You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
This month’s Litro has a bit of an East London thread running through it, which is appropriate for me, as I’ve been trudging the streets of the East End looking at libraries.
Five years ago today, the old Whitechapel library closed its doors and made the controversial move a mile down the road to a shiny new glass cube called the Idea Store. The anniversary of this shift in library ideology is particularly resonant at the moment, considering the government’s recent pronouncements on the future of free books for all. Libraries face a tough time over the next few years, and some commentators seem to think they’re unlikely to survive it, at least not looking like anything we might recognize now. It’s a worrying time for those of us who love and use our libraries.
The old Whitechapel library played a crucial part in the literary history of this fluid, immigrant-fuelled eastern fringe of the City of London. The library, its beautiful red-brick façade crouching over the entrance to Aldgate East tube, was founded in 1892 by the prolific Victorian benefactor of the working classes, John Passmore Edwards. It was an important local institution for the Jewish community in the area, nicknamed the University of the Ghetto, and many writers who grew up in the area were regular visitors, using the library as an escape, and its books as an education.
Artists Mark Gertler and David Bomberg and the poet Isaac Rosenberg were regulars, later to be known as members of the Whitechapel Boys. The playwright and poet Bernard Kops hid from the realities of poverty and overcrowding in the reading rooms, later writing a poem as a tribute. “A loner in love with words, but so lost / and wandering the streets, not counting the cost. / I emerged out of childhood with nowhere to hide / when a door called my name / and pulled me inside. / And being so hungry I fell on the feast. / Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.”
When Whitechapel library closed, the playwright Arnold Wesker, who used the library as a boy, was one of the critics of the move. “Whitechapel Library blazed the way and excited my love of reading books. It was a safe space with a reference room where old men read newspapers they couldn’t afford to buy. I owe the library a debt and lament its passing.”
But the thing is, Wesker’s description of that library, and Bernard Kops’s vision of it in his poem, could both apply equally now to the Idea Store. At the time, news reports on the Idea Store were sniffy about the fact that it promoted itself as being “next to Sainsbury’s”, as if the whole concept equated borrowing a book to buying a pint of milk. But what’s wrong with being next to Sainsbury’s? Supermarkets are generally in convenient places – why shouldn’t books be too? Slap bang in the middle of the straggling and chaotic market that runs down Whitechapel Road, the Idea Store is in the heart of the community it serves. The doors are open, and the glass frontage means you see what you’re going in to. It’s not intimidating, it’s busy and buzzy. The ground floor is crowded, but as you go upwards into the building the floors become hushed and peaceful, with readers relaxing in chairs and at desks. Here are Wesker’s old men reading papers they can’t afford, side by side with students and other readers of all kinds. By the fourth floor, with its café and spectacular views over the City, I’d decided this is somewhere I’d happily come to read.
Perhaps change is a good thing for libraries. I love the musty, hushed beauty of Victorian libraries, but I also recognize that they risk becoming irrelevant to many people in the 21st Century if they don’t change with the times. That’s not to say that books are irrelevant – far from it. Libraries have over 12.6 million active borrowers a year, and books are still at the heart of what they do. But it’s not all they do. They’re a crucial part of local communities, and that’s not just down to the dusty tomes.
George Orwell wrote that bookshops attract ‘not quite certifiable lunatics’ because they’re ‘one of the few places you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.’ Never mind the lunatics – we all need somewhere we can loiter without pressure to move along or make a purchase. People need somewhere they can go and ask for information, knowledge and help, and feel confident it will be given to them, for free. The library is that place.
The most worrying thing for me about the current plans for the future of libraries is the idea that they might become virtual spaces, where we order our books online and get them through the post. One of the crucial things about a library is that it’s a place you can visit. You can go there, talk to a librarian, sit down, read and spend time. You can take the kids and let them get their hands on books, make their own choices, listen to stories and join in. A friend of mine who works in a library seems to spend most of her time being something like a cross between a Citizen’s Advice Bureau, a social worker and a psychologist to her customers. Bernard Kops wrote about the library as a refuge and an escape, which wouldn’t have really worked if he’d been ordering his books on the net.
So, whether it’s an old red-brick building or a glass-fronted replacement, whether it’s run by paid staff or volunteers, whether it has shelves full of books or rooms full of terminals, a library needs a building, a real one. We shut the doors at our peril.