Rewriting the rulebook at the New Cross People’s Library

December 6, 2011 by
Filed under: Fellowship 

This summer, five libraries in the London borough of Lewisham faced closure as part of an £88 million savings drive by the local council. One of these was the library in New Cross – the south-east London community where we’ve based much of our Connected Communities research. Now, thanks to a group of local volunteers (working with the support of local charity Bold Vision) it has reopened as the New Cross People’s Library.

The group (led by RSA Fellow Catherine Shovlin) were awarded £2,000 from the RSA’s Catalyst seed fund to create a collaborative artwork that will announce their presence on the high street. I visited the library recently to speak with Catherine and other volunteers about that project, and the impact that their hard work is having on the local community.

One way of looking at what’s happening at the People’s Library is as an example of how committed and resourceful volunteers are stepping in to fill the gaps where the public sector is in retreat. At one level, that’s no doubt true (although funding remains a serious issue for the group, who are fundraising furiously). I’m not sure that’s the lesson I’d draw, though.

In the video, you’ll hear volunteers talking about how the library has changed. More activities are taking, such as a popular weekly Baby Bounce session, and the opening hours are now more flexible – it stays open at lunchtimes, for instance. As well as this, though, Tina (who runs the bookshop) hints at a more subtle change: that the space – although largely unchanged in its physical fabric – appears less dark, more welcoming.

When I visited on a sunny Friday morning – and despite its complement of well-thumbed books and industrial grey carpets – the People’s Library didn’t feel like the stuffy municipal libraries of old. Nor, though, is it a ‘twenty-first century learning space’, or a ‘knowledge hub’, or a ‘digital literacy centre’. Certainly, it doesn’t have a striking new form like the polygonal new library at Canada Water. Instead, what strikes you is how friendly and informal the place seems – people wander in and out, lingering to chat or browse through the (very good) second hand bookshop.

Keeping a local library open is an impressive achievement – but I think what’s happening at the People’s Library is a lot more interesting than that, because they’ve managed to build on what was already there. Do pay them a visit and see for yourself – and buy a book or two, as there’s plenty more they’d like to achieve yet.

Sam is @iamsamthomas on Twitter

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