Waterloo is currently the only library that vaguely resembles Lambeth’s “neighbourhood library” model. It is the worst performing library in the borough. It’s a quarter of its former size, with a commensurate reduction in study space and stock, and no space for activities. Staff attend only two hours a day and can do little but trouble-shoot problems such as malfunctioning self-service machines.
The library is hosted by the Oasis church (and thus is closed throughout the Christmas/New Year and Easter periods when all other libraries are open). It is a pleasant building near tube and bus routes, but it is dominated by the cafe on the ground and first floors. The library is invisible at the back of the first floor. It feels bleak and impersonal – although it is also very cramped and noisy. It is hard to bring in a push-chair or wheelchair.
Reading and study are very difficult. Loudly chattering cafe users are close by, the coffee machine is noisy and the cafe naturally plays music. Background noise level measured at 10am was 75.6db. The nearby cafe space has far more tables than the library, but the cafe does not like library patrons to use them.
Cafe users, the staff bringing their orders, people going to the toilets, and children playing tag all pass through the access gate and are erroneously counted as library users. So are those who try to use PCs, printer etc but cannot do so and leave. The visitor count should be reduced by at least half – at times, by as much as 80%. The alarm rarely sounds when unrecorded stock is carried through, and busy cafe staff do not come running when it does. We could have stolen any amount of stock.
Few people visited, apart from those using the PCs. Very few books were taken out. The collection is very small (perhaps 7,500), compared with what was available in the former Waterloo library. Book issues have fallen sharply.
The PCs are constantly in use, usually fully taken within minutes of opening time, with people waiting. More are needed. A good proportion of the adult users came daily – a small group who knew the ropes. They have learned to book the PCs in advance, crowding out other users, people who need to make prints etc. Staff, when present, advised these to go to the Durning library instead. The PCs for children have to be crammed in right next to those for adults, so no matter how well-behaved they are, their enjoyment disturbs others.
A small group of under-10 boys came to play a computer game every day – and regularly got excited and very noisy, sometimes running around, spinning on the chairs etc. This was only natural behaviour, but constituted a real nuisance in this cramped, unstaffed library. Otherwise few children were seen. This was during the school holidays. Teens, girls or young adults were rarely seen.
It was not unusual to see adults come (sometimes with small children), glance briefly, see nobody to welcome them and go away (but they will figure in the count as users). Adults can also be noisy – playing music, making phone-calls etc. Staff are rarely present to intervene.
Library users are crammed together. There is no quiet space for study. There is no separate space for children, let alone teens, unless you count the minimal space between the children’s bookshelves which has no seating. Children have easy access to adult graphic novels, some of them very adult. There is no storage space, so it is difficult to run activity sessions. When an extra craft session was laid on, nobody came. Staff can normally run only one group activity per week – a popular mum-and-baby session, which unsurprisingly is noisy, crowds out the space, hasn’t space for all to sit, disturbs other users and overflows into the cafe.
The hours when staff are present vary widely, presumably to give everyone a shot at seeing a librarian at a time they can manage. Hit and miss. People regularly turn up seeking staff, try to get the café staff to help (they can’t) and ask: “When is the library open?” Without staff, they don’t see it as being open for them.
Apart from people trying to get help from each other – or telling the children to be quiet – there is no interaction between people. There is no sense of community. The close proximity of children to adult strangers – with nobody supervising – is very concerning. It is not a safe space. The (very nice) cafe staff cannot see what is going on.
People constantly need help with the various machines. When present, staff spend nearly all their time sorting out these problems, not on library work with people. Even when staff are present, it is not clear who they are. They have to squat with a laptop at a tiny desk, and pack everything away when they are done. They race around trying to get everything done. They can do little but trouble-shoot problems with the various machines – they are continually asked technical questions about how to use the photocopier, how to access the wifi, how to make the computers work, how to book a slot on the computer etc etc. When no staff are present, users ask other users to help – or give up and leave.
Children taking part in the Summer Reading Challenge, and others needing help with reading or information needs, were rarely able to have any time with a librarian. This takes up much of librarians’ time in normal libraries – as it should. Extra staff had to be brought in from elsewhere for the Reading Challenge celebration.