Community comes together to open a new library in Blackheath Village

age exchnageAt the end of November the new community library at the Age Exchange in Blackheath  Village opened, replacing the former library, run by Lewisham council around the corner on Blackheath Grove, which was closed down in 2011.

I was at the opening, which was well-attended, and it was great to see Age Exchange’s chair Ian Mills, the Mayor of Greenwich David Grant, and Lewisham’s elected Mayor Sir Steve Bullock, jointly declare the transformed Age Exchange  building re-opened.

Funded partly by Lewisham council, the new facility is actually just over the Greenwich side of the borough boundary, which snakes its way through the middle of the Village, and the new library (like the old one) will be a much-used resource by residents on both sides of the border.

It is something of a Tardis outside – behind the familiar shopfront, a lift has been installed and a previously inaccessible basement has become the new library, with an expanded cafe and exhibition space upstairs.

It is great news that thanks to lots of hard work by Age Exchange, committed volunteers, and financial support from Lewisham Council and a number of private philanthropists , a permanent new library has just reopened less than 18 months after the nearby Lewisham-run library closed in the summer of 2011. They also deserve plaudits for having run an interim library in the Bakehouse at the rear of the Age Exchange premises running in the meantime.

Lewisham did get some bad press for closing down its library on Blackheath Grove, for understandable reasons. The problem is that,unlike Greenwich, Lewisham did not own all its library buildings, and had to pay rent of several tens of thousand pounds a year to rent the building that used to house the Blackheath Grove library – on top of the costs of staff, buying new books, and heating and lighting the building.

With Lewisham council – just like Greenwich – being forced to make more than £40m of savings over four years because of cuts to the grant it gets from central Government, looking at how library services are delivered was one of many difficult decisions it has been forced to make.

The good news is that the new library, while having fewer books than the old one, looks fantastic, and the Age Exchange building looks set to become a community centre for Blackheath Village with a range of services delivered from it.

Thanks to volunteers, the new library is, remarkably, open from 8am until 5 or 6pm six days a week (the old library was only open about three and a half days a week). See http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/myservices/libraries/branches/Pages/Blackheath-Village-community-library-service.aspx for full details.

The problem is that achieving this feat in Blackheath Village – a prosperous area where residents have a good deal of time, skills, and fundraising ability – is a good deal easier than in more deprived communities, Lewisham has done well to ensure that community libraries have also opened in more deprived parts of the borough such as New Cross and Grove Park. But other communities will find this more of struggle, in areas outside London where the “Big Society” is just an empty slogan without public money, and where “human capital” – wiling volunteers and philanthropy – is often in short supply (There was a great IMG00012-20121122-1539piece on this theme in the Guardian last month  – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/local-government-network/2012/nov/06/localism-public-services-blackheath-community-library).

So well done to Age Exchange for making this happen, and for reopening a library at the heart of Blackheath Village. But it is a sad commentary that this happened not because of the cuts in public spending that are being made, but despite them.

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One Response to Community comes together to open a new library in Blackheath Village

  1. Pingback: After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

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