Protesters Are Occupying This Library to Keep It From Becoming a Gym

The Carnegie Library in South London closed on March 31, and it’s been occupied ever since.

Campaigners protesting the closure by Lambeth Council of Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, South London, remain inside the premises on day three of its occupation, April 3. (Photo: Richard Baker/Getty Images)

Apr 8, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Communities need libraries. Given global obesity rates, they need places where people can exercise too. But shuttering a full-service library and turning it into a gym?

That’s the controversial proposal igniting the ire of members of one South London neighborhood, as well as hundreds of authors and literacy advocates around the world. The heated protests over the plan are turning the spotlight on how underfunded libraries are, and how poorly understood the role of a librarian is.

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“A gym is useless to the people who need libraries most: young families, toddlers, schoolkids, old people, and disabled people,” said Laura Swaffield, the chair of Friends of Lambeth Libraries, a community advocacy group. Since March 31, Swaffield and nearly 60 other protesters have been occupying the Carnegie Library, a 110-year-old facility in Lambeth’s Herne Hill neighborhood.

“There is overwhelming opposition to the idea of wrecking this library to install a gym,” said Swaffield. She and other protesters have been living in the library for the past 10 days, with other members of the community bringing them food, toiletries, blankets, and sleeping bags. Marches around the community and protests outside the library doors are also taking place.

“People are helping to design, print, and distribute leaflets, make posters and poems, and generally be the ‘outside’ wing of the occupation,” she said.

The Lambeth Council, the governing body for the community, had planned to close the facility on the 31st. According to a statement from the council, the books will stay in the library while the rest of building is turned into a fitness center.

“It is important to set the record straight. Carnegie Library will re-open in early 2017 as a Healthy Living Centre with a refurbished neighbourhood library, new computers, the same book stock and study space. It will also be open for longer hours,” said the statement. Activists say they have not seen concrete plans about what this proposed hybrid facility will look like.

Campaigners protesting the closed Carnegie Library play chess outside. (Photo: Richard Baker/Getty Images)

Carnegie Library in Lambeth was funded by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who made a fortune in the steel industry and ended up donating a huge chunk of it to establishing nearly 3,000 libraries across the United States and the United Kingdom. He once said, “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.”

But thanks to the Great Recession—and the resulting empty municipal coffers—some cities across the U.S. have reduced operating hours, laid off staff, or even closed libraries. The crisis is acute in the U.K., with around 350 libraries closed over the past five years and 8,000 staff members laid off.

Swaffield believes there’s limited support from some elected officials for libraries in part because librarians—and their professional associations—have not been good at promoting their profession.

Nick Poole, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in the U.K., told The Guardian a library is more than a room of books. “It means getting people the information they need, when they need it. Information to help them build a business, find things to read, do their homework, access health care information or participate in their community.” He added, “Google may bring you a million answers, but a skilled professional librarian will bring you the right one, saving you time and money. If a venue can’t provide this, then it isn’t a library.”

Unfortunately, according to Swaffield, some officials also “just don’t seem to understand the wide role their libraries play as front-line services underpinning much of their work in education, welfare, health, employment, and crime prevention.” Although facilities such as the Carnegie Library serve plenty of lower-income and underrepresented people, the general perception, she said, is that there are no real consequences if it disappears.

“Nobody dies if you lop off a few hours, close a few branches, get rid of a few more professional librarians, reduce the book fund, let the buildings get a bit more shabby,” Swaffield said. And so, because of ongoing neglect, many libraries already don’t operate at the level that they should, leading to “people [who] don’t know what a proper library service is.”

The library has been a hub of community activity for decades. A free all-ages chess club operated out of it for 20 years, and one-on-one tutors taught adults in the community how to read there for 40 years, Swaffield said. Classes to teach kids coding and space for educational support for disadvantaged children were also available.

All those programs are likely to disappear from the community, said Swaffield, if the council moves forward with plans for the gym.

“The council is evasive about how much space will be available when they eventually reopen as a big gym and a tiny ‘library’ with no staff,” she said. “So forget all the activities run by staff, and as for volunteer community groups, they will have to pay to hire space.”

Despite limited hours of operation compared with some of the larger libraries across the greater London area, Swaffield said roughly 400 people a day visited the Carnegie Library. The programs run at the facility have also been recognized by local officials for their effectiveness.

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“The library manager won a Lambeth Council staff prize just two months ago for the wonderful things available here,” she said. “The way the community loved this place and the increase in [it is] all destroyed.”

Some critics might argue that given that about two-thirds of U.K. residents are overweight or obese, turning the building into a gym is not such a bad idea. But Swaffield said that the library is already a healthy living center.

Reflecting the changing role of modern libraries, yoga and pilates classes were being offered, and staff members were “specially trained in support for mental illness, as well as everyday problems like money.” In the stacks, “many books on health, diet, exercise, and special, nationally selected and approved collections on dementia, depression, and teen problems, could be found,” Swaffield said.

Neil Gaiman and Nick Hornby were among around 200 authors who signed a letter of support this week asking the council to keep the Carnegie Library, as well as several others, open. “Yes, local governments are facing difficult choices given the large cuts enforced by central government, but closing libraries hurts the youngest and oldest, the weakest and most vulnerable,” read the letter.
There also plans for another protest march in the community on Saturday. But, said Swaffield, the Lambeth Council seems to be sticking to its plans for the gym. “The whole thing is inexplicable,” she said. And in the end, only developers in London’s already overheated real-estate market win. “You throw out a popular, well-used service, spend a small fortune installing a gym nobody wants, it fails, you say nobody uses this building, you make a large fortune selling it off,” Swaffield said.