British "Bridge of Spies" actor Mark Rylance, who won Best Supporting Actor at 2016's BAFTA awards last night (14th February), has spoken out in support of a campaign to save Lambeth's libraries from closure.
Rylance, a resident of Lambeth for the past 30 years, called libraries the “fabric of our communities” as he joined in opposition to the council's plans to privatise the services. Lambeth plans to close five out of 10 of the borough’s libraries in April and replace employees with volunteers.
Lambeth Unison members went on strike last Monday (8th February) to protest proposals to turn half of Lambeth’s libraries into "library service points", with minimal book and computer provisions and no staff. Three libraries - Minet, Carnegie and Tate South - are set to be gifted to leisure centre operator GLL to be run as gyms.
Rylance, in support of Green Party councillor Scott Ainslie, issued a statement condemning the closures from the USA, where he is currently starring on Broadway.
He said: “As a resident of Brixton, Camberwell and Herne Hill, since 1986, I support the campaign to save our neighbourhood libraries. They are part of the fabric of our communities. I am sure it is true that libraries need to evolve, and I understand our libraries are evolving very successfully.
“To sell them off to private interests is a betrayal of the wishes of someone like Mr. Carnegie who educated himself out of extreme poverty as an immigrant in America. How did he do that? At a library. He donated over two thousand libraries all over the world and gave away nearly all of his $400m, because of his awareness of the importance of free education in his own hard life.
“Many of the greatest men and women in world history have been born into the difficult conditions of poverty, exile, etc... Public libraries are a place for these very important people to find themselves and flourish into the leaders we so urgently need now and in the future.”
Lambeth library workers first went on strike over the plans in November last year and at least a quarter of the libraries’ staff will be made redundant if the plans go ahead, Unison has said.
Tim O’Dell, local librarian and member of Unison, told The Bookseller that campaigners "cannot accept" the library closures or the loss of jobs.
He said: "We have been protesting for a year, and because of this the council has been forced to look at alternatives to its plans. We cannot accept the library closures, nor the job cuts, but worry that time is now tight.
“The council has now been forced to look at an ‘alternative’ from the library management team, but have yet to decide what to do – we still need to force them to back down on their closure plans. After a whole year, we now have nine weeks until 1st April. We must save our libraries for the generations to come – I believe we will.”
The Green Party has put forward a motion to adopt a proposal by Lambeth’s head of libraries Susanna Barnes to form a staff and community mutual organisation to deliver the existing 10 Lambeth libraries as a statutory service. A similar plan to create a new private organisation owned by library staff and the community to run libraries in Devon was passed late last year.
It was not taken up by council officers who instead put forward their proposal for half of its libraries to become library service points. The proposal – set out in the document Culture 2020 – was approved by the council last October.
Cllr Jane Edbrooke, Lambeth's cabinet member for neighbourhoods, said the council was "hopeful" of avoiding compulsory job losses among staff.
“We have worked with community groups and organisations and been imaginative in our proposals that keep the majority of our libraries open - while helping make us make the £200m in savings needed in response to government budget cuts," she said. “We are hopeful of avoiding compulsory job losses among library staff. I know these changes are difficult, I know no one wants to see services revised – but this is the reality we face with our budget under severe pressure."
Library workers in Bromley also held a week of strike action last week, which started on National Libraries Day (Saturday 6th February), with library staff staging a march down the high street to protest the privatisation of services and plans to replace employees at 14 libraries in the borough with volunteers, News Shopper reported.
Onay Kasab, Unite’s regional officer, said: “What we are hoping to achieve is to get the council to actually listen to their own consultation – they had two, specifically a second one asking people if, in light of recent cuts, they were still not in agreement with the decision – and they still said they were not.”
The second round of consultation took place in September 2015 and asked residents for their views on a "commissioned library service" which would mean the library service would be outsourced to an external provider under the supervision of the council.
A council spokesman told The Bookseller: “Bromley Council is market testing its services to ensure they are value for money and deliver the best outcomes for Bromley residents. We continue to examine every service and cost pressure to find the most effective and efficient ways to deliver services which focus on those who need them most."
The spokesman added: “We regret that further industrial action is being considered when previous strikes were supported by fewer than four per cent of our workforce. In light of this, the Council believes the union should respect the workforce and the interests of Bromley residents by putting an immediate end to this proposed strike action. Again, we would like to reassure residents that the Council will do everything in its power to minimise any adverse impact on critical services should the strike action continue.”
Campaigners from Bromley, Greenwich and Lambeth were among the 150 campaigners that gathered in Westminster on Tuesday (9th February) to lobby parliament over the widespread cuts.
Picture: Hugo Glendinning