Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Protesters are rejecting a plan to turn a London library into a gym, the latest of hundreds of recent library closures in the U.K.
The Carnegie Library in the South London borough of Lambeth was scheduled to close on March 31, but patrons had other plans. Dozens of library users instead occupied the Carnegie Library building in Lambeth’s Herne Hill neighborhood, hoping to prevent plans to turn it into a part-library, part-fitness center facility from moving forward.
On Thursday morning, the Carnegie Library occupiers, some 40 to 60 in total, will be entering into the seventh day of their demonstration. They may not have much more time: The Guardian reports that the protesters have been served with a court order, a “prelude to what is expected to be an eviction attempt.”
The standoff is the culmination of a nationwide crisis. Almost 350 libraries across the U.K. have been shuttered over the last six years, according to an investigation by the BBC. Some 8,000 library jobs have disappeared over the same span. Libraries in the U.K. face “rationalization”: pressure from budget cuts to reorganize as private enterprises supporting volunteer library services.
In Lambeth, for example, the Carnegie Library is supposed to reopen in 2017 as a so-called “book-ish gym”—a fitness center that includes a refurbished library space staffed by volunteers. Lambeth Councillor Jane Edbrooke, cabinet member for neighborhoods, has said that the new center’s library function will remain virtually unchanged, even though it will not be staffed by librarians.
Some #carnegieoccupation supporters see the matter as more broadly indicative of how austerity measures have gutted basic social services. Budget cuts put local Labour leaders in a difficult position. In Lambeth and other places, Conservative-led measures have forced local Labour councillors to make unpopular decisions about which services to slash.
“We know changing such a valued local service as Carnegie library is a difficult choice and has caused upset and concern from a passionate group of residents and union activists,” wrote Lambeth Councillor Jane Edbrooke, cabinet member for neighborhoods, in a newsletter. “However Lambeth has much less money to spend on our services. The government has slashed our funding by 56%. And we have to find another £55 million in savings in just the next two years.”
The protesters are not idling. On April 9, library campaigners in Lambeth plan to march from the occupied Carnegie Library to central Brixton, passing along the Minet Library, another closed library planned to reopen as a hybrid gym, Brixton Buzz reports. The campaign has drawn support from high-profile literary figures—Neil Gaiman, Nick Hornby, and Stella Duffy among them.
“The U.K.—ranked near the bottom of the OECD’s recent survey of literacy levels in the world’s most developed countries—is in absolutely no position to dare to close one single public library,” said Joanna Trollope in January, in support of a campaign to make library closures illegal. “Especially when that library service costs so very little to run and is so crucial to the nation’s wellbeing and future.”
While Labour members might be sympathetic to the campaigners’ plight, the Lambeth Council remains unmoved. As Councillor Edbrooke told The Guardian: “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.”
Other Lambeth leaders may be even less impressed. Alex Bigham, another Labour councillor, tweeted a picture of a yawning cat—a series of cats, in fact—in response to constituent complaints about the library closure.
The Lambeth Carnegie Library has faced closure before. In 1999, an organization called the Friends of the Carnegie Library formed to fight the Lambeth Council’s plans to close the library. While adaptive reuse is a popular fate for Carnegie Library buildings in the U.S.—some of which no longer exist as a result—library patrons in the U.K. appear determined not to follow suit.