The Carnegie lesson

Last Saturday morning I went for a walk with my neighbours - all 2,000 of them. For the 10 preceding days, members of the community had occupied the Carnegie Library in South London. These people are locals, ranging in age from small children to the retired, from all walks of life, and passionate about one thing - that, in a time of austerity, with central government cuts to local government budgets, the last thing it is appropriate to do is to close libraries.

Lambeth Council argue that this government’s cuts are so great that sacrifices must be made. They have also argued that it’s libraries or social services, libraries or homeless people, libraries or services dealing with violence against women. To those of us who know how well our local libraries and trained librarians work with the community, this makes no sense. Libraries are a frontline service in themselves. In Lambeth, libraries and trained librarians offer support to the homeless, provide refuge for women and children seeking support, offer trained and supportive staff to deal with the needs of teenagers who have nowhere at home to study, no space and no internet access, provide literacy groups and English-language learning support.

When we are being force-fed the austerity story from central government, it has been very hard for the people of Lambeth to hear the same story from a Labour council. It is also important to note, that while the Carnegie Library has a Herne Hill postcode, it is actually closer to the poorer Loughborough Junction than to leafy Herne Hill. The Minet Library, on the other side of Loughborough Junction has also been closed for the next year or more. This leaves a large council estate and the two disadvantaged areas of Loughborough Junction and Angell Town without a local library. Lambeth believes it is possible for residents to travel to what they call the "town centre" library in Brixton, but that extra journey is harder for the elderly, the disabled and those with small children, and Brixton Library is already operating at capacity, while another Lambeth library, the Durning, saw young people sitting on the floor to study last week.

The occupation of Carnegie Library has drawn a great deal of press attention, not only to the closure of this particular library but to the closures (temporary and permanent) of libraries across the UK. Lambeth Council have said they will re-open the two libraries closed last week "sometime" in 2017, and that they will be "healthy living centres" – space for a gym, space for books, but no librarians. To those of us with three gyms within 10 minutes, another gym is not necessary – and a library without a librarian is simply a bookshelf.

That is why we were marching, in high spirits and with great hope on Saturday. That is why several dozen people, including teenagers, gave up their Easter break to sleep on cold floors in the Carnegie for 10 days and nights. And that is why we are not prepared to roll over and let Lambeth council turn our libraries into gyms.

What the Carnegie Occupation proves is that not only is there huge support for libraries from the grassroots up, but that we also do not have to do as the council says. They are, after all, OUR elected representatives.

Stella Duffy is a writer and theatremaker. Her 14th novel London Lies Beneath will be published by Virago in November. She blogs here and is also co-founder of Fun Palaces.