“Internal reorganisation” means the post of the Chinese Team Leader of Westminster Libraries has been withdrawn, and their duties subsumed by the new all-purpose Community Development Manager

“Did you see the article in the UK Chinese Times?” my father asked me last week. “To cook a frog in slowly boiling water. That’s what this is.”

He was referring to the headline on 3 March, publicising the cuts to Charing Cross library, notably the Westminster Chinese Library. It was a foregone conclusion that Westminster Council would be cutting Westminster Libraries’ budget – this was revealed in October 2016 to be to the tune of £750,000 per year – the equivalent of 17½ full-time staff, as the Westminster Labour Group points out.[1] Helena Zhang, volunteer and member of ‘Friends of Westminster Chinese Library’, points out that the 2016 budget allocated to the library was one third that of 2010. “Only until the council received some angry queries from the Chinese community, we gathered that [in 2017] the fund available to acquire new Chinese books got increased a bit. However, we do not have any official confirmation.”

Of those groups who are disproportionately affected this time round – and library cuts always do hurt low-income, youth, elderly, differently abled, BAME and vulnerable communities most – this time the Chinese community will be the one to chiefly lose out.[2] In an extremely short-sighted move, the two posts of English head librarian and Chinese Service Team Leader will be withdrawn as part of the process of “internal reorganisation”. A new community development manager, who is supposed to cover the duties of both outgoing staff, has already been appointed and will start post in April.

This loss is substantial given the 25 year-old Chinese section of the library contains the largest public collection of Chinese books in the UK. Though other libraries in London and other major cities may hold supplies of similar stock, these places simply do not hold a candle when seeking out Chinese-language and Asian Chinese resources. It is only really in select university libraries, national institutions or bookshops you would find a comparable standard and variety – however these are not free, nor are they publically accessible, nor is one usually able to borrow the books.

The Chinese library draws 70% of readers to the Charing Cross Library and is the main reason why this library welcomes the most readers compared to any other library in Westminster. Situated so closely to Chinatown, the Westminster Chinese library had also become a key cultural hub for New Year celebrations and other public events. In 2013 and 2014, the library collaborated with Ming-Ai (London) Institute’s British Chinese Workforce Heritage project on several exhibitions. Let us not forget the library also has a very good Italian book section.

Chichy Li, the Chinese Service Team Leader of Westminster Libraries, was responsible for managing the Chinese book services, including fund-raising for new purchases, securing donations, community outreach and business networking with other organisations. As Helena observes, “without new books you can imagine soon regular readers will not return, and this is the fundamental key to the future of this Chinese library. The incoming Community Development Manager will not have the language skills, the experience or the social network to perform their role adequately. The council are, in effect, telling the Chinese community that the library they have built can do without their management now.

Aitor Quintana, the incoming manager, who has been working in Westminster Libraries since 2000, is aware of the problems. He asserted that going forward, staff would be supported and given further training. While beseeching that things are still in transition, he was keen to point the “great potential” of the Chinese library, and that he would be happy to still carry on with existing arrangements such as the painting and calligraphy classes. When I pressed about whether community events in the library would continue at the same level, he stated “my intention is not to cut, but increase [operations] if I can”.

It is true there will still be English- and Chinese-speaking staff as before, including 2 full-time Chinese staff. Some are staying on, and the library is still recruiting more staff and volunteers. However, thinking back to our frog in the pan. Without a Team Leader, a specialist who has the ability and authority to make key decisions, the remaining Chinese staff will be less supported in their work and less influential as a unit.

 The new Community Development Manager may have sympathy, but how will they be able to organise events with the Chinese community and order materials?  

Cuts to services mostly represent a failure to think clearly. The empty assurances of Cllr David Harvey, cabinet member for environment, sports and community that the Chinese library service, that many people in Westminster’s Chinese community value, will continue to provide a high quality service at the site” insult the community – for no public consultation was undertaken prior to these cuts. Campaigners and service users feel that Cllr Harvey brushes off their repeated enquiries with generic remarks, and note he even had a habit of mis-spelling Ms Li’s name.

Let me be upfront and say that I did not participate in the sit-in protest when Carnegie library in Lambeth was being closed down, nor did I stand with my local Lewisham when staff were being laid off left, right and centre. As I say, cuts to services mostly represent a failure to think clearly. But do they also represent a failure to honour our duty of care? Nick Poole, head of the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals (Cilip) providers, has previously warned, “under-investing in our libraries simply pushes costs elsewhere and means that a young person growing up today has less help and is more vulnerable to the impact of mental health problems on their life.”

So now the heat is up to boiling point, what can we all do to reverse the damage caused by Westminster Council’s decision?

Petitions point to alternatives. “The Council should be looking at ways of generating revenues, not just cutting. It could look at raising money through digital access to the council’s treasure trove of books and maps in the City Archives”, the 38 Degrees petition challenges. The ‘Save our Library’ petition addressed directly to Westminster City Council calls for an Equality Impact Assessment and public consultation. As for closer to the ground, Aitor urges that the future of the Chinese library depends on the support of the council, its patrons and above all the London community. He has advice for those who are concerned: “whoever wants to engage, come speak to me.” So don’t just sign your name, turn up.

On Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th March, volunteers took to the streets to canvas signatures for the petition. With less than a month to go before the 12 April deadline, they are working around the clock to sustain the campaign. “Overall, the council’s response to the Chinese community is far from being responsible or reliable,” Helena reflects. We do not see talking to a new manager who doesn’t have the authority to make executive decisions [as being] the right direction. We also will keep questioning the councillor why the Equality Assessment is missing… Therefore the petition shall continue.”


SIGN THE PETITION HERE: http://petitions.westminster.gov.uk/saveourlibrary/


LIKE THE FACEBOOK PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/WeloveCHXlibrary/


Mike Clarke (Tri-Borough Director of Libraries): mclarke1@westminster.gov.uk

Stuart Love (Westminster Executive Director for City Management): slove@westminster.gov.uk

Charlie Parker (Westminster Chief Executive): cparker@westminster.gov.uk

Cllr David Harvey: davidharvey@westminster.gov.uk

GET IN TOUCH WITH: Rachel Tam Hau-Yu (tamhauyu@hotmail.com) and Helena Zhang (welovechxlibrary@gmail.com) for more information on the campaign.

WESTMINSTER CHINESE LIBRARY WEBSITE: https://www.westminster.gov.uk/library-opening-hours-and-contact-details#westminster-chinese-library

EMAIL: chineseservice@westminster.gov.uk for more information.

[1] Cllr Adam Hug, 8th October 2016Westminster Labour anger at Tory plans for huge library cutshttps://labourwestminster.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/westminster-labour-anger-at-tory-plans-for-huge-library-cuts/

[2] Danuta Kean, 13th January 2017. Library cuts harm young people’s mental health services, warns lobby. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/13/library-cuts-harm-young-peoples-mental-health-services-warns-lobby