A library closes

But if the readers will get a modern purpose-built building instead, is it really such a tragedy? I find it extremely difficult to be sentimental about a library in which “flakes of paint and plaster regularly fall on the readers”, which does not have disabled access, where buckets are required to catch water from leaking roofs.

We too have one of those Victorian (or maybe it’s Edwardian, I forget) libraries here, and if and when we ever get a modern replacement, I don’t think many people will be mourning it. A couple of years ago, it flooded due a burst pipe or leaking roof or somesuch and several shelves of books were badly damaged. It’s poky. There are half a dozen steps just to get to the main reading room; and the stairs up to the reference section are narrow and awkward. (Oh, and it smells funny.)

“The intellectual heart of one of the most radical and diverse communities in Britain will beat no more”? Please. Books and their readers are what counts. (Although I have to say that calling the replacement an “Idea Store” is totally naff.)

And the building itself is to be restored. So it gets a new lease of life and the locals get a better library. Small branch libraries are closing all round the country, especially in rural areas, with no replacements at all, and have been for years. Now those are tragedies.

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10 Responses to A library closes

  1. Pingback: Alun » Why Heritage?

  2. rob says:

    Indeed the flagship Idea Store at the end of my road in Poplar has massively increased book borrowing in the area (the proportion is really huge although I don’t have it to hand — 500%, something like that?). To build that one they closed the gorgeous but almost completely unused Victorian Limehouse library with it’s Clem Attlee statue. Who really cares when locals get to borrow a vastly wider range of materials (as well as do all manner of other things) from a much more relevant and conveniently-placed (on the high street next to the market rather than next to a petrol station on a shop-free part of Commercial Rd) building?

  3. Sharon says:

    I’ve been wondering since yesterday if I was perhaps a bit callous towards the people for whom this building is significant and who are upset at its loss. (I suppose what they want is for the building to be restored and continue in use as their library.) But in the end I just don’t understand them. It’s not as though the building is going to be demolished or sold into private hands. It’ll still be a public, community space (with the difference that it will be nice instead of grotty). They will have a fabulous new library, even if it is called an Idea Store. I am jealous as hell, frankly.

  4. Steve says:

    Idea Store. Idea Store? Idea. Store.

    No. I’m sorry, but no. No way, Pedro.

    I’m off out to my local (or “antogonism boutique” if you like).

  5. Arnold says:

    Well, yes and no. I take your point, Sharon, and I agree with you that it is foolish to be sentimental about old libraries when they no longer serve the needs of their readers. And yet, and yet ..

    One question that needs to be asked is how the library was allowed to get into such a state in the first place. You seem to assume that it is just a case of Victorian or Edwardian buildings coming to the end of their natural life. But plenty of Victorian buildings still survive in excellent condition. The problem with the Whitechapel Library, I suspect, was not simply that the building was old, but that it wasn’t funded properly and therefore slipped gradually into decay. Many library buildings all across the country suffered the same fate, for reasons that were partly political (the assault on local government in the 1980s) and partly cultural (the feeling that libraries didn’t really matter much any more). Whatever the reasons, there was nothing inevitable about this process; and the decline of the public library system, as of public services generally, in the 1980s is something I look back on with regret (and some bitterness).

    How do you get rid of a listed building? First you ignore it until it is practically falling down, then you demolish it on the grounds that it would have fallen down anyway. How do you get rid of a library? First you neglect it until all the readers have been driven away, then you close it on the grounds that nobody is using it any more.

    And of course it’s not just about library buildings. It’s about the decline of the old Jewish East End; it’s about the decline of old-fashioned liberal paternalism; it’s about the decline of the intellectual working-class culture described so brilliantly by Jonathan Rose. It’s not just about an old decrepit building being replaced by a shiny new one. It’s about one idea of the library being replaced by another: the idea of the library as a centre for education and high culture, replaced by the idea of the library as a centre for entertainment and popular culture. Sharon, can you put your hand on your heart and honestly say that all this is a change for the better? Because I can’t.

  6. Sharon says:

    Well, I disagree that it’s about one “idea” of the library being replaced by another, and as it happens I do think that for the local people it will be a change for the better. Before we get carried away here, the story is about the moving of a library from one location to another, while the original building is to be restored and continue in public use, not demolished.

    But yes, I do think this is about more than a decrepit old building being replaced with a shiny new one. It’s about an old building that isn’t now suitable for its purpose being replaced with one that is. It’s about having the kind of building that does not exclude the physically disabled (and I personally was really offended by the quoted assertion by someone in the story that concerns about disabled access are just ‘political correctness’) and with them the frail and elderly, not to mention mothers with toddlers and pushchairs.

