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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea