Heavy cuts in Tonbridge library hours could affect mental health

FRONT COVER: The library’s historic facade underwent a facelift last year PHOTO: Craig Matthews

Heavy cuts in Tonbridge library hours could affect mental health

by Andy Tong | 23rd January 2019

SCHOOLS and charities have called on Kent County Council [KCC] to abandon a plan to cut the opening hours at Tonbridge Library by a third amid concerns about how it may harm mental health.

County Hall is proposing to take off 18 hours a week as part of a countywide scheme affecting 99 libraries in a bid to save £1million a year.

The plans have been put to a public consultation, which closes on Monday [January 29]. More than 3,000 responses have been collected so far.

The main library on Avebury Avenue is among the hardest hit. The average reduction in hours is 20 per cent.

The move comes despite the fact that KCC invested in a refurbishment of the historic façade early last year and also refitted the interior.

For the last two years it has used the library to launch its successful Summer Reading Challenge for children.

Under the proposals, the main library will be open for 37 hours a week rather than 55 as before, a reduction of 32.7 per cent. West Malling would be almost as badly hit, with 17 hours at risk.

Only three in Kent face stiffer cuts, Coldharbour, Tenterden and Newington while three have the same decrease.

North Tonbridge library in York Parade would lose two hours a week, leaving it open for 23 hours.

That is the current provision at Hildenborough, but it could see itself reduced to just 15 hours a week.

‘It is invaluable for pupils who may not have a quiet space to focus or the money to buy books’

Almost 200 villagers have signed a petition and local MP Tom Tugendhat wrote to KCC telling them: “Feelings are running high and I trust that signatories’ views will be fully considered.”

Libraries in Hadlow and East Peckham would benefit from longer opening times, with an extra seven and five and a half hours respectively.

Tunbridge Wells and Southborough are not affected since they are undergoing major development projects.

The changes to the main facility come in spite of the fact that Tonbridge has the sixth highest number of issues per hour in Kent and the 13th highest number of visits per hour out of 99 – the two most important categories on which KCC’s decision is based.

Based on its calculations, KCC has designed Tonbridge as ‘Tier Two’ under a new form of categorisation.

Tier One libraries will be open for 42 hours a week. There are 11 of these, so Tonbridge, which is in 13th place in the league table, just fell short of Tier One.

Emily Kindregan, The Hayesbrook School’s librarian, said schoolchildren will suffer – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

BOOKED UP: Last year's Summer Reading Challenge was launched at Tonbridge Library

She told the Times: “I use the Tonbridge library often and every time I see students from schools all around Tonbridge using the library, to borrow books, revise, or do homework.

“I think the library is an important place for young people, especially because it provides a quiet and supervised place for them to go after school.

“It is invaluable for pupils who may not have a quiet space to go to focus on their schoolwork and those who do not have the money to buy books.”

 “I know from my experience growing up in a home environment that was a bit chaotic, the public library was a very important safe space that allowed me to perform better at school.”

She believes reading is hugely beneficial to young people, and not just for academic accomplishment. “Despite what many may think, young people today do still read,” she insisted.

“Reading not only helps them perform better at school, several studies have found reading for pleasure can have a positive effect on mental health.

Caroline Mawson, who has been Slade Primary School’s librarian for 11 years, said: “I witness every day the joy books can provide to children.

'Children’s mental health is currently of great concern and it is well known that reading can reduce anxiety and stress'

“More than ever I feel it is essential that children have access to free reading material, as so much of their time is spent on electronic devices.

“Children’s mental health is currently of great concern and it is well known that reading can reduce anxiety and stress – ‘bibliotherapy’.”

Mrs Mawson stresses the wider context of ‘promoting health and wellbeing’, saying: “The library also provides a service that addresses loneliness and social isolation, providing a meeting place for those who may feel isolated with young children at home or the elderly.

“Jobseekers without access to computers find it invaluable, enabling them to actively search for jobs and complete applications.

“Reducing the hours would be detrimental to the whole community when we are living in a climate where it is necessary more than ever.”

The social aspect of libraries as a community centre also struck a chord with charities who look after more vulnerable members of society.

Gillian Shepherd-Coates, chief officer for Age UK in Tonbridge, said: “Not everybody can afford to go and buy things like books, and not everyone has access to computers at home.

“And libraries do many other things apart from just lending books, you’ve got coffee mornings and computer classes and much more.

“Any cut in access times is going to be detrimental to the public. KCC have got a hard decision to make. For many, the library is the hub of their community.

“For example, in Edenbridge it’s in the community centre and we are there with a day centre, there’s also [public participation charity] Involve and West Kent Housing Association.”

Mike Hill, KCC’s Cabinet Member for Community and Regulatory Services, defended the plan, saying: “Our three-year strategy is intended to protect the future of all our libraries and our archive and registration offers and, in fact, enhance some of these services.

“Being open at times when libraries are not well used is not a good use of taxpayers’ money.”

KCC have confirmed residents will be given an opportunity to shape the pattern of opening hours at their library to suit their communities.

Cllr Hill said: “We are pleased with the level of responses so far, but we want to ensure that as many of our residents as possible have the chance to express their views.

A decision will be made on the proposals at a meeting of KCC’s Growth, Economic Development and Communities Cabinet Committee on March 7.

Details of the consultation can be found at kent.gov.uk/lrastrategy or at any library.

‘Necessary evil’ is designed to help to save smaller branches

Pat Lanzarotti worked in both the main library and Tonbridge North for 10 years and she understands why the process is taking place.

She told the Times: “This is nothing new. Every few years we would have a public consultation about opening hours and how could we improve the running of the libraries. Nothing happened, no notice was taken.

“This cut in hours is seen as a necessary evil to safeguard the futures of most of the branch libraries, which are under threat all the time.

But Mrs Lanzarotti, who was also a learning support assistant at Long Mead Primary School, added: “I do not agree with these measures.

“In my time at Tonbridge North I saw the book budget slashed by thousands of pounds. I used to beg for books from other libraries.

“I accepted donations from my customers, who were absolutely 100 per cent behind me and were brilliant. Yet the actual building is very poorly maintained because of cuts.

“You really do not know what threats of closure these branch libraries are under.

“We were always under threat, and believe me, mine was a very busy little library, with book issues to rival the main library.

“My customers meant everything to me, I loved my job and was heartbroken when I had to leave due to ill health.

“I think more should be spent on libraries, not less, but unfortunately it comes very low down on the list to other services.”

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