SAVING YOUR LIBRARY FROM CLOSURE:
(the Lewisham Experience)
Remember S W O T T
Opportunities Its your job to turn the tables on the enemy
We began by learning of the impending closure of three branch libraries, all in the Eastern side of our borough by leaked information five days before the proposal went to the Council to which the public were invited.
In that time, we combined a loose group of over 100 concerned citizens and urged them to descend on the Town Hall. The councillors had arranged a small room expecting perhaps a dozen or so people to turn up.
In the five days, we found sufficient people to produce an affronted leaflet and the means to produce 3,000 copies and the deliverers to beg as many attendees to the impending meeting as possible.
So, when over 100 people turned up at the Town Hall, at the appropriate time, they were immediately wrong-footed and at virtually no notice had to move the meeting place to the Council chamber the only room big enough to accommodate the numbers.
That tactical advantage was never given up.
We then read How To Run a Local Campaign by Polly Bird borrowed from our local (threatened) library with the sweetest of irony.
We formed a steering group, and settled on a membership fee for each household.
In this way, we could claim at least an average of 3 per household, boosting up our numbers. In reality, it was in fact very nearly identical to the real figure.
The core group originally set up came from already functioning strong community groups a truly valuable asset. We were fortunate in have a very literate community.
Although formed around our libraries, the 3 threatened, interacted to everyones advantage. We each attended each others consultation meetings. In this way boosting up the individual numbers and also becoming known by the Council.
So, build a reputation!
Engage help from your local schools. Contact outside bodies, LLL and Library Campaign. Unison.
We found our library staff sympathetic but petrified. They were all in a Jobsworth situation and most reluctant to become involved. Unison on the other hand, supported us financially in order to get our campaigns underway.
We had timing on our side in the political field. All 3 threatened libraries were in the constituency of one MP.
The dept of Culture, Media & Sport committee was inquiring into libraries and promoting library standards shortly to be extinct, becoming Benchmarks.
Re:source became MLA and is now divided to a National body and a London body.
Our local Mayor aspired to become the first directly elected Mayor of our borough and our library was in his ward.
One of our three threatened libraries was on Metropolitan Open Land which is very valuable. One was a grade II* listed building, the other is in a village shopping centre.
Beware of your own! In our campaign, the Council chose their moment the run up to Christmas. This limited access to information to counter their arguments. They will play on your greater ignorance, relying on the tendency of people to believe officialdom will have its own way and that they will always get what they want.
Other weaknesses you may experience are the practicalities and difficulties in finding people to do the jobs needed by the group to fight a successful campaign. Pick the best people qualified for the task, with back-ups if possible.
Always remember the few get burned out.
In military parlance, you are only as good as your comms (communications). This is essential. Phone numbers/emails/post are all fine, but you still may need runners!
Dont lose sight of the main issue which is to keep the library open and dont dissolve into internal wrangles.
Beware of the tendency to be overwhelmed by documents put out by the Council.
Resist the tendency to feel talked down to by officials using gobbledygook, acronyms known only within their ivory towers and pretending to knowledge they do not have.
Smaller groups may find difficulty in locating people to do the grafting jobs collecting signature, delivering leaflets etc. But always remember the goal. You need to save your library from closure. Some hard work simply has to be done!
Currently it is still fashionable thinking amongst officials that what is good for the community is to have fewer, better libraries in shopping centres i.e. top-down decisions about what is good for us. Nowadays, a new emphasis is emerging to contain library facilities in multipurpose leisure centres, many with standard Sport England standard municipal swimming pools. They turn your strengths into weaknesses. Typical of this being literate makes you a middle-class twit. So expect insults to be the order of the day. Try your hardest to avoid rising to the bait unless you can about turn the slur and make it stick!
Fighting to save a library develops a group which is far more effective than any Friends Group dreamed up by the Library Authority.
We turned the Councils own documents, pet phrases and ambitions against them.
