a private house builder.
The attempt to close the library is a part of the council’s plan to outsource to the private sector most of the services that it provides. It is preparing to award up to £1bn in contracts to the likes of Capita, and to surrender completely to the dictates of the market place.
However, the occupation of the library is popular locally. Not only have residents nearby re-stocked the shelves with between 8,000 and 10,000 books and handed over new furniture, but they help to run it.
Volunteers do the work of the library, signing out books and CDs, organising community events such as yoga and drama, setting up play areas for children, cleaning and making tea and coffee.
The library, at first glance, seems like any other well-run library, with people on computers (there is free access to the internet available) and a steady stream of volunteers and book browsers walking in and out.
It is only the lack of high-tech equipment for registering the books going out and coming in, together with a few slogans and makeshift lists and rotas that betray the real nature of the change in management.
A World to Win talked to some of the volunteers:
Danielle Harley lives locally. She was in between jobs when she heard about the occupation and took some books and other things that were needed to the library. She decided to volunteer to help part-time. She told us:
“The community has really been brought together by this. You meet local authors, single mums, elderly people and others. If the library was not here, all these people would be isolated. They wouldn’t have a hub to bring them together as a community. I enjoy it here and I want to keep the library open.”
John Moser is a self-employed accountant who grew up in the area doing much of his homework as a teenager in the library. He said:
“This is our money and our community. And these vandals want to close down a public resource like this. We don’t need more flats and it’s not in their manifesto.
“Who do they represent? Nobody round here wants the library closed. Where is the representation in that? They only got about 25% of the turnout of 30-35% in the election, so who do they represent? You cannot put a value of pounds, shillings and pence on this kind of thing. It’s obvious. Now we have to jump up and down just to try to save it.
“On a national and local level, who represents us? A handful of people control everything. They have killed off belief in the system, so nobody votes. It’s become a self-defeating process, and the outcome is not for the greater good. People get very depressed. What can they do? It seems the only way to live now is through relentless consumption. It needs the general population to stand up and change everything. Somebody’s got to stand up.”
Hymn normally lives with the Rainbow Community, “travelling light”. He was one of the occupiers at St Pauls Cathedral earlier in the year. He sleeps on the floor of the library on a mat:
“The council’s actions do not surprise. We are simply holding a space. There is no difference between the people staying here and the people who come in to help or borrow books. It’s about local people doing what they think is right. The less we ask for permission, the more we can do.”
Leon James has been at the library since day 2 of the occupation. He commented:
“Ordinary people are ignored by those who are supposed to represent them. There is a democratic deficit in this country. We want to see what the occupation of the library can do to unite the different groups in Barnet, to see if we can link them together as they are essentially the same.”
He explained that the Pinkham Way Alliance (fighting the construction of one of Europe’s largest waste sites), the Barnet Alliance, brought together to fight the privatisation of 70% of council services and the Friern Barnet Library occupation group were all essentially in the same struggle. “We have to connect the dots to the bigger picture, the bankers’ bail-outs and the austerity measures.”
Phoenix is an activist with Occupy, and says:
As the council prepares to evict the new librarians and market the building, their task has not been helped by a recent decision by planners to list it. The purpose-built library, opened in 1934, has been added to Barnet’s schedule of local buildings of historical or architectural interest.
“The closure exemplifies the worst side of the cuts involving children, old people, the community, public spaces and public services. There is a revolt going on about these things up and down the country. If all the multi-nationals paid tax, nothing would have to close.
“Overall 260 libraries are being closed. This is a community centre as well as a library. It’s the last public building in Friern Barnet. If the library goes, the community goes.”
12 December 2012