Carnegie Library is flourishing and this is evidenced by the ever-increasing numbers of visits to it and books borrowed. Market research that has been carried out is further proof, if any were needed, that the existing library-centred uses are what local people want.
In 2000 market research into possible uses of the library building was independently conducted and assessed. Friends of Carnegie Library commissioned the research but our only involvement in conducting it was to distribute questionnaires and reply-paid envelopes to a random sample of 2865 homes in the Herne Hill area specified by the researcher. The completed questionnaires, of which there were 675, were returned direct to the researcher. A copy of the survey results is here. There is a remarkable consistency between what was asked for 16 years ago and what is proving popular at the library today
For the past four years three organisations in succession have been seeking uses alternative to a library for the Carnegie Library's building. All three received generous financial support from Lambeth and they were and are under the control of Lambeth's Steering Group for Carnegie Library. No one else has played a significant role in any of these organisations.
In 2014 the first of these organisations, Carnegie Project Group, assisted in the later stages by Lambeth officers carried out market research into the possibility of major internal rearrangement and alterations to the building if funding could be obtained for this. The research consisted of a questionnaire publicised by house-to-house distribution of leaflets throughout Herne Hill and other means. A number of questionnaires completed by library supporters were mislaid and this should be borne in mind when considering the results. A total of 187 completed questionnaires were assessed by Locality, a body ambitious for change in the delivery of local services.
Although it does not deal directly with use of the building in its current configuration Locality's report is nonetheless informative in this respect. There was strong support for the current arrangements, with 60% wanting to retain the library in its current location within the building. A copy of the 2014 report is here here.
The second organisation, the Carnegie Shadow Trust Board, proposed that no space be set aside exclusively for use as a library unless Friends of Carnegie Library took a commercial lease of the rooms concerned at a market rent. However, they said that there should in any event be a library service of some kind "on site," by which they presumably meant in a room used simultaneously for non-library purposes.
The third organisation, Carnegie Community (sic) Trust, has published a proposal to replace the library by a cafe bar and halls for hire. Invited to rank 17 possible uses to include in the building, the respondents to the 2014 survey placed a cafe and evening bar 16th and 17th respectively. Thus Lambeth's puppets operated through the Steering Group have consistently pushed the exact opposite of what their own research told them local people want.
There are plenty of halls for hire locally already. The large hall at Herne Hill United Church, five minutes' walk from the library, can be hired for a whole evening for £25 and this modest fee includes use of the kitchen.
In the Culture 2020 Report proposals approved by Lambeth's Cabinet on 12th October, and subsequently by the full Council, include handing Carnegie, Minet and Tate South Lambeth Libraries to GLL, which runs leisure centres for Lambeth, for conversion to Healthy Living Centres comprising fee-paying gyms. The Centres would be subsidised until a few months after the next Council elections, the subsidy being an undisclosed amount from leisure centre profits topped up by £1 million from Lambeth's revenue reserve. The implication is that the running costs would be at least twice the running cost of the libraries they would replace, which is less than £500,000 a year. In addition to the subsidies, Lambeth budgeted £3 million for building works to convert the buildings from libraries.
The Report promises that each Healthy Living Centre would include a Neighbourhood Library but this would only be access to "a small selection of books" and computers in a lounge used for other purposes. In other words, not a library but the same as the Shadow Trust Board and Carnegie Community (sic) Trust have offered.
The details of the proposed use by GLL were not entirely clear from the report. Such evidence as it provides suggests that Lambeth had in mind budget gyms open 24 hours a day, to which access is gained by inserting a membership card in a slot. The report makes no mention of the gyms being staffed but states in ten separate places that GLL would be responsible for security and invites us to take our personal trainers to the gyms. However, GLL does not operate any card-in-slot gyms or permit personal trainers to be brought onto any of its premises.
The report's proposals were greeted with a storm of outrage and derision accompanied, we might suspect, by a tactful protest from GLL. Lambeth then seem to have shifted their ground somewhat. Opposition councillors called the decision into the Council's Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which required a formal response from Council Officers. The response is dated 10th November and tells us that:
" Over the coming months GLL who have a
better understanding of the market demand
for these types of activity will conclude their business modelling. This will then inform
more detailed decisions on the types and
level of activities and facilities to be located in
each of the healthy living centres. This may
include a wider set of sport/physical/leisure
activities... The cabinet report provides the framework
for taking the healthy living centres concept
to their [sic] next stage of development. No
decisions have been taken as yet as to the
balance of space usage, although the report
is quite clear about the potential impact on
the existing library service."
No further information about the proposed use by GLL has been supplied to the public but it seems reasonably clear that the buildings would only be open while GLL staff were present somewhere in the building. This suggests that they would in effect be Leisure Centres with a restricted offer. There would not be pools or indoor football pitches but there might, for example, be fitness classes. There is already such a facility near Minet Library. This is Flaxman Sports Centre which GLL run on behalf of Lambeth.
The key point about location is that potential gym users are nearly all very mobile and converting Carnegie Library into a gym would not add materially to the facilities already available at Flaxman Sports Centre, Brixton Rec, Brockwell Lido and Camberwell Leisure Centre and a number of private gyms in the area. The people who most need our local library are those with restricted mobility including many elderly people and mothers with young children and buggies in tow. There are also users of the library who are autistic or suffer from severe stress problems. For them there is no practical alternative to a local library they can reach on foot.
In the assessed responses to the 2014 survey 84% of respondents opposed having a gym in the building even if the library stayed in its current position. The library currently provides gentle exercise classes, yoga twice a week and Pilates once a week. This is the intensity of exercise local people requested in their answers to questions 11 and 12 in the 2000 survey.
Neither through their puppet organisations nor through GLL are Lambeth offering anything that is wanted. What is more interesting is that they know this is the case. The only future on offer is certain failure, almost inevitably followed by sale of the buildings once the 2018 Council elections are out of the way. A possible interpretation is that this is all about money. Lambeth previously encountered opposition when they proposed selling these buildings which were donated for public use. What they now appear to be doing is creating a situation where they will say that they have done their best to keep the buildings in public use but not succeeded and there is therefore no alternative to the sales.