A library building, first handed to the local community by Mark Twain more than one hundred years ago, will be put on the market after the council stripped the shelves of books in a dawn raid today.
All Souls, the Oxford University college which owns the building, confirmed the move to either sell it or rent it out, presenting campaigners with yet another obstacle in their fight to save the Kensal Rise library.
“We really wish this had not happened and we regret that it has,” a spokesman for the College told The Independent.
The College, which donated it for use as a library in 1900, said it would welcome the group as a tenant or buyer but the institution confirmed it will listen to other offers. A source said the building would be used for public service, such as a doctor’s surgery; a nursery; or, indeed, another library.
But Margaret Bailey, one of the leaders of the campaign, said that buying the building was unrealistic. “We do not have £1m, which is the approximate value. We will not be in a position to make an offer. Our only hope is to negotiate a deal with All Souls College to rent the building at a preferential rate,” she said.
High-profile backers of the Save Kensal Rise Library campaign – one of the most prominent in the nationwide fight against library closures – criticised the council, which went in at around 3am, after local police advised them not to try to remove the books during daylight hours to “avoid a confrontation and disorder”.
The move comes less than two weeks after protesters saw their original attempt off and believed they would benefit from a “more conciliatory approach” from the incoming leader of the council Labour’s Muhammed Butt, who faced angry residents yesterday.
That, however, did not materialise. Mr Butt told campaigners this afternoon that the council had written to All Souls recommending the college work with them. It is understood, though, that All Souls had also written to the council recommending the same.
The removal was denounced as “wanton destruction” by the biographer Sir Michael Holroyd. And author Maggie Gee called the move “cowardice”.
She said: “The philistinism of unscrewing the brass plaque remembering Mark Twain from its wall in the middle of the night, would horrify anyone who still recalls Labour’s founding mission to share education, knowledge and hope with the people. We will continue to fight for our library.”
Fellow writer Michael Frayn said: “The library is now an unlibrary, in the way that people became unpersons in the darkest days of the Soviet Union. I hope they took the titles of the books off as well. Removing unbooks from an unlibrary – who could possibly object?
Campaigners believed they had a viable plan to run the library on a volunteer basis but were rebuffed by the council, which was worried it would be liable for any costs the campaigners could not meet.
Cllr Butt said he would like to help the campaigners in their bid to keep the library open. Asked why the council could not have simply handed over the use of the building before effective ownership reverted to All Souls, he said: “I understand where the campaigners are coming from but they were saying they wanted Brent Council to remain as the freeholder and give them it on a peppercorn rent rate.
“We would be responsible if anything happened and the campaigners could not carry on. We are trying to make £104m in savings and we could not keep it on.” He added he was happy to sit down with All Souls College and the Save Kensal Rise Library campaign to help them work out a solution.
A Brent Council spokesman said: “On the advice of the police, the council removed its property from the building in the early hours of the morning.
“We will now hand the keys back to All Souls College. The books and other materials will be sorted and distributed amongst the council’s six libraries for the use of all Brent residents. The council has committed to contacting All Souls College on behalf of the Friends of Kensal Rise Library to enable discussion between the two parties.
“The murals and plaque were removed from the building with the other items this morning. They will be placed in safe storage which means they could be returned to the building should All Souls College agree to local people running it as a library.”