Friern Barnet Library in Barnet, north London has been occupied by campaigners and re-opened to the public. Ironically it was the new law criminalising squatting in residential properties which seems to have prompted the occupation and re-opening (temporarily under activist-volunteer control) of the library in Friern Barnet Road.
Squatters made homeless by the new law were looking for commercial properties to squat and found windows left open (and the heating turned up very high) in the library which was closed by Barnet Council in April this year.
There was a very active campaign to save the library by the Save Friern Barnet Library (SFBL) group, which has continued meeting and campaigning since April. SFBL and the anti-cuts Barnet Alliance for Public Services (BAPS) have continued demanding that Barnet Council re-opens the library as a properly funded and staffed public service.
When the council first closed the library there was a short, token occupation by about 20 local residents but no serious thought had been given to occupying long-term. Protest "pop-up" libraries on the small green space next to the library building and community demonstrations have helped maintain an active campaign through the spring and summer.
Until they were sure what the occupiers were demanding of the council, and while they clarified their own legal position, SFBL held off endorsing the occupation or entering the property. Since the occupiers have made it clear that they consider themselves simply the "caretakers" of the library while the council and residents negotiate over its future, SFBL are now supporting the occupation.
Now local campaigners and other volunteers in alliance with the squatters have set about filling the shelves with books, videos, games, leaflets and local information as well as providing a community centre for a range of leisure and recreational activities. Of course, the library has also become a campaign centre.
Barnet Council has been taken aback by the determination of the campaigners and has sent senior representatives to negotiating meetings at the library. Negotiations have been open to those who wanted to participate.
As Mike Gee of the SFBL campaign put it, “There were 14 people at the last negotiating meeting – four of them from the Council.” Mike reported that this negotiating model has worked well for the campaign despite some apprehension that it might be too chaotic.
The Council has tried to persuade the SFBL campaign to give up the library building (because it wants to sell the building and the land) and has offered some space in Friary House (a building within Friary Park which is farther away from where most people who use the current library live) from which local volunteers can organise their own volunteer library.
This offer has been refused by the campaign – their demand is for a library in the heart of the community, run as a public service. They have overwhelming local support and have collected nearly 4,500 signatures on a petition calling for this.
The Council’s plan was always to close FBL and another library – North Finchley, which they are keeping open for the time being – and replace them with a new, super-duper "landmark library" housed within the Arts Depot (a local theatre and arts centre). But negotiations over this have stalled, and the council has now admitted that the landmark library is not likely to happen. Instead there is just a rather sad room full of books by way of a temporary replacement for the closed Friern Barnet Library.
Recent debates on the Council reveal that hardly anyone is visiting the Arts Depot library. Meanwhile, local residents in Friern Barnet are delighted that their library is open and there is a real buzz about the place.
Campaigners are encouraging more people to visit the library, to volunteer to take shifts on the rota and to help publicise this struggle as widely as possible. Already there has been regional BBC and national press coverage.
The occupiers have issued the following statement:
We aim to re-open the library 3-4 days a week – 11am-3pm
This is your community library, come in, say hello, sign up for the rota.
We need books, librarians, donations, tables, chairs, videos and food. We are planning workshops, skill shares and film showings.
Please come and help re-open the library – an action is worth a thousand words.
Caretaker's phone: 07592 231150
At the same time as it has been "negotiating" with the occupiers, Barnet Council has initiated eviction proceedings. The occupiers argue that the council has, de facto, made them "licencees".
An initial hearing on Tuesday 18 September postponed proceedings for 21 days to allow the occupiers to prepare their case.
Library campaigners will be turning out in force to defend their library and make clear what they think of Barnet’s barbarous Tory Council. Whatever the outcome, it is likely that the occupation and the campaign that accompanies it will continue in earnest over the next few weeks.
Save Friern Barnet Library – https://sites.google.com/site/savefriernbarnetlibrary/events
Barnet Alliance for Public Services – http://barnetalliance.wordpress.com/