Today in London’s rebel past: Friern Barnet library reopens, 2013.

Friern Barnet Library in Barnet, north London, was occupied by campaigners and re-opened to the public, after local council cuts closed it down. Ironically it was the new law criminalising squatting in residential properties which 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 2012.

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 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 made it clear that they consider themselves simply the “caretakers” of the library while the council and residents negotiate over its future, SFBL started supporting the occupation.

Local campaigners and other volunteers in alliance with the squatters 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. The library also became a campaign centre.

Barnet Council was taken aback by the determination of the campaigners and sent senior representatives to negotiating meetings at the library. Negotiations were opened to those who wanted to participate.

The Council tried to persuade the SFBL campaign to give up the library building (because it wanted to sell the building and the land) and 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 could organise their own volunteer library.

This offer was refused by the campaign – their demand was for a library in the heart of the community, run as a public service. They had overwhelming local support and 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 – 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 had stalled, and the council admitted that the landmark library was not likely to happen. Instead there was just a rather sad room full of books by way of a temporary replacement for the closed Friern Barnet Library.

Campaigners encouraged more people to visit the library, to volunteer to take shifts on the rota and to help publicise this struggle as widely as possible.

The occupiers 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.”

At the same time as it was “negotiating” with the occupiers, Barnet Council initiated eviction proceedings. The occupiers argued that the council has, de facto, made them “licencees” by negotiating.

Five months since the occupation began, the community of Barnet took possession of the Friern Barnet Library. The local community – represented by the trustees of the library – are on the verge of agreeing a two-year lease with Barnet Council (LBB) to run the library with some funding from the council.

At the ceremony, squatters and supporters of the Occupy movement, who had been keeping the building open and enabling the local community to run a book lending service and community centre in the building, handed it over to the trustees of the newly formed Friern Barnet Community Library (FBCL).

“This is a triumph for the local community,” said, one of the trustees of the new community library. “Our library was closed in April. And we were told the building would be ‘marketed’. Now we have our library back, with council financial support. We achieved this through constant campaigning, lobbying, and building a broad alliance including squatters, activists, supporters of the Occupy movement, local residents and library campaign groups.”

Housing and Squatting activist Phoenix, stated: “This campaign definitely shows the success of direct action and squatting. This is a seed of change. The whole country will soon be facing 80% of the rest of the cuts. They can take some inspiration from this direct action. We have collectively helped to save this library from the bulldozer and being sold off for development. We would like to see more arrangements between owners of the 1.4 million empty buildings in the UK and squatter/homeless and community groups, rather than the criminalisation being carried out by this government under the new law. A law we feel strongly is unjust, undemocratic and arbitry.”

This development did spark some debate in the left, anarchist and anti-cuts movement. Was accepting a re-opened library, run by volunteers, albeit with some council funding, a victory or a defeat; a lost public service replaced by a ‘big society’ solution? Or genuinely the best that could be salvaged from the situation? The jury is still out I guess; it also depends on whether you invest all your ideals of collective control, ownership or management into the structures of the local state, or think that more self-managed approaches have something positive to offer…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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