Feature: What has become of Barking and Dagenham’s libraries?
- Credit: Archant
Once upon a time they were a place to meet, find out information and get stuck into a good book. But are libraries dying out?
A decade ago there were 13 libraries in Barking and Dagenham, housing thousands of books for public reading and borrowing.
But after years of public spending cuts, more than half are no more.
Wantz Library, in Rainham Road North, and Markyate Library, in Markyate Road, both closed in 2012 – the former is now used by Eastbrook Community Centre, the latter a nursery.
Similar fates befell five others leaving only four libraries – Dagenham, Valence, Thames View and the Barking Learning Centre – still open and run by the local authority. There were 96,581 registered borrowers last year with 334,635 library books loaned out in 2015.
Vince Thomas, 56, has worked in all of the borough’s libraries over the past eight years and is now team leader at Dagenham Library.
Although there were more than 1.2 million visits to the borough’s libraries in 2015, he insists things aren’t improving for staff.
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“I’m really not sure what will happen over the next three or four years,” he said. “We haven’t been told.
“The council is looking at all services for the next five years, but it’s been like that since day one.
“Every year I’ve had to re-apply and go through interviews to keep my job – there’s more of a retail feel in libraries now.”
Rectory Library, in Rectory Road, Dagenham – now a Royal British Legion branch – emptied its shelves in 2010 along with Fanshawe Library, to be replaced by Dagenham Library.
Woodward Road Library is now a re-use centre for disability charity DABD, having been replaced by Castle Green Library in 2006. That in turn became part of Jo Richardson School seven years later.
A further two, Marks Gate and Robert Jeyes, are now solely run by community groups at the Marks Gate Children’s Centre and Chadwell Heath Community Centre respectively.
Nationwide, about a quarter of jobs in UK libraries have disappeared – almost 8,000 – with 343 libraries shutting across the country. A worrying number for the many that rely on them.
Beryl Weekes, 81, of Goresbrook Road, Dagenham, would lack any personal contact without public libraries and the borough’s 152,359 available-to-borrow books.
She plays bingo at the Barking Learning Centre every Monday and Thursday – a highlight of her week.
“It’s the only way I get to see my friends,” she said.
“It makes a nice break to go out and make some new friends – I would just be watching TV otherwise.”
The borough has shed almost a fifth of its council library staff in the past six years, from 80 down to 67 – equivalent to 36 full-timers – with a greater dependance on volunteers echoing the national trend.
Barking and Dagenham had no unpaid staff in 2010 but now boasts 103 volunteers.
Across the UK a total of 15,500 volunteers have been recruited to libraries since the last Labour government, but Vince believes an over-reliance could pose issues.
“There is a chance that you’re going to lose that professionalism and that passion for library work if you only have volunteers,” he added.
“My own opinion is that libraries are a vital social service and needed in local areas but are totally under-valued.
“I’m gutted that [six libraries] were closed. Obviously the agenda at the time was that there was to be cuts in public services but I think that was short-sighted.”
Rush Green Library closed in December 2013 to make way for housing but its collection was taken over by Barking and Dagenham College, which now runs its own public library at its Rush Green campus.
Yvonne Kelly, acting principal and chief executive of the college, said: “Having the local library at our Rush Green campus has given the college an opportunity to welcome our local residents.
“The library is free to join and we offer all the services you would expect”
But Kathleen Lambert, 85, of The Clarksons, Barking, believes it was the wrong call to close so many libraries.
“I know services had to be cut, but I think more effort should have been made to get children into reading by keeping the libraries open,” she said. “If you’ve got a book, you’ve got a friend.”
Eight-year-old Ella, a St Margaret’s School pupil, enjoys visiting the library during the school holidays.
“I like the summer reading challenges and all the fun activities you can do,” she said. “During the summer holidays we go almost every day because I like reading.”
A spokesman for Barking and Dagenham Council said: “We have a proud record of running modern, popular and accessible libraries across the borough.
“We lent more than 300,000 books from our libraries last year and we host hundreds of free community events.
“ We are committed to our library and cultural services, which inspire and provide exciting opportunities for our residents.
“Barking and Dagenham library service has two excellent flagships, Barking Learning Centre and Dagenham Library, which has recently been shortlisted in the British Book Industry Awards for best library, the only one in London to be nominated.
“Visitors to the library have increased by over 30,000 in the last year.
“All our buildings offer wi-fi access and there is a varied programme of activities at each library.”