Around 250 campaigners turned out on April Fool’s Day (April 1st) to “ridicule” Lambeth Council’s decision to turn Carnegie Library into a “healthy living centre with a self-service neighbourhood library”.
Speakers included comedian Jeremy Hardy and authors Stella Duffy OBE, Toby Litt and Barbara Ellis, with many protesters in fancy dress or waving banners. According to organisers, the loudest applause went to former Labour Councillor Rachel Heywood (now an Independent Labour Councillor) who spoke out against plans to see the facility taken over by social enterprise company Greenwich Leisure Limited.
The protest took place nearly a year after 30 demonstrators hit the headlines for occupying the Carnegie Library in a bid to stop it from closing and being passed to the control Greenwich Leisure Limited, which want to combine it with a gym. In all the demonstrators occupied the building for 10 days, having food and drink passed to them while they stayed their overnight.
The protesters have recently alleged that it has cost more in rates, ulitlities and security to police the library in Herne Hill over the last year of its closure following the occupation than it would have done to keep it open. However, Lambeth Council told The Bookseller that this was not the case.
A council spokesperson said: “While the council budgeted for security costs for unoccupied buildings, the occupation of Carnegie (and the security implications for Minet) meant additional ‘reactive’ security costs were incurred. However, this has subsequently reduced and the security cost at Carnegie is around £5,400 per month. The cost of running the building before it closed was approximately £13,300 per month. The security costs are only expected to have an impact in 2016/17 and will not continue into future years when the development work is started on site – as soon as GLL begin work on Carnegie (subject to planning), security costs for the council will cease.”
The council also states on its website it will keep a similar number of books in the library as previously.
Laura Swaffield, of Defend the 10 campaign, told The Bookseller: “Carnegie was the busiest children’s library in the whole borough. Now – nothing.”
She said: "It would have saved us a lot of trouble if the council had just said in the first place, 'we haven't a clue what we're doing, but we don't care because we've been trying to close this library and sell it off for 20 years'. The council ignored chance after chance to divert funding to the libraries. It has starved them for decades.”
Loughborough Junction-based author Duffy said the closure was “heartbreaking”. She said: "Libraries need librarians. Lambeth's failure to listen is heart-breaking. This library served some of the most deprived areas in the borough. There's no reason for yet another gym round here."
Litt said: “The Carnegie occupation was the high point of last year in Lambeth. The council’s destruction of the library service is an assault on the community. The whole point of libraries is they open doors for society to do something that shows love for its people. Like the NHS.”
Michaela Loebner, of Defend the10 campaign, added: "They hoped we would go away, but we're still here. We’re a thorn in the council’s side and we won’t stop. We are the council's conscience. They haven't got one. The fight goes on.”
The borough’s library budget has been cut by £800,000. However, councillor Jack Hopkins, Lambeth cabinet member for Business, Culture and Regeneration, said that when the Carnegie Library reopens later this year it will be a “real community asset”.
“New planning permission, granted in February actually gives the library more protection than it has ever had, specifically classifying the ground floor as library and community space," he said. "The refurbished building will provide not only a library service that will be open for longer hours, but also a wider range of community services and a gym in the basement.”
He added: “I’m sure Carnegie will attract even more visitors than before, as has been the case at Upper Norwood Joint Library and Waterloo Library following their transformation into community-run, neighbourhood libraries. By working with partners in this way we can keep a library in the area in the face of deep budget cuts, while at the same time increasing the variety of services offered in the building.”
The library in Herne Hill closed on 31st March last year before being occupied by protestors for 10 days. Doctor Who actress Adjoa Andoh was one of the campaigners during the occupation which saw Lambeth enforcement officers deliver a possession order.
Writers David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Cathy Cassidy, Nick Hornby and David Nicholls were among those have signed an open letter supporting the occupiers of Carnegie Library and condemning the proposed changes.
In June, the council held an exhibition in nearby St Saviour's Church to share plans for the new centre while campaigners hosted a “pop-up library” to recreate some of the things they loved most about Carnegie.
(From left) Nick Edwards & Jeff Doorn, Friends of Carnegie Library