Keep UNLC independent 

Upper Norwood Joint Library is a rarity to be envied and protected. It is the only independent public library in Britain. 

It is a stand-alone library service – not a departmentally, corporately or centrally supported branch or satellite library of a wider borough or county system.

It is jointly owned by 2 boroughs, Croydon and Lambeth. Delegates first met in 1895 to plan a library to serve the community where the two boroughs converge and the doors opened to the public on 4 July 1900. Unlike conventional library authority services, Upper Norwood Joint Library is managed by its own Joint Committee that operates under a formal Joint Committee Agreement, signed in 1898 that states: “The Joint Committee shall carry out the functions of a Library Authority in lieu of Lambeth and Croydon.”

Little is known of this type of library. One other historic example is Lambeth’s Minet Library – between 1890 and 1956 Lambeth shared this with Camberwell as a joint library.

A central library in all but name

The Triangle is a designated ‘District Centre’ that must contain a library. Independent status makes the library its own library authority ie a Central Library, allowing it, through the Joint Committee, to set its own policies, procedures, plans and priorities. This allows for a more responsive and flexible approach to service provision, with all staff having a direct public role, the grass roots contact with the local community and users at all levels of the service avoids the perceived remoteness of other library authorities and their involved and centralised policy making processes. Such intimacy fosters powerful levels of support from local people and library users, and a fierce loyalty to the maintenance of the service, particularly when threats of closure or loss of independent status loom large.

 Huge benefits

Independence allows for

  • A larger volume and subject range of its general, reference and local history material, than any branch library
  • A greater range of services – audio-visual, reserve store, special collections
  • An enhanced level of staff commitment with specialised knowledge, helpfulness and connection with the local community
  • Great value for money in respect of cost per visit, cost per issue, spend per head and a better staff-user ratio – indeed UNJL has the lowest cost per head than any other London borough library
  • No beaurocratic red tape in responding to user needs
  • Proportionally lower running overhead costs than tied branch libraries

Uniqueness allows for

  • Local community support, enthusiasm and involvement
  • A clear identity that relates closer to the local community
  • A single site for all needs

 Library campaigners in 1983

An important part of the UNJL story since the 1980s has been a number of crises appearing to threaten the library’s future. Local people have always rallied round magnificently, urging the parent boroughs to support the library and provide adequate funding.

In the 1990s the campaigning was put on a formal footing with the setting up of the Upper Norwood Library Campaign, and in 1994 helped bring about an updated version of the original 1898 Joint Agreement and secure two seats on the Joint Committee to represent the public interest.

Confronting crisis

Being outside the central library service and, therefore, unable to call on financial support beyond formal re-charges and some informal/gratis contributions, other than agreed revenue funding from the joint parent boroughs and opportunistic external funding sources, is a serious problem, particularly when central Government‘s standards requirements call for making public libraries up to date, relevant and inclusive, in a consistent way. Demanding significant financial investment to deal with the consequential budget pressure and costs, all libraries face this predicament, and many are caught and appear unable to cope adequately. And yet, Upper Norwood Joint Library is a flagship model in both Lambeth and Croydon on how an efficient and effective library should be run. Despite the vicissitudes of the existing system and thanks to our Chief Librarians and the staff, past and current, our library stands in the vanguard of independence, alongside schools, as an effective and efficient means of operating such a community service.

We are pleased and encouraged by the support shown by the Labour group to UNJL’s independence. For too long there have been rumblings from the Croydon side about incorporating Upper Norwood Joint Library into the totality of its, frankly poor, Library Service. Those rumblings persist and must be squashed.