We were backed by the opposition members of the Council (all persuasions) and some of our politically aware members kept them up to date with our thinking.
Our experience was that the group was made of the entire political and social spectrum. This was an invaluable weapon because since we were completely non-partisan, we were untouchable politically. We represented what we were. Library users - and they were not going to take our library from us!
The Council Public Question Time gave us the opportunity to voice our concerns and to embarrass them and we certainly stretched the system. Indeed we overloaded it by lobbying 36 questions (by different questioners) at one evenings Q. Time! The system has since been altered to avoid this in the future!
We were able to turn up at Council meetings whenever the subject was on the agenda. We were able to do this because agenda is in the Public Domain and all it required was someone to diligently collect it each week.. We were always there, always seen. Do not go away. Keep nibbling. Your presence at these meetings is just as important as asking a question. They will always be careful of what they say. Do not go away.!
We were advised by a seasoned campaigner to counter the possible infiltration problems which insiders warned us to expect, (Council employees/placemen engaged to put an opposite point of view to support closure plans or weaken your case at Public Consultation Meetings) by getting out our own people and priming them with specific questions designed to support our case. Additionally, a list of questions we formulated were placed on seats at these meetings for the larger public to emphasise matters important to our case.
In Blackheath, some of our local businesses wanted the library premises. The building is rented and is in a high-rent area.
The boundary between Lewisham and Greenwich runs right in front of the building, so almost half of the users were not Lewisham voters.
Limited disabled access aggravated by a red-route presented another threat.
Odd opening hours bamboozle users and some go elsewhere. Small stock and no advertised request service lose readers to other libraries.
Emotional blackmail by Councillors who see money spent on libraries as taking money from better causes, such as the elderly, infirm, refugees, homeless, schools you name it!
The current fashion to sell off property assets (for short term gain) in favour of renting has meant that Councils now find increasing rents burdensome and lengthy leases irksome. Each site threatened was valuable to the Council in different ways. The Grove Park site is located on Metropolitan Open Land and enjoys protection. The Manor House at Lee a grade II* listed building has always been at risk. Blackheath Village Library is in rented accommodation in a local primary shopping centre.
We were warned that consultation meetings were likely to be infiltrated by council-picked appointees, masquerading as unbiased members of the public, fielded to ask leading questions which would be answered in a way which would support the Councils case. This point was turned to our advantage as explained.
Make a fuss! This is no time for polite words. We reacted like a two-year-old having a tantrum in Tescos, attracting a lot of attention. Stick to basics: Its my library and theyre not having it!
This must always be the bottom line. No deals, no compromises.
Multiple approach. We supplied all people to whom the library is important with the addresses (and surgery times) of their Councillors, MPs and the local and national papers. And we exhorted them to write and/or call on all these people, complaining about their library being threatened. We did not compose their letters for them. Individuality is important.
Such affected groups may be the people whose lives revolve around the library area. Others may be outside of the affected library area, but because of each unique setting and premises may be important to these people because of their alternative activities.
People who may be un-registered library users, people who simply drop in to read the papers or magazines or information seekers wishing to use the reference section.
Others may be shop-keepers and business or parks and cafes which benefit through the library being in their midst, keeping the area alive during the day.
Beat them at their own game. Use the Councils own system for your ends. Dont be party-political. This approach attracts useful people of all persuasions and to some degree, was our most potent weapon. We got down to the details of the Councils report and questioned every aspect of it. We asked questions at Council meetings and kept opposition Councillors briefed. (Lewisham employs a directly-elected Mayoral system and Cabinet at which not all Councillors are present). In this way, the opposition bloc was frequently forearmed and able to pose awkward questions at full Council meetings which followed.
Individuals lobbied their own Councillors by letter and in person at surgeries and asked them to find out about aspects of the Councils proposals. Our User Group officers had meetings with Cabinet Members (or Councillors with the same responsibilities) with portfolios concerned with the closure proposals.
