Source: The Guardian

Leading authors have come out in support of the occupation of a much-loved south London community library at the sharp end of spending cuts that are presenting an existential crisis for libraries across the country.

Neil Gaiman, Nick Hornby and Colm Tóibín are among more than 220 writers and illustrators who signed a letter with 24 hours of being asked to support the occupiers of Carnegie Library and condemn changes to Lambeth’s library service.

Some of the signatories were present amid emotional scenes last Thursday at the closure of the Carnegie and Minet libraries.

Both are scheduled to reopen in a year as hybrids: part private gym, part host to shelves of books with no dedicated staff, which campaigners argue will fail to fulfil the function of a library.

The closures come at a time of deepening cuts in public spending, which will force four out of the south London borough’s 10 libraries to close, move or be taken over by community volunteers.
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Stella Duffy: ‘The Carnegie … works as a place of integration and community support.’ Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer
One of the signatories to the letter, the writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy, who lives near the Carnegie, said: “If it wasn’t for libraries I wouldn’t be an author. I came from a family of seven kids, council estate in Woolwich. Libraries gave me my start in understanding that the world was bigger than my own family.”

As the founder of Fun Palaces, a project that enables community groups to run their own arts events, Duffy said she spent a lot of time in libraries around the country and that Lambeth was an excellent example of one that had evolved to meet new demand and face up to the challenges of operating in a time of austerity.

“Libraries in Lambeth, which like a lot of London boroughs have their problems with deprivation, are typical of the way libraries are a place of sancturary for so many people,” she said.
“They have also been changing to meet new needs. At the Carnegie, for example, there has been a literacy group for people for whom English is not a first language and a book group for elderly people. So it works as a place of integration and community support.”

Dozens of occupiers, ranging from older residents to teenagers studying for their exams, have been occupying Carnegie Library in Herne Hill in a bid to prevent it being turned into a “healthy living centre” run by Greenwich Leisure Limited, which operates leisure and fitness centres and has recently moved into running libraries.

The occupiers have now been handed a court order as a prelude to what is expected to be an eviction attempt.

Lambeth insists it is seeking solutions to a budgetary crisis faced by one of the UK’s most deprived boroughs and that other areas face bigger cuts than the 25% reduction in the libraries budget.

The changes highlight a wider trend which, according to a BBC analysis this week, has resulted in almost 350 libraries being closed over the past six years, with the loss of about 8,000 jobs.

Lambeth council said it would take “appropriate action to ensure the safety of those who have occupied the building and to also ensure the listed building is not damaged”.

It said that Carnegie Library would reopen in early 2017, with longer hours, as a healthy living centre including a refurbished neighbourhood library, new computers, the same book stock and study space.

Cllr Jane Edbrooke, cabinet member for neighbourhoods, said: “There have been thorough discussions with residents and community groups about Lambeth libraries both in public and at private meetings. We understand that people are passionate about this issue, but it’s a simple fact: there is less money to go round, so savings have to be made.

“These campaigners are entitled to voice their concerns, but who will protest for the children in care and the vulnerable pensioners if the cuts are made to their services instead?”

The council said it had to find £238m in savings between 2011 and 2018, which equate to half of its core funding.

© The Guardian