CARNLOUGH campaigners have won a welcome victory by gaining a reprieve for the village library, but Libraries NI have warned that the branch will close a year from now unless there is “substantive progress” on necessary building improvements and “realistic” usage targets.
The branch was one of eight under-threat libraries reprieved on Thursday, October 20 by the board of Libraries NI. However, they stressed that in Carnlough’s case continuation is “subject to confirmation from the landlord (Larne Borough Council) of swift and decisive action within a specified time scale to carry out the necessary improvements to the building, as a minimum to meet legal requirements, including disabled access”.
Libraries NI added: “Realistic targets for usage will be established, in consultation with the local community, to ensure sustainability.
“Progress in relation to these targets will be reviewed in October, 2012 at which stage the library will close if substantive progress has not been made in addressing deficiencies in the building and/or the targets for usage have not been met.”
The relief felt by members of the energetic and innovative Save Carnlough Library campaign was tempered by the unequivocal wording of the terms of the 12-month review.
The group immediately issued a statement in which they called on the council to “make the necessary improvements to the building as soon as possible”.
Since January, when Libraries NI began consulting on the proposed closure of the branch, the campaign has been lobbying councillors, MLAs and Stormont ministers while working proactively to encourage more people to join the library and take out books, CDs and DVDs.
They believe that, if the physical improvements were carried out, the library would fulfil an important community function.
“The campaign committee is grateful for all the support they received throughout the campaign, which started in earnest in February this year,” said the group. “The local community turned out in large numbers to support every event to help protect this invaluable resource for young and old in community. The teachers from all the local schools also contributed enormously.
“Carnlough has limited public service and a high level of deprivation. The campaign expresses solidarity with those who are facing the loss of their library and understand the difficulty faced by vulnerable groups within those communities who may now have to travel to access library services,” they added.
Libraries NI evaluated 77 libraries in phase two of an overall review of the service in Northern Ireland, assessing fitness for purpose, potential to deliver the vision of a modern library service, location and sustainability.
Carnlough was one of 10 judged as potentially unsustainable and the consultation sparked a series of meetings with community groups, councils and public representatives.
Board members said they were encouraged by the feedback received and the level of support shown by a number of local communities. In three cases (Greystone (Antrim), Kells and Connor, and Richhill) the library will continue to operate in its current premises with a progress review in two years to ensure that usage targets are met and that the library is sustainable in the long term.
In four cases (Carnlough, Draperstown, Fintona and Killyleagh) work is underway in conjunction with other bodies, either to improve the current premises or investigate a possible alternative location for the library. Times scales have been established for this work to be completed and the viability of these libraries will depend on substantive progress being made.
The board opted to close libraries at Gilford, Moy and Moneymore.
Nigel Macartney, interim chairperson, said Libraries NI had been tasked with undertaking the strategic review without the “constraints imposed by the historical boundaries of the education and library boards”.
He added: “In these times of austerity, it is imperative that we maximise the use of our resources and we know from the Stage One Review that library use in Greater Belfast improved after the closures.
“The level of feedback received through the public consultation process was significant and the board has listened and responded by agreeing to work with local groups and communities. It is important that this opportunity is embraced and customers continue to work with Libraries NI to continue to promote and improve library use.”
Adam Wilkinson, outgoing chairman of the Save Carnlough Library Campaign, was “delighted” by the reprieve, but he warned against complacency, saying: “There is still a lot of work to be done if the future of the library is to be assured.”
Adam expressed his hope that Larne Borough Council and Carnlough Community Association will be able to source funding for the building improvements stipulated by Libraries NI.
“The library has been identified in the new village plan as a hub for the community that everybody wants to keep and hopefully that will help to draw down the funding. There are big plans for it, like a mezzanine floor that could be used as a meeting space for various groups who can’t be accommodated at the community centre, which is in use nearly every night of the week.
“I have suggested a film club because it is quite a distance to the cinemas in Larne and Ballymena and there is no public transport for people who don’t drive. It has also been suggested that the local George Shiels Society would be interested in having readings at the library.”
The community lobby has helped to almost double membership at Carnlough library since February, but Adam fears that might not be enough.
“The danger is that a lot of people will think the library is safe now, but the point is it is under review and unless usage is increased they might close it in a year. We have to find ways of encouraging more people to use the library to make it sustainable,” said Adam, whose parting suggestion was to have greater flexibility in opening times.”
Ulster Unionist councillor Maureen Morrow revealed that that Larne Council has set aside match funding for Carnlough and several local village plans. She added: “That is welcome, but we now need to move forward with a proposal to the North East Regional Partnership as soon as possible to obtain grant aid.”
Cllr Morrow said: “I am delighted that the library has been reprieved and I would encourage everyone to move very quickly now because we have only got a year to prove that it will be sustainable. Local people must make sure they give the library the support it needs and we also have to ensure that the building is good enough for the library to succeed.”
East Antrim Ulster UUP MLA Roy Beggs Jnr congratulated the campaigners who “fought so effectively to save Carnlough Library from closure”.
He added, however: “There needs to be full clarity about who is responsible for improving the library building inside and out and I would hope and expect that Libraries NI and Larne Borough Council would get together to plot an investment strategy to ensure the longterm survival of this important social and educational facility for Carnlough and district.”