There’s a dirty little game to pass the time in libraries. It takes two or more participants, an interest in foreign spines and a nose for the obscure. One player shuffles off for a stroll in the stacks – the darker and dustier, the better. They return, sometime later, with a long, punctuated number, or a list of several. The other takes the paper, follows its codes around the library, and returns even later with a grin and a new found love of the works of Robert Fuchs and Carl August Titz.
It would be difficult to play this game in Kensal Rise library. Romantic nooks are in short supply. Illicit liaisons, book-based or otherwise, are impossible. But mainly, it would be difficult to play because there are very few books. The library is sparsely populated in every sense, though the day’s papers, a few computers and a dedicated children’s section add a little colour. For more than two decades, councils have been trying to close it, and since 2004, it has been a stated objective, outlined in the ‘Vision for Brent’ of that year. It seems the time has come.
A public consultation on the fate of the library finished on March 4th. Though by ‘consult’, the council seems to mean ‘ask what people think and carry on, irrespective of responses’. The budget for the year is agreed, and it assumes the libraries will close. Another consultation is underway too – library staff in Brent have told me that they are being ‘consulted’ on how to ‘reorganise’ the workforce. In theory, the final decision will be made in April, but most people think it’s a fait accompli. The plans are known as the ‘Libraries Transformation Project’, where transformation is a euphemism for closure – six out of 12 libraries in Brent will shut.
The council points to 44,500 visitors per year at Kensal Rise, costing about £4 per visit. The latter figure in particular is horrifying. But there may have been some sleight of hand here too. With shorter opening hours and less stock than the other 11 libraries in Brent, it would be inaccurate to measure its cost as 1/12 of all Brent library spend, unfair to compare its visitor numbers with a larger library on a main route, such as Willesden. But this seems to be what’s happened.
Kensal Rise library has an interesting history. A grade 2 listed, late-Victorian bruiser, it was lent to the then London Borough of Willesden under covenant by All Souls College, Oxford, for as long as it fulfilled the function of a public reading room. The college has confirmed that the building would revert to it on closure, so the council will not be able to make a profit through sale or redevelopment.
Mark Twain opened the library in September 1900, three months before Queen Victoria’s death. For his services, he was presented with an inscribed silver key. Twain had fled his US creditors and come to London during a round-the-world lecture tour, organised to rustle up the funds necessary to return to America and pay what he owed.
Today, there is nothing by Mark Twain on the shelves in Kensal Rise. There is not much stock at all. The council has been undermining it for years. And when friends of the library offer to donate reading matter to make up the shortfall, a convoluted and costly tagging process needs to begin – in practice, donating stock is impractical.
There are no librarians in Brent either. Or rather, there is no one called a librarian working in a Brent library. It was decreed years ago that they would be called ‘library managers’, as if a library was merely a place that required a gentle nudge from time to time to keep it running. This linguistic slipperiness serves other functions too. After all, a manager is versatile, capable of managing just about anything, especially ‘transition’. You might just as easily employ a parks manager, or an office manager, or a waste manager. Never mind that being a librarian is a profession in its own right; that it requires dedication and specific training. Who’s going to notice? Certainly not the person in charge of Brent libraries, Sue McKenzie, who did a fine arts degree and worked as an archivist, but not, ever, as a librarian.
It seems odd that the writer of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should have found himself filing for bankruptcy less than a decade after that novel was published to extraordinary acclaim. But several spectacular financial misjudgements (publishing the memoirs of Pope Leo XI at great expense, only to see fewer than 200 copies sold) and plain old bad luck (investing fortunes in developing a new typewriter for it to become obsolete almost as soon as it was for sale) combined to leave him, as Huck would have understood, up a creek without a paddle.
But if Twain’s financial plight was surprising, the council’s is not. Nor is it really a self-inflicted problem. Central government requires cuts, and the council is being forced to make savings of some £37 million in fairly short order. It’s a lot of money, especially since there is no scope for raising council tax. So cuts it will be. Where they fall is another matter. And it’s a Labour council making that decision. The council’s cuts are capped at 9% of its existing budget, yet 50% of the libraries in Brent will close.
I use Kensal Rise library intermittently. It’s an excellent place to sit and work, or to sit and not work. Those Victorian walls are comforting. Opposite is a primary school; a few doors away, an Italian delicatessen and cafe. There are bars nearby and a sports centre. Kensal Green cemetery is a ten minute walk, resting place of Thackeray, Wilkie Collins and Harold Pinter (their books are pretty hard to come by in the library too). The neighbourhood is well to do, though not conspicuously so, but unlike so many in London, it feels like a communal place, like a community. And at its centre, geographically and otherwise, is the library.
The last time I visited, an elderly, slightly dishevelled man, arthritic over a Complete Works, told me he had uncovered ‘the great Shakespeare conspiracy.’ He assured me that he knew the true author of The Tempest, but wouldn’t reveal who, lest ‘they’ got to him and suppressed the information, or worse. At the next table, teenagers babbled quietly about school. Of course, if the library closes, they’ll all find somewhere else to go.