On the 5th of April 2012, the London Borough of Barnet Council closed down Friern Barnet Library, after a year of local people fighting to keep it open, but just a day after the Council finally voted to shut it down. On the day they came to close it, 30 or so people staged a sit-in, or occupation, for five hours. It closed anyway.
By the 14th of April there was a 'pop-up library' operating on the green opposite, and I gather this continued throughout the summer.
Five months after the library was closed, a few people climbed in an open window, and three days later they had it re-opened with the help of local residents and Occupy activists. Within eight weeks people had donated books 8,000 books to their collection, and they had enough volunteer community librarians to keep it open six days a week, rather than the four they'd originally planned for.
The people who entered the building in the first place were squatters, who were mainly looking for a place to kip after squatting in residential buildings was made a criminal offence at the start of September. They looked at it and realised it could be a lot more than a roof for the night.
Its walls were already lined with books by the 29th of September, when I visited for a day of events. First was a sort of double workshop run by performance poets, who also happen to be squatters. Pete the Temp did a very entertaining performance workshop with a mix of local kids and adults, and people like me who'd heard about it from somewhere else. Lots of DECLAIMING (because that is actually a very useful skill) and various other fun games and vocal exercises. Then Cat Brogan did a poetry workshop, which was also very good, thought-provoking and enjoyable. I wrote most of a poem about the future of libraries, and the following notes:
After the workshops, there was a talk and Q&A session about 'One Barnet': Barnet Council's fantastically inept, ideologically-driven plan to outsource most of what they're supposed to be doing to a couple of private companies on ten-year contracts. Mr. Reasonable, who really does seem to be remarkably reasonable, spoke very compellingly about the plan, expressing his evident fury with impeccably level politeness - I highly recommend his animated summing up, 'Barnet Casino'. This is a classic example of privatization signing away accountability, democratic control and the skills of local workers, all in huge chunks that are incredibly difficult to take back, when that doesn't even make financial sense - at least, not for the council, let alone the public. This could well be a taste of things to come for the rest of Britain, so it ought to be national news. The People's Library goes on providing a focus for opposition to Barnet's privatisation schemes; with a touch of melodrama, it has been described as 'the Tahrir Square of the Barnet Spring'.
The last event of the evening was an open mic night hosted by those performance poets, who did a couple of poems and songs each. Very talented they are too - I like poetry that tickles my brain and makes me laugh out loud. I played a couple of songs myself, and a few others read poems or played music too. Then we all made music together for a while, singing the songs that everyone knows, and we spent a while chatting. There's something satisfying about hanging out and drinking in a library in the evening, occasionally picking up books. I wonder if late opening will be a big thing in the libraries of the future.
Similar kinds of events have been happening at the library ever since. I went back there again last night to see Will Self do a reading, and to return some books and donate a bunch of old New Scientist magazines. There were about 170 people there, and really a lot of books. For now the building seems to be functioning very well as a much-needed library and community hub, but the council is of course fighting to shut it down. Their first reaction was to negotiate, proposing an alternative site where the squatters might be interested in setting up a community library - which was more engagement than the local, by-the-book campaigners had seen all year, but it didn't amount to much. They have refused to negotiate with anyone at all since the initial eviction hearing on the 10th of October, when the judge determined the occupiers had a strong enough defence to justify adjourning the case until December. The council is determined to get their hands on the £400,000 they think they can get for the property, although Andrew Carnegie, who donated it 78 years ago, seems to have done so on the basis that it would be a public library in perpetuity. The next court date is the 18th of December. I think they have a case.
The court case only got them another stay of execution, but in February the Council yielded to the will of the community - in a frankly stunning victory for people power, they agreed to keep the building and allow local people to take over the running of it. The Occupy activists are no longer squatting the building; the people have the key.
More on this in the top three links below. The film is wonderful.