Participation Now

Taking responsibility for Friern Barnet Community Library

“Barnet claims to know what people want.  But if you go into some of the libraries in Barnet, I would have to say that they probably don’t know what people want.” Nick Mahony talks to the Chair of Trustees of a library saved by occupation for the community in north London.

Joanna Fryer Nick Mahony
2 April 2014

Nick Mahony: Tell me about your initiative

Joanna Fryer: It is called Friern Barnet Community Library, run by the community, and rescued by the Occupy movement. The occupiers lived in the building for five months and when the eviction notice came, the occupiers went to trial, and the judge evicted them, but told Barnet that they had to deal with the community.

The community did not originally invite the occupiers in, but it did become involved with them once they were here. Barnet then later decided that they would give us some money to run the library, provided we followed their rules. And we are now running it entirely as a volunteer service, without any paid staff.

Nick: What is your role in this initiative? 

Joanna: Right now I’m Chair of the Trustees.

Nick: Can you say something about the transition from the occupation to the status this library has now?

Joanna: It was quite a smooth transition. Barnet was actually rather fair to the occupiers. They did try to talk with them. But the occupiers did not negotiate, because they wanted this building and not any other building that Barnet had offered them. Barnet also allowed them to stay for an extra month because it was very cold when they were evicted.  As soon as the occupiers left, we came in and started running it.  But Barnet made sure that there was a security guard here to prevent any more squatting.

Nick: How do you assess the role of the public and public participation in this process?

Joanna: Well, the occupiers had an interesting way of dealing with the public. They put signs out to tell people that the library was open and who they were.  They also used to have weekly meetings and the public who came to these meetings then became the public that supported us.

All the while, people were glad to see the doors thrown open and gave up to 10,000 books to the library.  Now we have even more than that, and there are constant donations to the library.  Some of the people who were the campaigners then became volunteers and when anyone comes in we try to enlist their help.

Library supporters link arms and walk past the frontage of the Friern Barnet Community Library

Library supporters link arms and walk past the frontage of the Friern Barnet Community Library. Demotix/Peter Marshall. All rights reserved.

Nick: So what would you say the aims of the library are now?

Joanna: We’d like to keep the library going, because we feel it’s extremely important in an area where English is not always the first language of the household.  We also need to keep the library open because there aren’t any other public spaces in this area, apart from that green over there and a little green that’s locked up in Princess Park Manor. (And nobody even knows that that’s a public park there.) We want this building to be a ‘hub’ for both a library and for community events.

Nick: Who your typical participant or library user?

Joanna: There are a great many types. You can see from the quality of the books that we have that the neighbourhood is much more intellectual than Barnet ever thought it was. The books that Barnet originally supplied the library with were mind-numbingly dull, and the readership fell off because it didn’t have very interesting books.

People are now overjoyed to find authors in this library that they have been seeking elsewhere.  So we have a community who want to have a safe place to bring their children and we also have an intellectual community too.

Nick: So you’ve begun to convene a different reading public than the public you believe Barnet Council thought was here?

Joanna: Exactly, exactly… Barnet claims to know what people want.  But if you go into some of the libraries in Barnet, I would have to say that they probably don’t know what people want.

Nick: And you’ve discovered that through the donations you’ve received?

Joanna: Yes, yes.

Nick: So you’ve solicited donations and you’ve found out who your readers are through the books that they donated.

Joanna: Quite accidentally, yes.

Nick: In what other ways is Friern Barnet Community library now organised?

Joanna: We are organised as a company limited by guarantee, and also as a charity with trustees.  Right now the trustees deal with the rent and the lease.  Actually, we don’t have to pay rent, we have peppercorn rent.  But we’ve had to stay on until we became a charity.  We are now a charity and we are in the process of designing elections.  And we’re very much hoping that people will come forward from the community to become trustees.

Now, some of the people I’m approaching are looking at us and thinking, “That’s far too much work and I don’t want to do it,” and it is.  We have weekly meetings and the interesting thing about these weekly meetings – well, we’ve pushed them back to every two weeks – is that people come along and they criticise. They don’t volunteer.

