Friday, 21 September 2012

Friern Barnet Library Rising

Some time ago I wrote an article, 'Book People', for the Greenacre Times which looked at a very brief history of libraries. The story ended with more than 5,000 Barnet residents who had signed petitions against local library closures. In fact, 73% of residents that responded to the Library Strategy, did not want Friern Barnet or North Finchley to close and they certainly didn't and don't want £1.5million spent on a 'Landmark' library (whatever that is). Since then Friern Barnet Library has closed…or has it.

This is the story of a library that will not close. There has been a small nucleus of protesters with hundreds of supporters who have continued to try to save Friern Barnet Library from closure. Since it was closed prematurely by Barnet Council last April, the Save Friern Barnet Library Group (SFBLG) have been campaigning to get it re-opened.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ― Margaret Mead

When I wrote the article back in July 2011, I would never have envisioned the recent events. A couple of weeks ago I was in Swan Lane Open Space with partner, Mike Gee, and grandson Alfie. The sun was shining and Mike made Alfie a hat out of a hankie, to keep the sun off his head.

I received a phone call from Tirza Waisel, a local activist, and BAPS Coordinator. She wanted to know if I knew anything about the people in the library.

'What People?'

She didn't know. I suggested she phoned somebody from the SFBLG who would probably know. I then continued with our afternoon and promptly forgot all about it. When I did remember, I phoned Tirza back, and asked her if she had found anything out.

'Yes,' she said. There are squatters in the building.'

'Squatters!!' I imagined scruffy looking individuals with attitude, but inside, I was excited. What did this mean? What were they doing there? Whose side were they on?

I didn't have long to wait because the following evening there was a SFBLG meeting. Even though I work late on a Thursday and usually I'm too tired to do anything except go home and put my feet up, I decided to make the effort and attend the meeting. Except I didn't go straight into the meeting, I went to find Mike, who I had been told was in the library.

It was a very strange feeling walking in the back door of the library towards the issue desk, that was usually reserved for library staff. The thing that struck me first were the empty shelves, they looked so sad. The dark brown wood set against the blue carpet tiles. It was strangely hollow and spooky. But something was happening. Mike was chatting to some well-spoken, pleasant, young/ish men. One in particular with blond dreadlocks, was smiling and telling me they were here to re-open the library. I looked at the empty shelves and laughed. But, the earth was shifting on its axis and the impact was beginning to be felt all over Barnet.

We went to the meeting, and so did Phoenix. As his name suggested he brought with him a warmth and energy. The Phoenix is said to be reborn from its own ashes and that it is immortal. In very few stories they are able to change into people. Our Phoenix told us he had a history of turning disused buildings into community centres. He was here to help us reclaim the library for the community.

Now here in Barnet, there are a few local activists although on the whole we're a law-abiding passive bunch. Except Mike, who immediately grasped what this could mean. And was most indignant that SFBLG didn't embrace Phoenix and his friends immediately.

'We have to support them,' he said.

I was keeping quiet, most unlike me, but I didn't know what I felt at that moment. It felt surreal. Squatters in the library? Somebody was having a lark.

That Saturday, SFBLG, held their pop-up library on the green, while the occupiers, as they had become, 'library occupiers', opened the back gate and a few interested locals timidly went inside.

By now I had realised this was an opportunity too good to miss. I announced I was holding a Greenacre Writers Creative Writing Workshop inside the library, and Mike set up his slide show, Secret Green Spaces of Finchley.

That first Saturday, there were more people outside than in. More occupiers arrived. One of them, Daniel told me this was how it was. 'People will come', he said. 'It is always like this to begin with.'

He annoyed me, just a little, with his laid back positive attitude. Barnet is not a positive place to live. It feels as if we have been living in a war zone for many years. We don't use bullets, words are our ammunition.

I asked him what he did, 'Oh, start revolution. We started in Hungary, and now they are okay. So we come here.'

A revolution!

I was to be part of a revolution? In some ways it feels that I have been waiting for this to happen all of my life. Ever since I was at secondary school. It was the 70s and there was a lot of social unrest. One day, we all walked out of our classrooms and went on strike. It was a time when we only had electricity three days a week and had to live by candlelight at night. They were exciting times.

Articles about the library, began to appear in local papers, and rumours that SFBLG had asked the squatters to occupy the building. If you've ever met the Chair, Maureen Ivens, you'll know this could not be further from the truth. Maureen is the sort of person that gets legal advice before doing anything. There were other rumours: they must have broken in, they didn't, having found an open window, they climbed in and once inside, found keys in the back door! Plus the heating on full blast. Let's hope they don't get schlapped with that bill. And then the nationals got involved, first the Guardian, then BBC and finally earlier this week, ITV. Barnet had hit the big time. We were all famous. Even I had my few seconds of fame, when I appeared in the Big Issue. My head was spinning.
Meanwhile the luke-warm reception from the community, was, as Daniel had predicted, heating up. Slowly at first, but as the local groups and people began to stream through the now-open front doors, the shelves were beginning to fill up. Even more surprising was Barnet Council themselves, who almost immeditely entered into negotiations with the occupiers. Absolutely amazing! Two days after they arrived, the occupiers were offered, Friary House, as a venue for a community library. The negotiations continued and suddenly, we were having a Monday morning meeting with council officials. All of us, sitting in a circle, some on chairs, some on baby chairs and some on the floor. And Phoenix, rose to the occasion (scuse the pun), having managed what nobody in this borough has managed to do. (Although individuals, such as Mike, Keith Martin or Ollie Natelson, have had negotiations with various leaders). Civil negotiations with council officials. Councillor Richard Cornelius, Leader of the Council, at the moment, told newspapers:

