~ Posted by Anthony Gardner, November 2nd 2012

All Souls College, Oxford has possibly the most fiendish entrance exam in the world: according to student legend, candidates were once asked, "What is the answer to this question?" In the past few weeks, however, an even trickier conundrum has been formulated: how could an institution famed around the world for its commitment to learning justify selling a public library to a property developer?

As I explained in an earlier blog, Kensal Rise Library in north-west London was built in 1900 on land given by All Souls "as a site for a Free Public Library and Reading Room and for no other purpose whatsoever". When it was closed by Brent Council, the property reverted to the college. Given the wealth of All Souls, and the importance of the building to a diverse community with little in the way of public facilities, I hoped they'd do the decent thing and donate it to the Friends of Kensal Rise Library.

Tom Seaman, the bursar of All Souls, asked the Friends for a business plan, backed by donations to run the library for a year. The plan was to refurbish and reopen the library immediately, raise money by renting out space to local people, and train volunteer librarians. Then at a meeting in London last week, after congratulating the Friends on their tenacity, the bursar informed them that All Souls was going to sell the building to a property developer.

"Our reaction was stunned silence," Margaret Bailey, one of the campaigners, told me. "They didn’t address our proposal at all. We were hoping to expand the library; they were offering us one with no room for computers or a study." The new plan was to keep two-fifths of the ground floor as a library and turn the rest of the two-storey building into flats. The library would receive £25,000. Its rent would be free for five years and subsidised thereafter. "Meanwhile," Margaret added, "All Souls will probably make £1m and the developer another £1m."

I rang All Souls for its version of events. My reception was positively aggrieved. The Fellows, a spokesman protested, had never wanted the library and had urged Brent Council not to part with it. The situation, he added, was complicated because another Brent library—Cricklewood—had also reverted to All Souls. In the college’s view, the campaigners' plans couldn't possibly pay for the refurbishment of both libraries, or guarantee their future. Nor should the buildings themselves be regarded as sacrosanct: what really mattered was the services that they provided. Far from trying to make a quick buck, the college hoped to find the best sustainable solution for the locals, spare them the cost of renovations, and give them enough cash to equip their library—one whose size, the college believed, corresponded almost exactly to the campaigners’ proposal.

Margaret Bailey remains unimpressed. She is now talking to another developer, whose scheme would give the library twice as much space. But while I’m sad to think that the library Mark Twain opened won't continue in its original form, at least it seems likely to survive—and for those who battled against the short-sighted bureaucrats of Brent, that in itself represents a victory.

Anthony Gardner previews talks for Intelligent Life and edits the Royal Society of Literature’s magazine RSL. His first novel is "The Rivers of Heaven"