Keep on borrowing: Libraries refuse to die

In north London, book-lovers have put David Cameron's Big Society into practice. And nationwide the issue has struck a chord

Standing under a marquee, Joanna Fryer clutches a clipboard and explains how to borrow books in a library-less world. "Just choose the ones you want, give me your name and telephone number and bring them back next week. We trust you."

Trestle tables are strewn with everything from well-thumbed copies of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winner, to a pristine biography of Sigmund Freud. Children sit on the grass listening to storytellers. William Orbit plays from a portable sound system. An upright coffin with the words "RIP Barnet Libraries" on the side leans against the tent. Here, on a patch of green in an entirely unassuming part of north London, the "People's Library" is in full swing.

Just fifty feet away there is a proper library building: one built in 1934 with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, a US charity. But it was shut last week. The end was brutal and swift, it came less than 24 hours after a decision by the local authority. The library's supporters claim the shutdown was timed to torpedo any chance of protesters seeking leave for a judicial review. A sit-in by local people lasted five hours before the doors closed for ever. Those with books on loan were told to post them through the letterbox.

The people of Friern Barnet are determined to fight back. In scenes reminiscent of the Occupy movement, they have set up their own library. And they plan to return each week, with more books, and more support, until their anger is heard.

Alfred Rurangirwa, 57, came to Britain with his four children five years ago. He claims to have rediscovered the entire collection of classics that burned with his house during the Rwandan genocide. "When I found them again in Friern Barnet library, that was such a special day for me. To be able to educate my children in the books I grew up with is so important," he says. "I can't believe this [closure] is happening."

Scenes like this are being played out around the country as disparate people unite to try to protect threatened libraries. It is happening, they argue, because of cost-cutting, but also because of a Localism Act that has thrown the future of libraries into the hands of councils.

Many believe it is vigour of these ad hoc campaigns that has stopped more libraries closing. This time last year, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) predicted that 600 could go nationwide – yet, so far, according to one estimate, no more than 35 have shut.

Areas such as Somerset and Gloucestershire saw library closures quashed by a legal challenge, but in Brent, the Brent SOS Libraries campaign group failed to prevent six libraries from being boarded up.

The coalition government has tried to distance itself from library closures, insisting it is a local government issue. But as branches shut, campaigners are determined to bring the battle to Westminster.

A spokesman for Brent SOS said yesterday: "Brent Council is just one of many across the country not fulfilling its statutory duty under section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. There has been a dramatic fall in library visits and issues since the closure of half of the borough's libraries. The refusal to engage with community groups, even when those groups offer to run library services at no cost to the council, should also be a cause for concern."

Campaigners argue that the damage is not just about closures. Cilip figures suggest some 2,000 staff posts have been removed and 3,000 opening hours a week cut since last year.

The irony is that, looking at the local people bringing their own books and borrowing others, the generous spirit of co-operation and a community eager to pull together in protest, it's hard not to see David Cameron's much-vaunted Big Society in action. Mr Cameron said of it: "The whole approach of building a bigger, stronger, more active society involves something of a revolt against the top-down, statist approach." Even as campaigners fight to prove him wrong on cuts, the Friern Barnet People's Library could be an unintentional sign that he is on to something.

Closed doors

Bolton Five out of 15 libraries closed. More than 70 people staged protest in February.

Gloucestershire Cuts of £1.8m by Conservative council went ahead.

Somerset Plan to withdraw funding for 11 libraries was reversed after it was judged unlawful by the High Court in November.

Croydon Five companies tendering to run library services.

Oxfordshire Council decided in December that 43 libraries would remain open: 22 fully staffed and 21 run by volunteers. But a High Court judge said in April that volunteers could not be used because they did not have equality training.

Isle of Wight Decided to hand the running of five libraries to community groups last September, saving £500,000 per year.

Brent Authors Philip Pullman and Zadie Smith have stepped in to fight closures. Campaigners lost appeal to save six branches and have lobbied secretary of state to investigate.

Essex Opening hours cut last year plus five managerial positions. In January, it promised to keep all libraries open this year. But another reduction in opening hours seems likely.

Additional reporting by Emily Wight and Jack Dean.