We have to do a lot to get them a) to chair the meeting, because the trustees say, “We don’t want to chair the meeting, this has to be a community meeting,” and b) to do the minutes in a timely fashion and in an organised fashion.  That is a really difficult task for us.  And I’m really perplexed about it, because all of these people – or most of them – are reasonably well-educated.  But they don’t seem to want the responsibility.  They like to see somebody else taking the initiative and then criticising them for it.  And that is a function of democracy; we’re all like that.  We get mad at the council.  We see them as bossing us around.  They see us as bossing them around.  And we’re saying, “We need more to come from you,” and it’s not forthcoming.

What we had originally wanted was not a top down management system, but a flat system, where everybody is equal.  It’s turning out that people here want a top down management system – it would appear that’s what they want.  They don’t want responsibility; they want freedom of speech, (laughter) freedom to criticise.  It’s an amazingly educational thing for me to undergo.  And I realise now that I do this myself, a lot, with other groups that I regard as telling me what to do.

Nick: The role that public participation has here appears to be rather unsettled, a work in progress shall we say?

Joanna: Absolutely. For example, it’s taken a year for us to get one committee going and going well, and that’s the publicity committee.  I had originally started an events and fundraising committee who were extremely keen, and are extremely keen.  The problem now is that since I have to do the chair role too, I don’t have as much time to meet them, and so they’ve fallen apart, because they need a leader.  And no natural leader has come from them.  Which is funny in a democracy, I think.

Nick:  So the role of leadership also appears to be unsettled here? Occupy took on a leadership role here at one point and Occupy favour horizontal forms of organisation. But I understand that this group in fact had a leader who played a significant role during the occupation of the library…is that right?

Joanna: Yeah, Phoenix: he was a strong and charismatic figure.

Nick: And aside from the Occupiers, the council have also tried to take some leadership in this case and now you and other people here are taking leadership.  How are you currently negotiating this leadership role?

Joanna: It really is a novel process in my experience. I had always believed that, once one leader fell to one side, another one would spring up, and that you didn’t need an appointed king, or even a powerful leader, because everybody has a sense of responsibility, and everybody has a sense of pulling together.  But I’ve found that isn’t true.

Nick: Would you say this initiative is underpinned or informed by any particular ideals or ideologies or political values?

Joanna: No. If you’re asking me, is it right-wing or left-wing?, I would say it’s none of those.

Nick: But there’s a certain utopianism about at least some aspects of this initiative isn’t there? A certain aspiration for this library to work in a particular way, it feels like that from the outside, anyway.

Joanna: Yes. I think everybody who comes in here supports the idea that it is a space for the people.  Because the land over there was given to the people of Friern Barnet under the 1925 Public Health Act, and really still should be in the ownership of the people, though Barnet Council see themselves as the owners rather than the caretakers.

I believe that a council or a government is a caretaker for the people and that a public building belongs to the public, and it’s not the council’s to sell.  It’s the council’s to look after.

The people here feel that way too, that this is their property.  And everybody who comes in here feels that it is a space that they deserve to have, because they’re paying for it with their Council Tax.  The council feels differently about it.  (Laughter)  They feel that they have better uses for their Council Tax, for our Council Tax, like paying themselves (laughter) sometimes, in some cases, outrageous expenses.

Nick: How do you see this initiative as being positioned now in relation to these more established public institutions and more mainstream forms of politics, such as those you’ve experienced through your dealings with Barnet Council?

Joanna: I’d say about 98% of us would like to have greater cooperation with the council and greater support from the council.  Only one or two people I’ve spoken to would like to see us completely free of the council, running our own little business here, since it costs well over £25,000 a year to run this and purchase things for the library, and Barnet has given us £25,000 for this year and for next year.  I don’t see how we can be a business, and I don’t think anybody…most of us don’t see that as our future.  Barnet on the other hand would like to be rid of us.  (Laughter)

Nick: Barnet would like to be rid of this initiative?

Joanna: They’ve made that clear. I won’t name the council officer who said this library should have been closed, and it’s really a burden on him, because he feels that it’s taking away money from the rest of his libraries.  It’s only £25,000. It’s a drop in the bucket compared with what they do have to spend.  But that’s the way council officers perceive it.  And they are very reluctant to give us any help.  So we don’t have very much communication.

Nick: Have any Barnet councillors been involved in the campaign or in this initiative more generally?

Joanna: Indeed, all three of our ward councillors were involved from the very beginning of the campaign, and are still involved, and are even willing to run as trustees.  They often make things happen for us with the council that would not normally happen.  Our own personal relationship with the council is very tenuous and I wouldn’t say difficult exactly.  It’s almost non-existent, except an occasional meeting, which is friendly enough.  But the three ward councillors are astonishing.  There are two Labour and one Conservative who really goes against her party brief, but she’s been doing that for a long time.

