French national press on Brent Libraries – “as dear to Brits’ hearts as Fish & Chips”

The campaign to save Brent’s libraries continues to hit the international press, with an article covering the campaign in the national French newspaper Le Monde.

Describing Brent’s Preston Library as “a small-scale Westminster Abbey”, the article goes on to note the celebrity who chaired Kensal Rise Library’s opening ceremony in 1900 – the American author Mark Twain.

“Libraries are as dear to the Brits’ hearts as the indestructible Fish & Chips,” the article declares. The reaction to the proposed closures has been “unprecedented”.

Read a translation below, or the original French version here.

 

SOS for English Libraries

By Catherine Simon,
Correspondent on special assignment to London

Preston Library in the London borough of Brent is esteemed a bit like a small-scale Westminster Abbey locally :  a piece of heritage.   “My three children go there,” the proprietor of Pressing on Carlton Avenue East says proudly, showing me a poster in her window  “Keep Preston Library Open”.  She comes out onto the pavement to show me how to get there.

Six of the 12 libraries in Brent (a borough of 290 000 inhabitants) are facing closure, due to the recession and budget cuts.  Countrywide, by 2012, it is predicted that between 600 and 1,000 of these fine public institutions  —  as dear to the British as their fish & chips and representing approximately 10% of  the United Kingdom’s library network  — will have disappeared.  Among these is Preston Library.

Housed in a small brick building dating from the 1960’s, Preston library doesn’t readily shout for attention.    It was not inaugurated by a literary luminary, unlike its neighbour Kensal Rise Library, opened by the American author Mark Twain in 1900.  Yet Preston and Kensal Rise Libraries have at least two things in common :   a modest selection of books and a shared anguish —  at the prospect of  being struck off.

Kensal Rise Library gets 45,755 visits per year;  said to be “too low”.  So down flips the trapdoor beneath the hangman’s noose !  Too bad if it’s open only four days out of seven  —  That may explain why.  Preston Library actually gets more visits (95,851) ?  There, the  elderly and the most disadvantaged can enjoy free access books, newspapers and the Internet  —  but, in spite of that, their library is ‘for the chop’, too, because the “cost per visit is too high”.   Ditto for the other four libraries in the Borough which have been declared “insufficiently visited” or “poorly located”.

Those elected into power in Brent (Labour) have voted as one man in favour of these drastic library cuts.  It is, they have explained to their flock, a matter of  “strategic choice” :  either we concentrate on a smaller number of libraries and improve them to the maximum, or we continue to maintain expensive sites that are less and less used.  The cherry on the cake for residents, they explain, will be the new giant library, christened the ‘New Civic Centre Library’ to be built alongside Wembley Stadium.  Their flock, ungrateful creatures, has not applauded these pronouncements.  Six thousand of them have even signed a petition to protest against the closures.  “If Preston Library disappears, I will be devastated.  It is the only ‘cool’ and free place to go in the neighbourhood,” storms Melvin Hacker, a forty-something devotee of scientific books.  It’s not about it taking half an-hour on the tube to go somewhere else, even though travel is expensive.  Sitting together in a corner of the library, his companions.  They aren’t close friends, nor do they share the same political opinions, but all are members of the campaigning network, Brent SOS Libraries, who have – and this is a first — decided to challenge their council in the courts.  The High Court of Justice is due to deliver its verdict in early October.

The occasion is unprecedented and has inspired and mobilised over a period of months, at a level not seen before, campaigners for public libraries from Suffolk to the Isle of Wight and from London to Doncaster :  anonymous library users and  celebrities from the world of Letters, including Joanna Trollope, Alan Gibbons, Zadie Smith and Alan Bennett, author of  ‘Reine des Lectrices’ (Denoël, 2009): The Uncommon Reader.

“This has never happened before in the United Kingdom,”  says Tim Coates, former director of  Waterstones, who has worked tirelessly to defend libraries for over fifteen years.  The report that he published in 2004, featured on the website www.goodlibraryguide.com , gives him authority, though it has not changed the mindset of the politicians.

“The problem is not the money, but what’s done with it,” says Coates.  “Today less than 7% of the money earmarked for libraries is spent on renewal and improvement of the book stock .  It’s a percentage that has become ridiculous, due to relentless trimming.  Anaemic, lacking books and qualified personnel, public libraries have become easy prey.”

“Thirty years ago Brent’s libraries were as good as those in Westminster,” remembers Philip Bromberg who joined the protest movement in January.  A gardener on his estate, the long-limbed fifty-something has devoured books since childhood.  In winter, when there’s less work to do, he can swallow without effort “some fifteen  books per month” : novels, art books, history …  and even gardening books, of course.

Preston Library is his nearest, but that’s not where he goes to stock up with books.  Westminster, which he describes as “very good” remains his favourite.  It, like The British Library will be spared the cuts because those in authority have been told not to touch them.   Because books are not to be lent except to those in rich districts ?  But, when he attended a public meeting in Brent Town Hall  and heard Mel Hacker, the fan of scientific books, plead the case for Preston Library, Philip Bromberg was deeply moved .  The two men met after the meeting and decided to throw themselves into the battle.

“There is no direct link between the budget cuts and this summer’s riots ….  but closing these community libraries is just going to make the lives of the less advantaged more difficult,” observes the gardener.  On the website  http://www.brentsoslibraries.org.uk, the protesters accuse Brent Council
of having “not sought alternatives to closures”, of ignoring “the needs of the community”, of “acting unfairly” and of having “misunderstood its statutory duty to provide a library service”.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 obliges all local authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service.  Will this statutory requirement be enough to prevent the closure of Brent’s libraries ?  And look, if the High Court rules in favour of the protesters, will that de-rail the national plan ?  Nothing is more uncertain.

Unveiled in October 2010 by David Cameron’s government, the plan for the reduction of public expenditure requiring swingeing budget cuts has hit the Ministry of Culture with a body blow, whilst also impacting with full force on local communities. These are looking at a reduction 7.1 % in their annual budgets, over four years.  Yet it is they, and they alone, that fund the libraries.   The real question is not economic, but political and even ethical, argues Mike Fortune, a consultant for the book industry:

“Are all citizens to continue to have a right of access to education, literature and the world of knowledge?”

Foutue question.   Labour Party was elected to lead some local councils. But it is the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition who hold the reins of government.  “Neither the Culture Department nor David Cameron wants to poke a finger into this hornets’ nest”, commented Tim Coates.

With regard to Labour, “They hope that we will return our anger against Downing Street”, adds the lawyer Laura Collignon, who lives near Kensal Rise.  The young woman, who took part in the protest movement, does not reject the idea of a take-over of the library by the people of the neighborhood.  She thinks this would see off the spectre of closure and even “keep Kensal Rise open seven days a week”.  Philip Bromberg asks himself the same question.

“Call on volunteers to save what little they can?  That’s not going in the direction of the Big Society proposed by David Cameron who advocates a “désengagement étatique hors du commun”, according to the anlaysis by Ophélie Ramonatxo, of the ‘Institut français du Royaume-Uni’, in the February edition of the Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France.

The gardener sighs.  Whatever the verdict of the High Court, believes Philip Bromberg, “we’ll have to fight on for many long months”.

On the allotments, harvesting the Jerusalem artichokes has not yet begun.  On the streets and across the country, campaigns gain in strength.  The gardener smiles, happy that winter is approaching.

Kindly translated by Shirley Burnham

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