Tuesday 10 February 2015

Building the library of the future in the London Borough of Barnet?

So Barnet Council are in the process of reviewing their library service. This is the second time in five years that they've done this. The Councillor who is "in charge" of the process is Reuben Thompstone. Oddly "Rubes" as he is lovingly known, seems to have learned nothing from the 2010 debacle. One supposes that this is partly because the last bloke to try it, Robert Rams, got thrown out by the electorate at the last election.

When they tried it ast time, I lead the campaign to save the libraries. This was sparked by crass comments by Robert Rams, such as that people could order books online from Amazon if they wanted one. I immediately realised that Rams knew nothing about what a library was or the type of people who used them. Realising that if I was to do the job properly, I needed to make sure that I wasn't like Rams, totally ignorant of the subject. So the first thing I did was a tour of every library in the Borough. I went at times when I thought they'd be busy and I had a routine. I'd go in and read the paper. Whilst I did this I'd observe the customers and the staff. What immediately struck me was the fact that the libraries all reflected their communities. The customers reflected what was going on. Hendon library, being near Middx Uni had far more students using the space for study. Burnt Oak had a very ethnically diverse custom. Mill Hill had young mums and old ladies. Each library had its own feel and just from watching, I realised that there was far more to what libraries do than simply lending books.

The next thing I did was some research as to what other authorities were doing. I also realised that every council has a different view of what a library service should be. Some value, develop and cherish it, some want shot of it and some, such as Barnet Council are simply clueless. 

By doing my homework, when I addressed councillors and the council, I was able to talk with authority and raise points they hadn't thought of. I realised that the authorities that loved and cherished libraries had empowered communities to build friends groups who raised funds and helped the team of qualified librarians out. They realised that librarians are qualified professional people and that they should be treated as such. Any volunteer services are simply there to extend and improve the services and to help raise funds. My research showed me that good friends groups can raise up to £30,000 a year, which can be ploughed back into the service.

I also realised that there are hundreds of authors in our city, all of whom have books to promote. They are all keen to share their work, so good libraries arrange book readings. Many people enjoy book clubs and what better place to run these than the library? One group I spoke to organised book readings. People would bake cakes to sell and bring wine for the evening, pay aing a few pounds on subs to be a member. Some libraries organise reading based activities for tots, whilst the mums have a chinwag and a coffeee. Others have coffee mornings for pensioners, where councillors would attend and give seminars on local history and environment. This would also allow the councillors to get to know people and their issues. Then there are students. Good library services have special opening hours and study times, in association with local schools. These are promoted as an opportunity for local youths, who have no private study place at home, to do homework in a quiet and studious environment.

Then there is the question of library design. As the needs of library users have changed, so has the design. People like a touch of privacy, so reading areas can be more secluded, not closed off but designed so that you can read in peace. Many modern libraries separate shelves from reading space, so the space can be reused in the evening for events. Good libraries also have good IT services, many run courses for older people to help them become IT literate.Many run other courses, especially English language courses for the many immigrants we have in our community and also foreign language courses for the locals. Some have services to help peoplewrite CV's and some have film nights and even live music.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I saw was libraries that team up with commercial sponsors, who recognise the value in engaging with the community. This helps the company to be recognised as part of the community and the library to pay its bills.

There is also the issue of running costs. Some libraries have gone green. They use solar panels to provide power (libraries are largely open in daylight). Some use other green technologies. All of these make the proposition more sustainable.

Every single one of the the things I've mentioned above, I suggested to councillors in 2010. Sadly they were not interested. Every single one would help us to build a better and more harmonious community. It has been estimated that every hour an adult spends in education or training results in approx 100 times the cost benefit to the economy. If Barnet and the UK wants to be a successful modern nation, we need education and skills at our heart. This can only happen if we recognise the value of our library service.

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