Nick: And are Occupy still involved?

Joanna: Occasionally they will come and do a stint of volunteering, but they’ve moved on to other places to occupy. I’m not even sure they’re in the neighbourhood anymore.

Nick: But in a way, this is one of their…

Joanna: Great successes. Yes, it is indeed.

Nick: Do you know if they also see it in this way?

Joanna: Oh, absolutely, yes, indeed. I did try to get another library in Luton to get in touch with Phoenix, because they phoned us and wanted to know how we were rescued. I don’t know whether he’s occupied it.  They wanted him to.

Nick: One of the reasons your relationship with the council is particularly interesting here is because this kind of community run, self-organised, participative and voluntarist model is now being talked about more and more often as a template for how libraries and other public services should be run.

Joanna: It should be a model.  The community should be pouring in volunteers and opportunities to run events like the concert we had last night at the library. It was the squatters who started the open mic nights – squatters, I shouldn’t call them that, but they call themselves that – and they kept going for a long time, but we do have a problem with serving alcohol here as we can’t allow the public to come in and drink alcohol in this building.

So that died a death and until we find some people who are willing to start the open mic night again without alcohol.  (Laughter)  It doesn’t seem to be what jazz musicians want to do.  But it will happen.

We also have author events, talks.  All these things should be going on in all the libraries, and the community should be responding to maybe an SOS from the libraries saying, “We can only stay alive with more help from the community beyond your Council Tax.”

Nick: Beyond securing this library and keeping it running, can you point to any other effects, outcomes or results of this participation initiative?

Joanna: Yes - I’m hoping that the footfall is greater than it was when Barnet was running it.  I don’t think we’ve ever been given accurate footfall numbers from Barnet.  All they said was the footfall in this library was low.

We do have the numbers for the book borrowing.  I think the year that it closed, there were 39,000 books borrowed.  Now, we need to do our sums, and we haven’t done them yet.  I would doubt if we had quite that many, because a lot of people in the neighbourhood still don’t know that we exist.  There’s no sign up there: that’s one of the things we need to pay for, because Barnet took the sign away and they’re not giving it back. (Laughter) But we do have leaflets that we are now starting to distribute.

Nick: What are the main challenges you face going forward, and what do you think would be needed to overcome these?

Joanna: Oh, one of the main challenges is going to be to keep up the public enthusiasm for the project.  It’s going to become old news and people are going to get bored being expected to participate, because everybody wants an easy life.  They want to pay their money and get their reward, whatever that might be.  Pay their TV licence and get good TV.  (Laughter)  Pay their Council Tax and get their library, without having to participate.

Nick: But this initiative isn’t a consumer experience is it?

Joanna: People would like it to be and I think the enthusiasm is going to fall off. People will gradually say, “Okay, I’ve done my bit.”  (Laughter)  And that only a few people are going to be struggling to keep it together.  But maybe I’m cynical.

Nick: What do you think will be needed to overcome these challenges?

Joanna: Probably more fun events.  People coming in and saying, “I know of a really good group, would you give them space in the library?”  “Yes,” and then they’ll become enthusiastic again.  I think that is one of the things that’s going to happen.  People don’t always want to take responsibility for themselves. (Laughter)  But they would like the pleasure of seeing what they want happening in the library.

Nick: It’s sometimes been quite an individualistic picture of people that you’ve been painting here.  But you are also telling me that the fun and the pleasure of participating can support the collective dimensions of this initiative?

Joanna: Yes, I think by making it a pleasure to come in here, and a lot of people do like to come in here, especially because it’s a more relaxed atmosphere than most other libraries.

Nick: So you’re finding that people still want to be with each other, as well as wanting to do their own thing?

Joanna: They do indeed, and that’s one of the reasons why people join campaigns, that’s one of the reasons why they become volunteers, because big city life is lonely. It isn’t like a small community here at all, I never knew anybody here before; I just went to work and came home.  I knew my next door neighbours, that was it.

So I’m meeting lots of people, and so are they.  But how long the joy or the novelty of that is going to last, I don’t know.  I would like to think that it will last a long time.  But I do feel that we should be having government support.  Not entirely though, because it’s fun to be able to walk into a building and say, “I want to see this happen,” and it happens!

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