    And it’s about providing the facilities that will give underprivileged groups key access points to modern communication networks and media. If it turns out that there will be fewer books in the new library, that will be extremely regrettable. If there are more DVDs and computers as well as more books, I have no problem with that.

  7. Arnold says:

    I’m not really disagreeing with you, Sharon .. I’m simply suggesting that the closure of the old Whitechapel library can be related to larger processes of social and cultural change. I don’t see this as a particularly controversial suggestion. On the contrary, it seems thumpingly obvious.

    The Whitechapel ‘Idea Store’ (which was originally supposed to open three years ago; why the delay, I wonder?) has been heavily sponsored by Sainsbury’s, its next-door neighbour in the Whitechapel Road. This isn’t just an act of disinterested generosity on the part of Sainsbury’s: clearly, they hope that the Idea Store will help to draw more customers into their supermarket. And the Borough of Tower Hamlets, for its part, is quite unapologetic about accepting commercial sponsorship. As its Corporate Director of Customer Services explains: ‘While we see Idea Stores as being about encouraging more people to borrow books and to learn, they will also help our local shopping centres to prosper.’

    Now, whatever you think about this — whether you’re delighted at the thought of young mums being able to pop into the Idea Store after doing their shopping, or whether you’re dismayed at the sight of a local authority climbing into bed with a private company, or whether (like me) you feel a mixture of both emotions — you’ve surely got to admit that it’s quite a departure from the founding principles of the old Whitechapel Library. I repeat: one idea of the library has been replaced by another. And there is loss as well as gain.

    Look on this picture, and on this:

    ‘Public libraries are, in my opinion, entitled to public support because they are educative, recreative and useful; because they bring the products of research and imagination, and the stored wisdom of ages and nations, within the easy reach of the poorest citizens; because they distribute without curtailing the intellectual wealth of the world; because they encourage seekers after technical knowledge, and thereby promote industrial improvement; because, being under the public eye, they are economically conducted; because they teach equality of citizenship, and are essentially democratic in spirit and action, inasmuch as they are maintained out of the public rates and subject to public control. All may not use them, but all may do so if they like.’ (Passmore Edwards, founder of the old Whitechapel Library, 1892)

    ‘We’re trying to take a new approach to selling libraries and learning. It’s non-institutional, entertaining and informative .. You’ve got to compete with everything else that goes on. You’ve got to sell hard, and cross-sell.’ (Eric Bohl, director of the new Whitechapel Library, 2002)

    Go on, Sharon, admit it .. don’t you feel a twinge of nostalgia for the world we have lost?

  8. Sharon says:

    Very rarely. I’ve spent too much time studying it.

  9. Sharon says:

    No, that’s too simple. (Although the instant gut reaction is always interesting…) The world we have lost is always countered by the world we have gained. I would note that rich 19th-century philanthropists – if that’s what Passmore was – were in a position to talk about ideals; a modern local authority employee has to do what he has to do. (I’ve worked for one; I remember too well how hard and pressured it can be.)

    I was watching a report today about these ‘City Academies’, and it was… everything that makes me angry about this ‘public-private’ crap. I don’t really mind commercial enterprises sponsoring, say, libraries. To use the Whitechapel example: I wouldn’t particularly mind Sainsburys giving the library money in return for it putting up a sign saying ‘Isn’t Sainsbury’s great’; what I’d find objectionable is Sainsbury’s having power over what books (or other things) the library can buy with the money that comes from the taxpayers. I hate that private businesses are getting to run public services in that way.

  10. Arnold says:

    Well, I don’t feel much nostalgia for the seventeenth century, if that’s what you mean. But I do feel some nostalgia for the pre-Thatcherite liberal consensus, and I do feel that to a large extent we are still living on the credit of that liberal tradition. Would we even be having this discussion, would Whitechapel even have a library, if it wasn’t for the public-spirited philanthropy of men like Andrew Carnegie and Passmore Edwards?

    I don’t know what the Corporate Director of Customer Services earns in Tower Hamlets, but I notice that a similar post in another London borough has recently been advertised with a salary of £120K. ‘Hard and pressured’ it may be, but the job is not ill rewarded.

    But I don’t want to be negative about this. Let’s hope the new Idea Store is a huge success, and that it meets the needs of the people of Tower Hamlets and gives them new opportunities for intellectual discovery. I think we can agree on that at least.

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