Update – Friern Barnet Library: What Community Looks Like

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog – mainly because I’ve been busy and other people have got there first… (revising for Bar exams, working with Friern Barnet Library as they get going,  following the One Barnet judicial review, picking up on pro bono casework…life gets busy as a community activist sometimes!)

Last Friday I was on an evening shift in Friern Barnet Library – occupied and then reopened by a community trust. It was featured on Newsnight on Friday  yet again – to my surprise the library remains in the national public eye as one of the most high-profile community run spaces in the UK; showing how the importance of public space is moving to the top of the agenda. Now, more than ever, we need our public spaces – they are what bridge links, provide support and build trust in the community. That’s why myself and Sarah Sackman (who grew up in Finchley and is a public law barrister), worked together on the legal team to ensure the library was listed under Localism Act and to help steer the community campaign into a position where the library could be saved and then reopened. This involved amongst other things a lengthy campaign struggle, followed by a lengthy litigation struggle taking up the best part of September 2012 – February 2013 which wasted Council resources on legal advisers.

So I was rather surprised to receive an email last week from Richard Cornelius, Tory leader of Barnet Council. It read as follows:-

‘You contacted me some time ago objecting to the closure of Friern Barnet Library.  The good news is that the library will continue but as a community library.  The facility does though need help in the way of volunteer support.  I am writing to you in the hope that having achieved this excellent result you might consider helping.

I look forward to hearing from you.’

I am pleased to note that Richard Cornelius thinks that the community library is an excellent result (so do I), but to present it as his ‘achievement’ is quite some cheek. The reality is that it is an achievement of a well-organised broad coalition of groups and campaign well-versed in the art of pestering Barnet Council (ah, the Big Society in action you say…but it’s not quite what Eric Pickles envisaged). It just so happened that when I read the email I was on my walk up to volunteer at the library. Perhaps he himself, and a few of his Tory colleagues might also learn a thing or two from the volunteering experience.

Volunteering at the library means that I see and experience the importance of these public spaces. I’ve met someone who goes to the library for social comfort and support because it’s the only way he can gain some respite from substance abuse that afflicts his home. I’ve met a couple who walked in and said they had nowhere in North London because they were homeless and proceeded to have a discussion between themselves about where they would be sleeping that evening. They described the good work churches did in housing the homeless in North London, but they also described the way in which 35 out of the 50 homeless who went to a church would have to be turned away, and inevitably sleep out in the March cold these days. I’ve met and read to children whose parents explain to me that they are grateful for this library because without it and without a car they would not be able to take out the books they are taking out for their kids. I’ve spoken to people who volunteer in the library and who are unemployed – who are gaining a sense of confidence from their interaction with others within the library and are using its facilities to go job-hunting. It’s these moments that confirm to me both the importance of those spaces, and the reason for why, now more than ever,with deep cuts facing all of our services, we must do what we can to keep them open and be open to new ways of innovating in response to the problems which confront us.

Access to public spaces where people can go to learn about each others’ experiences in this way is essential to understanding what social justice and inclusion is really all about. Social justice and inclusion are what form the basis of an argument for open spaces, and what they mean for transforming public service delivery-  which I wrote about recently with Christine Megson in the Local Government Chronicle.

The library itself is continuing to do excellent work – it is not simply a place where there are books but is rapidly becoming a space where information, thoughts and ideas are freely shared and expressed. It

– provides a free, safe and inclusive space to meet others

– lends books, videos

– makes available children’s toys for use, and has a chess table available for use

– has regular Open Mic nights on Thursdays

– runs Drama and Rhyme Time for kids, and Storytelling sessions by CRB checked volunteers

– runs exercise classes such as Yoga

– has knitting and book groups

– is  going to have an Easter Egg hunt this forthcoming weekend

– has regular open group meetings that enable trustees to feed back to, and consult with the wider community

The trustee group are moving forward extremely well on signing off their two year lease – this will be accompanied with a grant of £25,000 a year from Barnet Council.

The space is also available to hire for groups who are interested in making use of it in the early mornings and in the evenings.

If you want to run an event or host a session of some sort for free during the day – just pop in and have a word with a volunteer behind the desk. It’s your community library. It also meets regularly on Mondays where trustees feed back to interested members, and has a working fundraising group – both of which are excellent times to get involved.

There’s space for all, or any of your skills here. And finally, if you’re local, if you’re interested, if you can – I urge you join as a means of demonstrating your support and to volunteer.

That’s how you’ll find out what community looks like.

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