THE LIBRARIES THAT ARE FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL
By Marcela Ferreira
With so many library closures in the last few years, we would be forgiven for thinking their days were numbered.
Initially, the internet seemed to speed the library’s demise with knowledge now available at the click of a button, but the local library soon became the very thing that many sought to use - and the need for local libraries was renewed.
Though many have perished under tight budgets, others have been reborn as better versions of their former selves.
The public’s collective outcry at the threat of losing such a valuable service has also been instrumental in forcing change, with many libraries now being run by local communities.
In South East London, libraries have become more prominent in the community rather than fading in the background with author visits, creative writing workshops, book clubs, rap competitions, poetry readings, film screenings as well as the usual rhyme + storytime, homework club, and kids crafts now being offered as standard services.
Social media has become important too. Many local libraries use Twitter and Instagram to advertise the services on offer, whilst those without a social media presence can rely on Southwark and Lewisham Council Libraries to advertise their services instead. With over 5,000 Twitter followers, their support is instrumental in highlighting local activities.
Crofton Park Library was saved by its community, who added a cafe as well as a successful second- hand book shop to keep punters interested. The Crofton Books brand is steadily growing, attracting followers on Twitter and Instagram alike. It’s also focusing on its excellent range of vintage books, recently taking a stand at So Last Century in Beckenham Mansion where all book sales helped fund the services offered by the library. Their strong links with the community mean a steady presence in local fairs, fetes and events throughout the year, which helps raise their profile and support in the area.
The one that stands out the most to me is Forest Hill Library. Run by a community body since 2016 it has made positive and innovative changes in their offering.
Their crowd funding campaign has resulted in computer upgrades and operating systems, a new printer, extended opening hours as well as a new calendar of events. They recently hosted the 'City of Stories' writing workshops for Lewisham and ran its first philosophy workshop in the grounds.
They have also introduced a 'Friends of Forest Hill library' scheme which costs residents £30 a year, and gives them 10% off in many of the local shops.
Its fun and playful tone of voice on Twitter has created a perfect promotional platform and also helps it stand out. They are not scared of engaging with their audience and conversations feel easy and authentic. Forest Hill Library has diversified even further, now renting space for local entrepreneurs, creatives and freelancers looking for remote working space.
I spoke with Forest Hill Library General Manager Simon Higgs about the work they are doing;
1. What do you think is the function of a library in a modern community? Why is it worth fighting for?
Libraries have changed, beyond almost all recognition since I was an Asterix-borrowing boy in the 1970's. The internet has been the biggest influence on the library, in two ways: Firstly, book borrowing figures have tumbled, largely because people can now look up information online. The second way the internet has changed the library service, is that now it is part of that service, and a large part.
While borrowing figures continue to fall, the numbers of users is rising. We have 16 PCs at Forest Hill library for members to use and they are running from the moment we open to the moment we close, seven days a week. People, and very often we are talking about the most disadvantaged in our society, need the library to access the internet, to print and photocopy, many of them never borrow a book, but they are among the most avid users of a modern library.
2. How have the locals responded?
The local response was simply phenomenal. We wanted to retain the library and keep it as just that, and partly because of that, and the enthusiasm of the principle parties involved, we had tremendous support before day one. People lined up to volunteer, they donated money to our crowd-funder and lent their time and expertise to help us make it work.
3. What advice would you give other communities facing the same challenges or possible closure?
This is a very difficult question to answer, obviously my main advice would be to try and stop it from happening. Forest Hill isn't the only library I've become involved with, and I've now met many other people running community libraries in other London boroughs and around the country. Each model is different, depending on the way the local authority wants to engage, the needs of the local community and the desire of the local people to support you. We are lucky that Lewisham really work with the community libraries, their support has been invaluable.
So next time you walk past your library, make sure you go inside! There are more than books to enjoy. And if you live in S.E. London then consider yourself lucky. With so many great libraries to explore, there really is no excuse.
If you don’t know where to begin, here are a couple to start from;
Canada Water Library – not just a beautiful building (designed by architect Piers Gough) and easy to get to (next door to Canada Water Tube), the library also houses the Canada Water Culture Space, a theatre managed and programmed by the Albany, South East London’s leading performing arts venue as well as a friendly family café.
Peckham Library – another stunning building (designed by Alsop and Störmer) and winner of the Stirling prize of Architecture in 2000, Peckham library offers the usual range of services such as baby and toddler sessions, Bookstart, sing-song sessions, story stop, Chatterbook, homework help drop-in and more.