Reflections on the ‘social infrastructure’ of NXL from an urban explorer

You never know who’s going to walk through the doors of NXL and experience the different kinds of learning we facilitate here. On Wednesday 22nd May we received a visit from a troop of walking researchers from Goldsmiths Centre for Community and Urban Research ‘Infrastructural Explorations‘ group, who had followed a library trail from Tower Hamlets, to Southwark, to us here in New Cross, Lewisham. One of the group participants, Jonny Brogdale, offers the following generous words of reflection from his experience with us.

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Library Infrastructural Exploration Group

Photo by Laura Henneke. Featuring Gill Hart and Alice Corble talking about the library to the Infrastructural Explorers.

“Celebrate working class women in struggle” read the banner hanging on the back wall of the New Cross Learning library. Sitting on the children’s chairs with a mug of tea chatting with the Goldsmith’s Infrastructural Exploration group, may not have looked like such a celebration but the fact that we were able to visit a lively, functioning library at all, certainly deserved one.

Without Gill & Kathy’s successful struggle to save the local community’s library from the cuts demanded of the local state, the space would long ago have been sold for another retail development. Through their on-going hard work, negotiation and careful management, these local working class women have retained an inclusive space and vital resource for the people who need and want to use it.

Aside from sustaining a friendly, welcoming library with well-stocked shelves, vital IT resources and a Credit Union office, their reluctance to be used as ‘poster girls’ for ‘Big Society’ style volunteering is uplifting. The decision to decline being held up as an example of how voluntary service can ameliorate the impact of funding cuts is, itself, an enduring act of consciousness raising and resistance.

As with all public libraries, New Cross Learning is anathema to those with ideology that demands the privatisation and marketisation of our public services. An inclusive space in which those without the means to pay can enjoy books, the Internet, advice and support free at the point of delivery defies the assumptions of austerity. Instead of a public asset being sold to the private sector for development, Kathy, Gill and the other volunteers have retained an open space on the high street in which empowerment, learning and solidarity can flourish. We learn that the volunteers sustaining New Cross Leaning know many of the library users by name; such a contrast with the transactional lexicon of marketisation in which ‘service users’ are referred to as “customers”.

In the ongoing austerity that compels local authorities to cut our social infrastructure, New Cross Learning offers an inspirational alternative model. Far from merely attempting to preserve the notion of what a public library was before neoliberalism, spaces like these have the capacity to challenge the assumptions underpinning the consolidator state that seeks their demise. That seems well worthy of celebration.

Jonny Brogdale

Celebrate Working Class Women

Photo of our International Women’s Day banner by Jonny Brogdale.

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