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Volunteer-run libraries face wait to get up and running again

Step by step approach to getting all services in use

27 July, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Volunteers from Primrose Hill Library

LIBRARIES across Camden will gradually reopen next month – but volunteers managing the branches hived off by the council say they have no idea when they will be able to fully welcome back users.

The Town Hall plans to open libraries in three phases from August 3, beginning with branches at Pancras Square, West Hampstead and Queen’s Crescent.

They will only be open for limited computer access for people who do not have other ways to get online. The second phase, from August 17, will see a “read and request” service introduced, with borrowers able to order books and collect them.

The final branches will reopen at the start of September. A timetable for reopening is less clear for the branches that Camden said it could not afford to run in 2014 and instead handed over to voluntary groups, who stepped into save them from closure.

Keats Community Library, which is now run by its Friends group, opened on Saturday – and saw members take out over 200 books in a four-hour window. The library will be open on Tuesdays and Saturdays – and members will monitor demand. But there is no plan in place to reopen a study area, offer computers or newspapers.

Friends chairman Steven Bobasch said: “We will do this step by step.”

The library does not pay rent to the managers of Keats House, the City of London, but instead has a licence to operate – meaning they have not faced rent demands during lockdown.

But the pandemic has blown a hole in their finances, added Mr Bobasch, who said: “The Hampstead Summer Festival usually raises around 20 per cent of our annual income, while books sales, which bring in about 15 per cent of our budget annually, have also had to be shelved.” During lockdown, the library delivered books to older people.

Over the closure period the Friends of Highgate Library, who manage the branch in Chester Road, held a series of online talks and discussions that have proved popular.

Friends chairwoman Linda Lefevre said: “We have tried hard to keep going. We have held events via Zoom and called members who live on their own to encourage them to join in. “Reopening is taking a very long time to prepare risk assessments, and to see what services we can offer. People are keen to come in and browse the books. We have our volunteers at the ready – but we have no idea when we will be allowed to open again.”

Volunteers at Primrose Hill Library are running a trial opening at the end of August, consisting of six hours over one week. Chairwoman Marijke Good said they would not be able to offer study spaces, computers, newspapers or periodicals – and have no toilet facilities open. She added the library was ready to reopen – but had traditionally shut during August, due to many people being away. She said: “We feel it is sensible to run a trial at the end of August.”

Culture chief Labour councillor Jonathan Simpson said: “We are keen to reopen them all as soon as possible, but in a safe way that protects both visitors and our staff, ensuring our buildings are ‘Covid secure’ and residents are able to adhere to social distancing guidance. “An important element of our approach to reopening is to address the ‘digital divide’ within some of Camden’s communities. This has increased during the Covid-19 crisis, meaning that some residents have been unable to access important online services, and the reintroduction of the library service will help address this.”

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