“We have been trying to encourage community libraries in the borough for some time. If this group would genuinely like to open one in Friary House half a mile away we would happily give them the book stock." [Times Series: 5/9/12]

I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt torn in two by this statement. For a number of reasons. I work in a library as a Senior Library Assistant. I do not believe in volunteers running a public library. In fact, when I think of the highly paid executives in this borough expecting library staff to become volunteers and work for nothing. I see red, purple and blue all at the same time and the expletives that escape from my mouth would make a hardened criminal blush. There can now be no doubt that this government wants to end public services, the national health, and everything in between. Not just that, it wants to re-create a new order, one of slavery but without feeding or housing its slaves, a sort of feudal system but without the rewards of land or food. Oh, hang on, I tell a poky-pie. These volunteers will get an award, a certificate or badge of honour. Sixty people in Enfield, volunteers in the library service, have just received these nonsensical decorations. And I imagine our borough officials will soon be doing the same thing.

We've just heard that Barnet council will be reducing library staff: an incredible, unbelievable, insane, 24.5 posts will be reduced to 6. (At the end of October these staff are to receive letters of their jobs being 'at risk') None of these posts are held by the managers (which also means those with the largest salaries) their jobs are NOT at risk. This is the front line professional librarians, who are losing their jobs. The intention is to create a library service with a small number of qualified staff plus a large brigade of volunteers.

I don't believe that the government needs to make such drastic cuts, I think it is an excuse to end public buildings, local services and National health. It was about a week ago, as the shelves in the library were filling up with books and the occupiers were like our liberators, our heroes, that I wondered if it might all turn sour. A sort of Playboy of the Western World scenario but with lots of playboys being driven out by the community. I don't think that will happen now. The community will support them to the bitter end.

We musn't be too downhearted. What has happened here in Barnet could happen elsewhere too. The local community of Friern Barnet are over the moon to have their library reclaimed and reopened. I have heard many stories over the last couple of weeks, some too personal to repeat here. The library is a meeting place, a community hub, somewhere to escape the perhaps not so manageable situations elsewhere, a place for children, a place for the less able-bodied who can easily get in, a place to keep warm, or just a place to read the newspaper. The community is gathering, there are some amazing things happening, people are donating books, food, furniture, computers, printers. There are some wonderful people out there who just want to keep their library where it has been since 1934. It's like people used to be in the war - a joining together to fight a common enemy. All over the UK people have been devastated by the loss of their public services and their libraries. We are now representing the heart of the nation that has been transplanted back into the community. As with all transplants it will be touch and go for a while and the patient-library needs our love, care and support. The nation wants our library to survive.

Vive la Library!

+++++++Friern Barnet Community Library+++++++

There will be a Monday organisational meeting 6pm in the library to discuss the various options. Monday’s 10am meeting with council officials has been rescheduled with a change of venue to: Tuesday 25th September 3.30pm. North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1NP

Daily   11am – 1.00pm Coffee and chat mornings
Tues 5.30pm – 6.30pm New Author Readings
          6.30pm - 7.30pm Pilates
Wed 11.00am - 1.00pm Make Friends With A Book         
Thur11.30am -12.15pm Teddy Bears’ Picnic – stories and activities
           7.00pm - 9.00pm Music night – open mic
Fri      4.00pm - 5.00pm French – beginners and advanced
Sat      10.00am-12noon Chemistry Lesson – GCSE/A Level
           1.00pm - 2.00pm Mel Strickland on the Community Bill of Rights
          2.30pm – 4.00pm Public Assembly “Strategy and the Future”  
           4.30pm – 5.30pm Ruth London on Fuel Poverty

Get involved!
We need your help to save the library: Bring more books: We need more books, especially for older children. We are also collecting toys, DVDs and CDs. Sign up to the rota: the library will only be able to stay open if we have enough people to staff it. We need people to volunteer for two hour slots to check books in and out, accept donations, etc. If you can spare the time, please stop in at the library and sign up to the rota. Make yourself heard: phone, email, text, tweet and visit Barnet Council and the media explaining why the library is important. Spread the word: tell friends and neighbours about us. Come and meet us: we have organising meetings each Monday at 6.00pm - 7.00pm

Sign the petition: