What happens in 540 sq ft?
I went to a few library drop-in consultations. No one attending while I was there liked any of the options. No surprise: all three of the council’s options threaten the destruction of the library service as we know it. And there’s the point: as we know it. The options have been drawn up by council officers concerned only with figures – an amount to be saved, staff costs and square footage, primarily. They’ve simply played with numbers. It doesn’t seem likely that they have visited all – or many or even any – of the libraries or they would realize that the libraries are different shapes and can’t simply all be reduced to 540 sq ft and leave a space large enough for a library to fulfil its functions and a usable space for a commercial enterprise – even if they could find any business wanting to rent it rather than any of the other empty business properties available.
The report of the consultations will tell councillors and officers what they should have considered before drawing up their three flawed options: our libraries are about books, of course, but also much more. For some people libraries provide the only access to a computer, the only place to study, research or read; for many young children, the only place to hold picture books and to attend rhyme time or storytelling, to be with other children, and for their mums to be with other mums; for some older people, the only place to interact with other people, to read a newspaper, to be warm; for everyone, a place to access information about what’s going on in the borough and perhaps to attend special events. We know that libraries serve the community in many ways.
What happens if the size of each library is cut to 540 sq ft? There need to be some bookshelves, a desk for the librarian, the self check-out machines, computers, and tables and chairs. Will there be any space for a children’s area, for quiet study, for the number of people who might want to sit and read, and for people in wheelchairs or parents with pushchairs to enter and move around? There might be adequate space for one of those, but it will be at the expense of the others.
What about the stock: the books, CDs and DVDs? Look at the range of subjects and the variety of each subject on offer in the libraries currently. It can’t all be squeezed into 540 sq ft, so what will be left? Neither the range nor the variety. You can order a book from another library, of course, if you know what book you want, because browsing is no longer an option, and you might get some time later if another library has that book and no one else has taken it out. No guarantees that the dram-sized library can serve students of any age who might need a to find information on a range of subjects or a variety of materials on a single topic. No guarantees that the dram-sized library can provide a service for general readers, either. The only guarantee is that the libraries will not be fit for purpose. And then the council will weep crocodile tears and close them.
If that is not what you want to happen, please write to your councillors now, and repeatedly if you don’t get an answer you like. You could tell them that you are appalled at their proposed destruction of Barnet’s quality library service, and that it is their responsibility to come up with better options, ones that protect the full council-run service with qualified librarians in every branch.
[First published in Hendon & Finchley Times ]