A library closed by Lewisham Council has re-opened as a charity run community centre this week, mostly funded by £500,000 of donations from City bankers.
Blackheath Village library was one of five libraries to controversially have its funding removed in 2011 as part of the council’s £88m Government imposed budget cuts. As the building was leased, rather than owned by the council, it was the only library forced to vacate its premises.
Now it has re-opened as a library and community centre in a new building under the auspices of the Age Exchange charity, which has raised £870,000 in funding. Fourteen City bankers donated £500,000, a further £200,000 has come from the council and £30,000 from Blackheath Assembly.
Sir Ian Mills, chairperson of Age Exchange, said of the opening: “It’s great to see that all the hard work by so many people has created this fantastic new centre for the people of Lewisham and Greenwich. Our aim is to make this a valued resource for the whole community.”
Age Exchange’s two-tier space at 11 Blackheath Village now houses 10,000 books alongside a café serving homemade cakes and speciality teas, a lounge, a computer suite, a performance space and a patio.
Speaking to Eastlondonlines, Mills said he had called on 14 City directors to help secure £870,000 of funding when Lewisham said their ability to help was limited.
“I put together a list of people I knew who I felt had benefited from the bonus bonanza: the so-called ‘filthy rich’. I said ‘if I can raise the money, we will have a very exciting and forward-thinking project. I’m prepared to put in £50,000 if you match me.'”
After Mills’ efforts raised £500,000, Lewisham Council increased their input to £200,000 while Blackheath Assembly, established by the council to give residents a say in local affairs, contributed £30,000.
Mills said: “A crisis doesn’t half make you think creatively. Good things are happening where groups of people have the imagination, and experience, and wherewithal to get involved in this creative process. In other places, they’re sadly only seeing the negative effects [of the cuts]. It tends to play into the agenda of inequality that we’re seeing across the country.”
Gillian Gadsby, who headed the Save Blackheath Library campaign rebuffed suggestions that the project resulted from the Government’s drive for community run projects, dubbed the ‘Big Society’.
“I don’t go along with the Big Society at all. This has just happened coincidentally because it had to. A lot of the people at Age Exchange are volunteers and a lot of people have been volunteering for years anyway. People have always done it. The problem is, there’s a limit to how much volunteers can do.
“I doubt there are any more examples [of volunteers] than there ever have been. Cameron is suggesting that all these organisations – the Scouts, youth clubs, Womens Institutes – are somehow a result of the Big Society, but they’ve always been run by volunteers and he seems to have forgotten that.”
While welcoming the survival of the library, Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News, said that Blackheath was not representative of the national picture.
He said: “This demonstrates the danger of a postcode lottery to library services. If a particular library has access to generous benefactors they are far more likely to receive provisions whereas other areas, through no fault of their own, don’t have access to such benefits.
“There is no uniform provision of libraries nationwide and it often comes down to potluck which libraries survive. We need a comprehensive framework for libraries, so that the existence of these essential community institutions are not left up to chance.”
Since the beginning of this year, 19 library buildings and nine mobile libraries have closed, and 35 have become volunteer-run organisations. In 2011, a total of 130 were closed or removed from council control, while a further 300 are currently under threat.