~ Posted by Anthony Gardner, June 19th 2012
"We haven’t seen you for a while…" was the cheery opening of the email from Brent Council. Its purpose: to encourage me to use my local library in north-west London. Among the incentives were a free DVD loan, a loyalty-card scheme, "well-equipped study zones" and "Story and Rhyme Time sessions".
My reply, I’m sorry to say, was deeply sarcastic. Could my non-attendance have something to do with the fact that the council had closed our library 18 months ago, and recently sent two lorries under police escort to remove the entire contents? I concluded with a quote from Byron: "If I laugh…’tis that I may not weep." Not that I expect Brent’s chief librarian to have read Byron.
The battle for Kensal Rise Library—opened by Mark Twain in 1900, and closed as an easy way of saving money—is one of a number of fights to save local libraries in this area, which has prompted eloquent defences from Alan Bennett, Zadie Smith, Philip Pullman and others. The fight has been both depressing and uplifting. Depressing in the light it has thrown on local politicians: their double-dealing, their determination to argue that black is white, and their blindness to the wishes of the people they represent. Uplifting in the qualities it has brought out in our neighbours: their generosity with time, money and all manner of expertise, and their refusal to accept defeat. Our legal challenge has been rejected, the building is locked and the books are gone, but still the fight continues.
I’ve never been a great one for mass protest, or indeed mass anything; but to my surprise I’ve enjoyed singing carols on a freezing night beside the home-made temporary library which has become our rallying point, and sharing a plate of fund-raising cup cakes with strangers. It may not be Tahrir Square, but it has given Kensal Rise a greater sense of community than I could have imagined. The pity is that all this energy and goodwill might have been harnessed far more constructively to the running of the library, had the council been willing to agree to the proposal that locals take responsibility for it.
That could yet happen, if we get the blessing of All Souls College, Oxford, who gave the land that the library stands on and who can now reclaim it. But for five of the other eleven libraries in Brent closure seems almost inevitable. Let’s hope that their users will be consoled by the offer of a rent-free DVD—if they don’t mind travelling a few miles to collect it.
Anthony Gardner previews talks for Intelligent Life and edits the Royal Society of Literature's magazine RSL.