Ten years on, the volunteers who saved your library

Warning that new people will need to come forward to secure future of branches dumped by the council

Tuesday, 26th April — By Dan Carrier

WhatsApp Image 2022-04-20 at 10.00.13 AM (5)

A celebration at Keats Community Library to mark a decade of hard work

VOLUNTEERS are marking the 10th anniversary since they came to the rescue of libraries facing closure – but with a warning that new help will be needed to safeguard their future.

Camden Council hived off the management of branches at Highgate, Primrose Hill and Keats Grove in 2012 with the service now reliant on people giving up their time for free.

The Town Hall said at the time they did not have enough money to keep on managing them in the traditional way, and so “friends” groups stepped in to make sure the doors did not close. Now the original volunteers say they need fresh help to ensure the story continues.

Steven Bobasch, chair of the Keats Community Library, has been involved with the branch formerly run by the council in South End Green since it was asked to go it alone.

He said: “In 10 years, we have only had three days where we haven’t opened on time. Today, more than 8,300 people hold Keats Grove library cards. In 2019, staff and volunteers logged more than 44,000 books lent.”

The success, he said, has simply been down to the hard graft of volunteers.

“We have been doing this for 10 years and it is very hard to get more people involved to take it on,” said Mr Bobasch. “The responsibilities rest on the shoulders of a few people. “We have to organise events, look at the budgets. What we really need are new people to help keep it going.”

He first became involved when his neighbour, the president of the Friends of Keats Grove Library, the actor Lee Montague, told him the library was in danger and asked if he could help.

He said: “I said, ‘Yes, Monty, whatever you need.’ He said, ‘Well, I have organised a meeting in your house with like-minded people.’”

The Town Hall offered the group a small grant to help them get started, but the new library almost collapsed before a book had been checked out.

The Friends discovered Camden paid the City of London a peppercorn rent and enjoyed a lease of hundreds of years for the building. But instead of organising for the Friends to take this on, they surrendered the agreement.

Mr Bobasch said: “It was strange. It felt at the time there was someone who wanted to sabotage our plans and did not want us to reopen Keats as a community library. “We were suddenly facing negotiating with the City. The talks were tricky. We had to show them long-term business plans. We met people who were very hostile to our idea but eventually we won out. “Over time we have become good friends.”

The Friends need to find around £60,000 a year to keep the branch afloat – and do so through a mixture of regular donations, fundraising events and book sales.

“You’d be surprised the amount the library raises through fines,” he added.

Book sales are a key part of the finances. Donations have helped the library completely replace its stock over the past 10 years and have raised thousands of pounds.

Mr Bobasch said: “The committee decided to keep the library open as much as possible, with Mondays being the only day it is closed. The library is open 42 hours a week. Very few others are open all the time. We found that only opening two or three days a week, people cannot remember the days they are open, so they end up not bothering.”

Mr Bobasch added: “The library is much better off than it was under Camden, but we do sometimes feel it would be good for them to take it on again.

“It is a happier place – we don’t have machines for people to take books out with, you speak with people. We are open for longer hours with a better stock of books. Could Camden offer that? We have been able to be very responsive to what the public wants. We are really part of our community. They give the library their time, their money, their skills and resources.”

The council said it could not comment on the future of libraries during the pre-election period.

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