Concerns raised by residents regarding changes to Harlow Library

Education: Secondary / Thu 4th Mar 2021 at 02:03pm

By Monica Jones

FOLLOWING the two Zoom “public meetings” held by Essex County Council last week regarding the plans for Harlow Library and Adult Community Learning (ACL), there have been many concerns raised by residents – some of whom are part of Harlow Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) and some had not been involved in the campaign.

A library mostly in name only

It seems that the changes at Harlow Library are more about providing a better and bigger space for ACL than the actual library itself, as very little of the building will remain as a dedicated library space – it will be a library mostly in name only.  

None of the first floor of the building will be for library use, and from looking at the plans, it seems that just the area from where the reception is now to the front of the building will be actual library space – as a rough guess, let’s say 25% of the building.  

What remains of the library will undergo a refurbishment and will be more inviting – for, as Councillor Barker repeated several times, “the building is quite run down and from the 60s”. (She neglected to acknowledge that Essex County Council run the library and could have done something to prevent the library deteriorating into its present impoverished state).  

However, the main library, study area and IT suite will be surrounded by a coffee shop (to be run by ACL) and baby sensory area. So, if you’re looking for a quiet space, you may need to head somewhere else. The same goes if you’re looking for a comfy chair with back support. Essex County Council doesn’t appear to recognise that people come into the library to sit and read while they’re there.  Concern at lack of local knowledge 

As for the Zoom meetings themselves with Essex County Councillor Barker and her team, it doesn’t seem that she knows much about Harlow. She didn’t appear to know that the Library building is largely owned and leased from Riley’s Snooker Club – which begs the question why is so much government and county council money being invested into this building?  
She didn’t know why people would be interested in whether the sculptures which are currently housed in the library will return – a little surprising given that we are, of course, a sculpture town. 

Lack of open engagement in the public meetings and dismissive answers

Residents were not able to speak during the meeting. They had to type questions into a Q&A chatbox area.

This led to Councillor Barker not reading out the full questions that were being submitted, so it was hard to follow what her answers related to. It also led to her misunderstanding the questions which were being asked of her and the public not easily being able to give a correction or seek further clarification.

Dismissive and quite aggressive – especially at the first meeting – she did not seem open to allowing anyone to expand on their opinions or give respect to the questions being asked – which, you would have thought, was the main purpose of a public meeting, alongside taking the time to inform.  

Some concerns were raised about ACL’s role in the building and the amount of space that it will occupy. Although it seems that the floorplans are not reflective of all the organisations that will be calling it home: a further two organisations currently based at Abbotsweld – Essex Teacher Training and the Volunteer Centre – may be moving over too.

Where will they squeeze in? And what will happen to the buildings that these organisations currently inhabit? Unfortunately, Councillor Barker was not full of answers, and she wasn’t even aware that Essex County Council is responsible for ACL too, which makes the question of why the council is so happy to hand so much of the building over to non-library space even more worrying.  

One of the many things that the pandemic has highlighted is the digital divide and the lack of internet access for many at home – libraries are a place that many people go to get online. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how many computers will be available in the new library space. We were told that currently it is 20, yet during the meeting it was implied that this would reduce to 13. On a busy day in the library these will easily be fully occupied, and that’s without ACL students breaking from their classes and wishing to study further.  

Harlow’s Essex County Councilors called on to do more

With regard to further “Consultation”, Harlow residents requested our own Essex County Councillors – Hardware, Souter, Garnett and Johnson – take this process further by offering face to face public meetings, when it is safe to do so. Not everyone who uses the library will have been able to get online and attend the Zoom meetings. We await further details. In the meantime, Councillor Barker did concede that posters will now be put up in the library to inform people of the intended changes. 

Some positive reassurances for Harlow

A positive that we did get from the meeting was the assurance that the other libraries in Harlow would remain run and staffed by Essex County Council, rather than them pursuing the previous plan from Essex County Council for them to lose their buildings and move to being community run.

There were concerns about how people with extra mobility requirements would be able to move between the ground and first floor and whether there would be sufficient space to move easily between library shelves. Councillor Barker stated that a lift was being installed and they would be adhering to regulations with regard to accessibility. 

Lack of book stock

In terms of book stock, currently Chelmsford has in excess of 80,000 books whilst Harlow has only 37,000 as the stock has been run down over the last few years. However, Chelmsford has a population of 168,310 (last census) and Harlow 84,600 – so why the huge disparity? Surely this is an unequal share of books pro rata of population?  We are, after all, an expanding town with a projected population of 140,000.  Councillor Barker suggested that this was something that could possibly discussed at some time in the future. How and when? 
We were assured that the same number of books (37k) would be returned to Harlow after refurbishment. However, the book stock will be different, and will be based on loan history, but how many times have you been to the library and found that the book you wanted wasn’t in stock?  Will this lead to more of the same, rather than giving the opportunity for people to expand their interests? 

And what about that expensive consultation? For whilst Essex County Council may be focusing on coffee shops and community hubs, its own research shows that the main reason that people go to the library is for books.  Why isn’t more attention being paid to this?

Further concerns

So why is so much of the library space being reduced? Does the town centre really need another coffee shop? What happens one day when Riley’s Snooker Club wants to sell the building – do they make a tidy profit from the government and county council money (our tax money) which has been invested in doing the place up? How will Essex County Council hold the private owners to account for taxpayers’ money invested into the building? We don’t know and Essex County Council doesn’t either – apparently the legal side of things is still being looked into. 
For ACL, this is a brilliant move into the town centre. Yes, in comparison to the run down building we have now, the small space that is dedicated to the library will look and feel far more modern and welcoming. But, it’s hard not to feel that as a town we are losing rather than gaining something, and likely to lose even more in the future.  

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