Overnight, a bag full of books has been left outside Lewisham’s Crofton Park community library. Perched on top is a note, written on the back of an envelope: “I’m sorry I stole your books but I needed to read and was feeling down”.
Stealing books from a library may seem funny, but this note is touching too. It’s a reminder that reading and safe spaces are needed now more than ever.
On December 9, Lewisham Council made the decision to cut £1m from library services over the next two years; a major reduction to its current £4m budget.
Despite campaigning by many in the community, this means that three of Lewisham’s libraries will no longer be the responsibility of the council. Instead, Manor House, Forest Hill and Torridon Road libraries will be run by community organisations from August.
The move was given the go-ahead by Lewisham Mayor and Cabinet, despite an acknowledgment that the overwhelming majority of those consulted opposed the change.
But why are local residents so against the idea of community-run libraries?
Critics point to the five Lewisham libraries that were taken over by community organisations in 2011. They say that the Blackheath, Crofton Park, Grove Park, New Cross and Sydenham community libraries lack professional advice, have low-quality book stocks and show dwindling borrowing figures.
It is true that the number of books lent in these community libraries has dropped. While this is in line with national trends, the decline has been much sharper in community libraries than in those run by the council.
Grove Park Library’s annual borrowing has fallen by nearly 90 per cent since 2010, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy,
In comparison, council-run Torridon Road Library faced a decline in borrowing of about 32 per cent over the same period.
However, it should be remembered that these libraries were set to be closed down completely before they were taken over by community organisations.
The change to community-run libraries has also brought a fundamental change in the libraries’ roles in their local area. They are increasingly noisy, multi-purpose community buildings where books play second fiddle to computers, cafés and babies.
Just after 9am on a Saturday morning in January, Crofton Park community library’s first volunteer arrives. Linda Giles, a retiree in her 70s, left her house at 6.30am having come from Eastbourne, more than 70 miles away.
“I got on three trains, a coach and a bus from Brockley station. It wasn’t too bad. I don’t like letting people down,” she says.
With professional librarians accounting for around 80 per cent of a library’s costs, it is volunteers like Linda who are keeping libraries open during austerity. Linda is just one of 120 volunteers who donate 3,600 hours a month to Crofton Park.
By 10.30am the people start pouring in. The nine public computers are constantly busy, often with jobseekers. One of them is Ceron O’Conner. In a relaxed Caribbean accent he explains he comes here “most every day” to look for work.
Nearby there is a play area, which Liz Kent enjoys with her young son Henry. They come fortnightly so that Henry can read and run around. “I did the same with his older sister,” Liz says, “but lots of the groups I went to with her have shut down. It’s a real shame.”
Around midday, the library is full of activity. A woman drops off a bag of books for donation. Crofton Park makes £1,000 a month selling – rather than lending – donated books at a rate of 4,000 titles a month.
Along with the children’s play area, community libraries often feature a café. Staffing Crofton Park’s is Yusuf Mustafa. Originally from Cyprus, Yusuf has lived in the UK since the 1960s but has kept his Turkish accent. He’s been volunteering here for two years, to help deal with his depression.
“Without the library”, he says, “I would’ve been depressed at home probably”.
Throughout the day at least two men with severe learning disabilities come into the library. Darren Taylor, who runs the library through his not-for-profit enterprise, welcomes them in his usual polite and friendly manner.
Both men “need a place like this” Taylor says, having lost their support work due to funding cuts.
“Mental health services are having cuts, learning difficulties are having cuts, pensioners’ projects are having cuts”, said Taylor “if you look, day care centres are closing down. Where are all these people going? They’re coming to this library.”
One concern is that this community library model isn’t one size fits all. Manor House, for example, is a much bigger library housed in a Grade II* listed building, so the costs of maintaining it are much greater. The worry is that organisations won’t want to take on the expense – and if that happens there is currently no plan B.
As tendering for the three libraries is ongoing, their future remains uncertain. However, Kathy Dunbar, co-chair of the community library in New Cross, prefers to look on the bright side. “When you look at Lewisham, we haven’t lost a library yet. That should be a positive thing!”
By Douglas Pyper and Annie Gouk