diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 06, 2011

What did you do for Save Our Libraries Day? I went to five London libraries...

Bethnal Green Library
Not all of Tower Hamlets' libraries have been turned into Idea Stores. Thank goodness for that, because the classical stylings of Bethnal Green Library (formerly Bethnal House Asylum) would look awful upgraded in plastic. The main book-lending space is a large Victorian room with segmented glass ceiling, complete with plaster medallions on the far wall commemorating heroes Darwin, Marx, Morris and Wagner. It's mighty imposing on a first visit, once you've slipped through the barrier past the central librarian's desk. They weren't rushed off their feet when I visited, probably no more than ten of us all told, but an almost perfect societal mix nonetheless. A decent selection of books to choose from, I thought, unlike the slightly threadbare selection the borough's mainstream Idea Stores sometimes boast. So decent that I felt moved to take out a couple, including one I've picked up in bookshops several times but never felt worth the cover price. I regretted having to carry their weight around for the rest of the day, but they're all mine for the next three weeks. Fab, I'll have to go back again.
Event: Author Jonathan Kemp discusses his debut novel 'London Triptych' as part of LGBT History Month, 6.30pm tomorrow.
Open: Mon Tue Thu Fri Sat

Chalk Farm Library
A much smaller library this, tucked into two rooms at the heart of celeb-friendly Primrose Hill. I saw nobody famous here - they probably download their latest fiction purchases to an iPad or something - but plenty of less well-off local residents had popped in to swap books or to use the facilities. Two older folk were using the computers to check their Hotmail (not something everyone can do at home), while a younger bloke stood busy at the photocopier. There were several staff bustling around, rather more than I'd seen back in Bethnal Green, but who must have part-time roles given the building's limited opening hours. The children's library seemed to have the better selection of books, and more space, but as a solo-visiting male it wasn't really on the cards to look inside and check. At the central desk a nice selection of local greetings cards were for sale, plus a trolleyful of unwanted hardback stock at rock bottom prices. The whole place struck me as busy, friendly and well-used, which is how it should be.... for now. No decision on library cuts in Camden has yet been made, but expect Chalk Farm to be in the firing line.
Event: Public meeting about library closures in Camden, chaired by John Tusa, Hampstead Old Town Hall, 7pm Tuesday.
Open: Mon Fri Sat

Kensal Rise Library
Brent Council are planning to shut half of their existing 12 libraries, and Kensal Rise is one of those scheduled for the chop. A sore point, closing a building opened by none other than author Mark Twain, but sentimentality counts for nothing in the tough world of council budgeting. Thankfully the library has a very loud set of supporters campaigning to get that decision overturned, and their handiwork was visible in several windows on my walk up from the station. I had to wait outside the door to allow a bloke in a wheelchair to emerge, then walked inside and immediately set off the library's electronic security gates. It seems that Tower Hamlets books aren't compatible with Brent scanners, which would have been embarrassing had any of the librarians blinked. I suspect they were too busy mopping up after that morning's Children's Read-In - a special protest event for Save Our Libraries day, and a couple of whose helium balloons were still bobbing against the ceiling. The building had been packed, apparently, with actress Tamsin Greig on the premises and even a special message of support from author Philip Pullman. Nothing so busy in the afternoon, however, just a few souls sat about reading or perusing the shelves, which I suspect is more the norm. The council hope that a group of community volunteers may be able to run things in the future. If not, the redbrick building would undoubtedly make lovely flats... but only for illiterate philistines.
Event: Children's Read-In, 10am yesterday.
Open: Mon Tue Thu Sat

Brixton Library
And so to the largest library I visited yesterday, still housed inside Sir Henry Tate's philanthropic edifice (beside the Ritzy Cinema). Again I'd missed the major protest of the day - a bout of angry placard-waving and a read-in - but there were plenty of visible after-effects. Local children had chalked "Save Our Libraries" rather colourfully across Windrush Square, along with heartfelt slogans like "No Library, No Life". The main body of protesters had moved on, but a gaggle remained outside the main entrance with a petition to sign. At least I assumed they had one - although nobody moved to ask me to sign anything either on the way in or the way out. The building was packed, as it always is, with a logjam of book-taker-outers blocking the doorway beside the main information desk. Almost all the seats were taken, proving the innate popularity of a social hub with free wi-fi. Upstairs four students had even been forced to sit on the floor, leaning back against the geography section with their laptops poised for action. Somebody was wandering around with a video camera, taking backup shots of the black fiction section for use in some cuts-based news broadcast later. It'd be unthinkable for this library to close, but Lambeth are eyeing up several smaller outposts for culling. Watch this space, because they won't go quietly.
Event: Save Our Services - Lobby and demonstration, Lambeth Town Hall, 6pm tomorrow.
Open: Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun

Blackheath Library
Another borough, another doomed library. Lewisham have their eye on Blackheath as one of five to dispose of, and in future residents can jolly well travel further to exchange their books somewhere else. So I headed here, to Blackheath Library, to see what might be lost. It's not a lovely looking library from outside, resembling a mini-supermarket beneath two layers of flats. But head inside and it has easily the most pleasant atmosphere of any of the five libraries I visited. Bright, modern and spacious, with curving bookshelves and cosy seating areas. Audio-visual services lend well, the ICT suite is very popular, and the central desk is more of a meeting point than a barrier. Surely they couldn't close this place down? And no, because it turns out Blackheath has two libraries and I'd gone to the wrong one. This library (at the Royal Standard) is run by Greenwich, and less than a mile down the road (in Blackheath Village) is the doomed library run by Lewisham. I'd therefore missed the main demonstration of the day, in which Village residents (and four local authors) came together to read from their favourite books, because I was in the wrong borough. Geographically speaking, this doubling-up can't be the most efficient way to run London's library service. But irreversibly sacrificing dozens of the capital's libraries on the altar of efficiency surely can't be the way to go either.
Event: Read-in, followed by overnight occupation, New Cross Library, still continuing.
Open: Tue Thu Fri Sat

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