We had big turn-outs at the Councils consultation meetings. Halls were packed, people had to stand. We intimidated them!
We exploited their weaknesses and utilized their own systems to our advantage.
We pestered relevant Council departments; Education/Culture/Resources/Planning,
Traffic and also adjacent boroughs where this relevance had potential impact.
Overloading their systems keeps your group prominent and a talking point in their coffee breaks. It all helps to wear them down.
We gave evidence to our Citizens Panel on libraries.
We complained to CIPFA and the Council about the poor quality and slanted questions in the CIPFA survey forms. Lewishams proposal to relocate two libraries to a new site boxed in a red-route provided us with ammunition to attack their suggestion of increased usage. Check out the traffic arrangements for any relocation proposal.
Use the Best Value or Performance Assessment legislation among other things to provide users with the services they want and not simply those that any Council deems to be best for users. We challenged the Councils claim to be meeting the Library Standards.
Using the Government. Fashion was turning in our favour. The Councils attack timing was right for us.
We submitted evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary committee enquiry in to Public Libraries. Our submission was published as part of the resulting report alongside the Library Campaign and LLL of which we remain members. Naturally, we attended the Committees meetings in the House of Commons.
We commented on the draft Library Standards. We watched the DCMS web-site. We keep an eye on the work done by Cilip* and MLA*. We latched on to every pet project of the Government; children/the elderly/social inclusion/homework/literacy/ education/community/public transport etc. etc.
We quoted Chris Smith, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Local libraries lie at the heart of local communities. . . .the Government believed that they have a key role to play as street corner universities in promoting education as well as in tackling social inclusion.
Harass your MPs by letters and especially visits to surgeries. Like your Council enemies they loathe the numbers game. So play this game to the full! Bombard them with as many different visitors as you can muster. Take the kiddies and the elderly and the disabled. Make them see you mean business.
Meanwhile, keep up the pressure on sympathetic Councillors and officers and of course, opposition Councillors of all persuasions. Mutual benefit can result.
Research. Watching the newspapers and the web-sites yield important information. We read reports about the provision of libraries in other countries and their Standards.
We read important studies on library usage by professors of Information Studies at Sheffield University. The most important point made here was that if a branch library is closed users become non-users rather than transfer to another library so general library use (continues) to fall.
Getting publicity. Get to know your local newspaper reporters, hold events which they can write about. We were the life and soul of our local papers letters columns. We were stickered in shop windows, we leafleted and were told that the Blackheath Village campaign had coverage on BBC Radio 4s PM programme more than once and that their chairman was on local radio too. We did everything we could think of. One of Blackheaths local luminaries who writes for the London Evening Standard did a full page item about library closures. Lewishams Mayor had attained a derogatory nickname which was passed to one of the local papers who took it up with relish.
Use the press. Stay friendly, be informative, be available but do not badger.
Employ a letter-writing campaign to all the above from a variety of local people.
Petition the area affected. You gain immeasurably from this. Finding disaffected Council workers to aid your cause can prove to be more effective than simply handing over sheaves of signatures though that in itself is an effective weapon especially if the press is on hand.
Leaflet the area. Keep records of the sites you use for posters. Always remember to periodically place a Thank You poster. Be polite and gain support by removing them. Covet local stores and Post Offices. Maintain strong liaison with all groups.
Take the battlefield to the enemy.
Summing up: This experience leaves you with a User/Friends group formed from good basics: from the ground up. It provides good foundations for future use. The Council has to be more responsive.
In summing up, be opportunistic, do your homework, get stuck in in the words which were banned from the early episode of the old TV show Hill Street Blues Do it to them before they do it to you
AND FINALLY, NEVER FORGET THAT THERE IS NO JOB TOO SMALL AND NO COUNCIL TOO BIG!
Cilip = Chartered Institute of Library Professionals
MLA = Museums Libraries & Archives
Edited February 2008 PLR
© Libraries for Life for Londoners.