Campaigners Are Worried For The Future Of A Treasured London Library
The Marcus Garvey Library in Tottenham is an important landmark for black Britons. Has its temporary closure by Haringey council been thought through?
When the Jamaican equality campaigner Marcus Garvey first visited England in 1912, Jamaica was still 50 years away from independence from Britain. Garvey, a visionary and one of the most important and influential figures of the 20th century, stayed for two years.
He worked on the African Times and Orient Review, a newspaper focusing primarily on issues surrounding liberation and anti-colonial struggles around the world. In those two years, he learned about British democracy, and was drawn in particular to the Labour party, especially the welfare socialism the party promoted.
His visit to England is thought to have inspired him to create the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in June 1919 – an outlet that aimed to represent all black people both in Africa and the diaspora.
The UNIA endorsed economic self-reliance by running various black businesses including factories, laundries, restaurants, hotels, and a printing press. He also founded the Black Star Line, a now defunct shipping company for economic trade exclusively between Africa and the black diaspora.
Garvey died in London in 1940. In 1987 – the year that would've marked his 100th birthday – a library in Tottenham was named after him. His son, Dr Marcus Garvey Jr, came to Tottenham to unveil the foundation stone. Some of the books housed in the library form part of an important archive of books for black British communities in north London – and far beyond. In August this year Haringey Council temporarily closed the Marcus Garvey Library in order to make room for council services such as administering parking permits and benefits. A group of local residents are "appalled" by this decision.
Following the closure, a statement from Haringey council said there would be "no reduction to the library services on offer". A campaign group, Friends of Marcus Garvey Library, believes this to be an "outright lie". They are concerned that when the library reopens in 2016, there will be a significant reduction in space, fewer books, and that the shared space with council services will cause disruption to library users, especially children.
The Marcus Garvey Library is situated in the fifth most ethnically diverse borough in the country, and almost two-thirds of the borough's residents come from an ethnic minority background. Haringey is also the fourth most deprived borough in London, with 1 in 3 children living in poverty. And although the Marcus Garvey Library was in some ways like any other local community library, to many residents it was also something much more profound.
More than 2,000 people signed a petition to stop the refurbishment plans, and on 30 August, the date of the closure, a protest was held outside the library building. It gained support from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Tottenham MP David Lammy. Former children's laureate Michael Rosen has also showed his support.
A few of the high-profile supporters of the campaign to save the Marcus Garvey Library.
According to black British newspaper The Voice, Lammy had been unaware of the refurbishment plans and was critical of the council's lack of communication. At the protest he said he was concerned that the only alternative arrangements put in place by Haringey council during the library's closure were to "go to a different library". Lammy, who as a student used the Marcus Garvey library to study for his A-levels, said: "I cannot support any refurbishment plan that means a diminution of study space in the library."
One campaigner told BuzzFeed News that the fact that the closure took place during Mosiah Month – a month dedicated to celebrating the teachings of Marcus Garvey – showed a lack of consideration for the cultural significance of the library for many of the African and Caribbean people in the community.
Just around the corner from the Marcus Garvey Library is Apex House, the Seven Sisters Road building that houses Haringey's customer service facilities. Under the refurbishment plans, these services are to be relocated into the library, allowing Apex House to "make way for much needed housing", according to Haringey council.
The council's cabinet gave approval for the plans in March as part of what it called an "improvement project". In an email statement, a council spokesperson told BuzzFeed News it is planning to provide the Marcus Garvey Library with a "£3 million makeover, with a brighter, more spacious-looking layout, the replacement of ageing equipment and the introduction of customer service facilities alongside the full range of existing library facilities".
The council said it had held a series of public drop-in sessions before the closure was announced – two on 27 March and another on 28 March – to give residents the chance to have a look at the plans and new designs, and that it had "had meetings and kept in touch" with the Friends of Marcus Garvey Library since then.
Protesters hold up signs at a protest in August.
But the Friends of Marcus Garvey Library believe the plans put forward by the council were "deliberately misleading." The consultation sessions, they say, were insufficient and "poorly carried out", so much so that many library users and teachers at nearby schools were unaware of the library's refurbishment plan and closure.
Despite promises by Haringey council to give users plenty of notice of any planned changes, the group claims they were given less than six weeks' notice before the closure, and were provided with no alternative provisions for library facilities during the closure period.
The library housed the Marcus Garvey Collection, an international selection of black history reference books, as well as an assortment of African and Caribbean literature. Shortly after the closure of the library was announced, the campaign group said, many of these books went up for sale for as little as "30p each and four for £1".
They were upset that African-Caribbean books, many of which were rare, were being sold off so cheaply. In a statement, the Friends of Marcus Garvey Library said they viewed this decision as the "council's failure to grasp the overall importance of Marcus Garvey Library with its focus on Afro-Caribbean and BME issues".
Haringey council said the book sale was a way to get rid of "damaged and very old stock".
On 27 August, a member of the Friends of Marcus Garvey Library addressed Haringey councillor Claire Kober in an open letter that described the situation as "highly distressing", adding that "it portrays an extremely negative image of the council's regard for the cultural and historical heritage of a significant proportion of [Tottenham's] community". The letter demanded a full public apology from the council and called for actions to "replace stock lost" in order to restore public trust.
Haringey council told BuzzFeed News that the book sale was a way to get rid of "damaged and very old stock" in order to make way for new versions. "This is very common practice and something we do periodically across all libraries, allowing us to ensure stock remains relevant and popular," the council said.
In addition to books and study areas, the library also offered a dedicated space for talks, lectures, and exhibitions for everyone in the community. One of the campaigners against the refurbishment, Juley Smith, said the Marcus Garvey Library was "one of the last safe and trusted places in the community."
She pointed BuzzFeed News in the direction of a 2008 comment piece published on pan-African blog Pambazuka News in which the Marcus Garvey Library is described as a place of "mutual respect and enlightenment in our increasingly antagonistic multi-racial, multi-cultural society".
The piece goes on: "It is host to a number of controversial hard and paperbacks and many activities that other public libraries dare not entertain. It is, to say the least, 'radical'." The author, Ronald Elly Wanda, maintained that the library played a key role in extending learning to disenfranchised members of the community.
In Juley Smith's view, the last decade has been very difficult for the library, and its future looks precarious. She feels that the council's plans and the book sale could mark the end of an era for African and Caribbean people living in the UK today.
"I find it ironic that African and Caribbean books were sold off from a library named after a man who encouraged reading and self-education," another campaigner, named Bibsi, told BuzzFeed News. "The council's decision and lack of communication with the community is a personal insult."