Why the Winch has got involved in Belsize Library

It’s quite possible a few eyebrows will have been raised with the news that, amongst the headlines of libraries ‘going it alone’ and ‘call-ins’, the Winchester Project has been mentioned as a possible ‘community-led solution’ for Belsize Library. Indeed, it’s been an interesting process for us, and one which reflects a conversation happening across much of the public and voluntary sector.

The possibility of getting involved with Belsize Library emerged last November, when the Cabinet published its medium-term financial strategy for dealing with the budget reduction from central government. Belsize has always been one of the most vulnerable sites, scoring relatively low on usage and lending rates in comparison with other better placed, more popular libraries. This announcement of a £1.6m reduction from the library services coincided with the Winch securing funds to develop a number of social enterprise ideas intended to inform our future strategy and refurbishment plans. More specifically, the funds allowed us to research and produce preliminary business proposals for up to 15 different ideas. I approached our local councillors and the Friends of Belsize Library to offer one of the spots, and they didn’t just give us a green light: they proposed a unanimous resolution in support of developing proposals and speaking to the council. Cllr Siddiq and council officers were also extremely supportive, meeting with us along the way. The rest, as they say, is history. Albeit unfinished.

Our initial involvement was well-intentioned, if a little fuzzy around the edges. Belsize Library, like libraries all over the borough, is a fantastic asset whichever way you see it. In Belsize ward, it is the only public interface with the council. It has a thriving Rhyme Time community, based as it is only a stone’s throw from England’s Lane Hostel. It has an active Friends association and other groups who use the space for various activities. How does one approach such an organisation with not only the intention of maintaining its existing offering, but looking to improve it whilst building a sustainable structure which can continue into the future?

We put a lot of work into developing a vision and a potential structure to support these aspirations. The starting point, of course, was the Friends. We found there support for being proactive about initiatives which might safeguard the library’s future. And we also went out talking to other organisations, doing surveys and knocking on doors. We asked people how they used the library and why they didn’t access it more. We asked more generally what people’s hopes and fears were, what their aspirations for the area were, and what contributions they could make. We were overwhelmed by the response. We had stumbled on a rich resource of local people interested not only in accessing activities but in offering them. Teaching Spanish, delivering lectures, giving pottery-making workshops and providing salsa classes were amongst the contributions volunteered. Beyond the question of compatibility with a library, these activities were evident of a quality of offering which was both challenging and inspiring.

I then attended a Friends of Belsize meeting in February during which former chairwoman of Camden Public Library Users Group, Helen Marcus, gave a speech about the importance of libraries and, particularly interestingly, their founding principles. It was an inspiring reminder of a vision often cited as one of the most important planks in the vast public reform programmes which gradually took hold of Victorian society and led to the establishment of a raft of progressive foundations and initiatives we still hold dear. It also got me thinking. If libraries were established for the primary purpose of providing free education for ‘the poor’, for the swathes of society without access to the resources and tools which allow people to transform their lives and exploit their potential, how were we doing at fulfilling this mandate? What does this task look like today in the context of a library?

From 826NYC, an educational creative writing space in New York.

The establishment of the public library system, a subject I make no claim to be an expert on, is based on a timeless set of values and aspirations. There is no doubt that a commitment to education for all – and in particular extending that commitment to those who are let down or left out by our current education system – is of huge importance. Furthermore, the integration of diverse communities around single or central experiences and learning spaces has been shown to have profound effects on the learning and wellbeing of all involved. (One example of this from Johann Hari explores the different approaches to educational reform in the US cities of Syracuse and Raleigh, primarily through the mixing of children with different educational achievement levels and socioeconomic backgrounds.) Either way, the idea of rediscovering the meaning of the library movement for the 21st century was one which we could get excited about, albeit with a series of caveats. Recent works such as Architecture 00’s excellent ‘Compendium of the Civic Economy’ explore case studies of individuals and groups acting innovatively to realise change in new and creative ways. The conflation of these ideas led us to a vision about enabling our wonderfully rich and resourceful area to expand the conception of ‘library’ to include a place for accessing not just books, but also other tools, resources, knowledge and courses, and more than anything seeing the library as a meeting ground, a place for diverse members of the community to come together and to take initiative together. There is the potential to (re)create the village square of the modern age, and to develop a more entrepreneurial operating model that enables Belsize Library to be open more and to offer more than it currently does.

I should at this stage offer some words of caution. The vision is an exciting one, but not without legitimate critique. There is good reason for libraries to be publicly funded, no matter how safe or trusted an alternative community organisation is perceived to be. There is a major difference between a professionally run library and a space which embraces entrepreneurship and volunteerism. There are as many perspectives as people on what constitutes a top local authority priority, and as such an offer of involvement like ours might not be as welcome in every context as it has been at Belsize.

We are also realistic. I said a couple of weeks ago, that if it is viable this is not something which the Winchester Project will do or can do on its own. In terms of the local community, this means people with energy, expertise, time and investment coming forward and getting involved. It means more from the council too. Our discussions with experts in the Asset Transfer Unit, for example, have said that unless access to Camden stock and IT systems are included and made freely available, the chosen ‘Option A’ is simply a non-starter. With a 100% cut to annual funding from the off, the £49k devoted to ‘transitioning’ Belsize Library over the 2012/13 financial year is woefully inadequate and must be revisited. (For example, we had explored contingencies based on anything up to a 60% cut.) Presumably arrangements for ‘community-led solutions’ will include favourable lease and maintenance conditions, and a zero or peppercorn rent on the building. If not, it is unclear whether what might have been an opportunity for Camden to trailblaze and save libraries will simply be experiments destined to fail. In this sense, whilst the move to ‘call in’ the Cabinet decision by opposition councillors seemed quite bizarre given our conversations in Belsize and the Big Society backdrop, it will provide an opportunity to clarify a number of these important points.

Our aim at the Winch in entering this conversation is not to influence or legitimise the debate or decisions on libraries in any particular direction. It is a recognition of the importance of Belsize Library to the community, and an attempt to explore how we might be part of a solution to the challenge it now faces. It reflects a desire to grasp and enshrine in a way which is meaningful and impactful for our time and place the founding principles described by Helen Marcus. Whether or not that proves viable, is ultimately in the hands of our elected representatives across the parties, and the officers who work with them. So far they have been excellent, but now the heat is on.

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