Notes from Edith Morgan, Hon. Sec. FOHL to introduce item 3 at FOHL AGM 8 March 2001
Brief history of space
and books in Highgate Library.
These notes from the Friends of Highgate Library must be prefaced by a reminder that we fully support the introduction of computers and are delighted that Camden is making them available free of charge to people of all ages. The Learning Centre is an asset to Highgate Library and we are pleased to see it well used. We are strongly in favour of innovation.
What we are not happy about is the installation of the Learning Centre into Highgate Library at the expense of books and reading material. The government has said categorically that the development of books and new technology should be complementary not competitive and that developing ICT in public libraries should not replace their traditional place as accessible stores of written information and imagination. Camden Council does not have a brilliant record on libraries but it has endorsed the government's view on the continuing importance of books for education and recreation, and of libraries as a community resource.
Before reporting on what the Committee of the Friends have done since members of FOHL passed a resolution in March 2000 asking for the restoration to this library of space and books I would like briefly to mention a few facts.
Highgate library was purpose built in 1906, the first library in St. Pancras. It was funded by a grant of Ј4000 donated by Andrew Carnegie. Many of us know other Carnegie libraries and the way they have enriched the lives of millions of people. Highgate Library was from the start a busy, well-used library, and in many ways the hub of its local community. The actual building is listed Grade II and should be a source of pride to Camden Council as it is to us.
The children's library has always been valued and several generations of local families have benefited from it. It used to have its own space and separate entrance but some twenty years ago, for reasons I have not been able to discover, it was incorporated into the main library. The part of the building it had occupied until then was empty for about eighteen months. At that time, without any organised group of library users, there was as far as I know no protest against the Council's decision. In 1981 the Home Service Library was installed in the vacated space and in 1989 the Mobile Library joined it. These are of course borough-wide services.
By 1999 computers had become recognised as an important tool for ordinary people as well as for business. Computers were also popular with funders and it was much easier to get money for computers than for anything else. Camden Council was aware of the growing importance of computers and also of the possibility of obtaining funding for them.
In July 1999 Highgate Library had been selected by Camden as one of two libraries for the introduction of Learning Centres, funded by a one-off Best Value payment of Ј100,000 to the Library Service. Other Learning Centres were funded by other means. The Friends of Highgate Library did not oppose the idea in principle, but in a series of letters and comments expressed their concern about the implications of installing 10 or 12 computers into a very limited space. By October, less than three months later, there was a massive culling of books from the adult library. When we expressed anxiety about this we were reassured that this was simple weeding of books according to professional practice and there would be no reduction in book stock. In planning the Learning Centre it was eventually decided to leave the Children's Library alone and to set aside the other major section of library floor space for the Learning Centre. The adult library was then squeezed into what space remained. I remind you that at least one third of Highgate Library was already housing the borough-wide Mobile and Home Library Services. Efforts to get factual information about the book reduction were unsuccessful so we did our own rough count of filled bookshelves. Before October 1999 there were 271 shelves. By January 2000, before the Learning Centre was opened, there were 233. After the Learning Centre was opened in March 2000 there were 198 and at the end of last year there were 193 - a reduction of nearly 30 per cent. The space for browsing and reading newspapers and periodicals has virtually disappeared. T
his was the situation which provoked last year's AGM Resolution. "While welcoming the new Learning Centre, this meeting deplores the loss of space for books and reading in Highgate Adult Library and resolves that the reinstatement of space should be the main long-term aim of the Friends, who should immediately start campaigning and lobbying Councillors and Officers to this end"
The Head of the Library Service was present at the AGM in 2000 and heard the discussion leading up to the Resolution but it was nevertheless formally transmitted. After a number of reminders a meeting was offered to us and accepted to hear about Camden's policy and plans for IT. This was interesting and informative, but not relevant to Highgate Library's problem of space. We have been told that there is no reason of principle against moving the Mobile and Home Service Libraries but there is no money to fund it.
It was clear that solutions to the problem could not be found by Library Officers so in January we wrote a careful letter to the Leader of the Council and the Chairman of the Leisure and Community Services Committee explaining our position and making four specific requests. These are:
a. Removal of Camden's
Mobile Library to another location, and restoration of the space it occupies
to Highgate Library.
b. An early and substantial increase in the supply of books available to be borrowed or referred to in Highgate Library.
c. An adequate number of trained staff to run a library service worthy of the people who use it.
d. Encouragement of use of the library building for community purposes as in earlier years.
We copied the letter to Highgate's local Councillors, our MP and some other relevant individuals. We have a few copies of the original letter from FOHL here if people want to see what we said. We asked in the letter for a meeting with Councillor Phil Turner and he did meet us with two of the senior Libraries staff on 22 February. Glenda Jackson MP attended the meeting. We have not had Cllr Turner's response to the meeting and understand that Neal Hounsell, as head of Camden's Library Services, will bring it this evening.
Until now we have been at pains to negotiate on friendly and reasonable terms with Officers and Members. We look to this AGM for advice and guidance on future action. We emphasise that we are not asking for MORE facilities but the restoration of at least part of what has arbitrarily taken away from the adult library.
NB (No response had been received from the Chair of Camden's Leisure and Community Services Committee prior to the AGM but Neal Hounsell, head of Camden's Library Services distributed at the meeting a document setting out a proposed feasibility study . There could be little discussion on a document that had just been tabled and it will have to be followed up by FOHL Committee)