Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Friends of the Durning Library

Background

1. The Durning Library is one of three small libraries in the north of the London borough of Lambeth. Its catchment area contains an ethnically diverse population and includes some of the most deprived areas in south London, as well as a few small pockets of relative affluence. The library and its building date from 1889. The building was designed by Sidney R J Smith, architect of Tate Britain as well as several other libraries in south London, and is a well-known local landmark at Kennington Cross. It has been listed since 1984.

2. The Friends of the Durning Library was set up in 1999 following Lambeth Council’s proposal to close five local libraries in the borough, including the Durning. After a strongly supported local campaign which showed very clearly how highly local libraries were valued, only two libraries were closed and the Durning was among those reprieved.

3. The Durning Friends’ group now has about 180 members. We concentrate most of our efforts on monthly talks, usually by local speakers or on topics of local interest such as the history of the area. The talks are open to anyone and regularly attract audiences of 40 or 50, sometimes up to 100, from a wide cross-section of the local community, adding significantly to the Durning’s total footfall. We have recently paid for some much-needed basic facilities for the library such as signage, blinds and stacking chairs for events, as well as smaller items. We are active supporters of the umbrella group, the Friends of Lambeth Libraries (FoLL), which is making a separate submission to the select committee.

The Importance of Local Libraries

4. Our experience as a Friends’ group has highlighted the importance of local libraries to the communities they serve. Unlike many other local authorities, Lambeth does not have a true “hub and spoke” pattern of public library provision. There are two larger libraries (in Brixton and Streatham) but the others are small, particularly those in the north of the borough, and mainly serve their local communities. Their accessibility is an intrinsic part of their value to those communities, especially as the two larger libraries are both a considerable distance away. This local network is an essential element in ensuring that Lambeth (like other local authorities) meets its statutory obligations to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service, available to everyone within its area and using its resources effectively to meet local needs.

5. There is a lot of evidence that unless people have specialised needs, such considerations as time and expense mean that they are not willing to travel far, even for a “better” library with more facilities. Without easy access to a local library, they are deprived of library services altogether. Local libraries such as the Durning are much more than just collections of books; they serve their communities in a variety of ways. The Durning is small and its resources limited but it still provides a range of services geared to the local community’s specific needs. These include quiet study/reading space, children’s and seniors’ events, “Silver Surfers” (IT for older users), and Spanish and Portuguese children’s events. In these ways it adds value to its purely “library” services and is a real asset to the local community which explains why its services are so highly valued.

6. The proposals in 2010 for local government expenditure cuts led to widespread rumours of library closures in Lambeth which provoked strong reactions from the local community. In less than a week in February 2011, the Durning Friends alone collected 1,700 signatures for a “Save our libraries” petition. Those signatures came from a wide cross-section of the local community, not just from the “usual suspects” among library users. The local support for the Durning was well illustrated by a letter to local councillors from the chair of a nearby Tenants and Residents’ Association when rumours about library closures first circulated in 2011:

The residents of … are concerned that Durning Library will be closed because of the Lambeth Council’s cutbacks. Many residents on the … Estate do not own a computer so the library opens the door to on-line services. Apart from books, it gives people a chance to get on the internet, send and receive emails. It also offers the only photocopying service in the vicinity. Durning Library is used by young school children after school and many teenagers alike.

No one can deny that a library is a good Institution in any neighbourhood, but Durning Library is essential to our locality and it would be a great loss for the young, middle aged and seniors in our community. Under the financial constraints we know there will be many cutbacks, and many will be necessary, but the impact on the community by the loss of the library would be de-moralising and devastating …

Before any decisions are taken by Lambeth please join with us and help us to voice our concerns to Lambeth.

The Future

7. In 2011, Lambeth council initiated a major review of its library service with the combined objectives of ensuring that the service met the current needs of local communities and finding ways of saving £750,000 by 2014 (from a budget of £4.3 million in 2011–12). The review was completed in November 2011 and its report pulled no punches about the nature and scale of the problems Lambeth faces if the library service is to be modernised and the required expenditure cuts achieved.

8. Like the other Friends’ groups in the borough, the Durning Friends are relieved that Lambeth’s response to those problems has not been a knee-jerk decision to close any of its smaller libraries. Instead, there is to be a series of local consultations about both the impending budget cuts and the future organization of the library service, following the council’s “co-production” principles. We welcome Lambeth’s willingness to adopt a fresh approach to the problems of maintaining its library services but that does not mean that the decisions will be easy.

9. The scope for cutting costs by conventional methods such as reduced opening hours is limited, especially as services have already been pared back for many years because of lack of resources. Equally, there is only very limited scope for increasing revenues. The promised public consultations will start shortly and at this stage the outcome is impossible to predict.

10. Finding new community-based models for managing local libraries is a challenge but it is one that we recognise that we, and Lambeth, have to face. It is, however, essential for us, and for other communities in a similar position, that the statutory underpinning provided by the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act is not abolished. The high level of support for libraries from local communities is very valuable but not enough to secure their continuing existence. We have to recognise that in the current economic climate many local authorities, including Lambeth, would be only too happy to shed that particular responsibility if they were not statutorily required to provide a library service.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012