diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 10, 2013

I don't know what you did for National Libraries Day yesterday, but I went to two very different London libraries...

Horniman Library
The Horniman, in Forest Hill, is probably South London's finest museum. Born out of the collections of Victorian philanthropist Frederick John Horniman, it boasts an eclectic collection of anthropological artefacts. The place is packed out on Saturdays, mostly by families with small children, exploring the galleries, the hands-on activities and the cafe. "Look Noah, see the walrus." "That's a funny clarinet, isn't it Esme?" "Ooh, scary masks." But there's one part of the building visitors don't normally gain entrance to. That's the futuristic building to the right of the main entrance, the one with the sloping grass roof and six strange chimneys. That's the library, that is. Normally it opens on Tuesdays and Wednesdays by appointment only, but for National Libraries Day it flung its doors wide for a few hours. It's not a big library, or at least the public facing section isn't. A few blocks of shelves and a reading desk, that's all, and a selection of relatively modern arty travelly books. The main body of the collection lies beyond a glass partition, accessible only to staff, because this is a research library. If you fancy finding out about African puppetry or making notes on Icelandic art, this is the place.

Mr Horniman was an avid collector of books, so the collection contains a larger number of older volumes than you might expect. Helen the librarian placed four of these on display yesterday, as a taster of what the archive might contain. One of these was Flora Londinensis, an 18th century partwork published over several years depicting all the wild flowers to be found within a ten-mile radius of London. Foxgloves, scarlet pimpernels, that sort of thing. Each plant was drawn approximately lifesize, where appropriate, and hand-coloured if you paid extra. A lovely book, as was the equally ancient tome of illustrated caterpillars laid out alongside. They've survived well, these two, although most newer (Victorian) books suffer from chemically active binding and require more urgent conservation. That'd be why we weren't allowed to turn the pages of "Travels in Africa", a book which inspired Frederick to tour the continent but whose contents turned out to be fictional. But we could get our hands on a delightful book of Japanese fairy tales, with stories about badgers and hares and berries, whose pages were made from cloth and hence much lighter than a modern paperback. A very friendly little library, should you ever have cause to visit.

Libraries in Lewisham: Two years ago Lewisham funded 12 libraries, but funding cuts have reduced that number to seven. The unlucky five libraries were transferred out of council management in May 2011 and are are now run by community groups. Grove Park, Sydenham and Crofton Park are being run by a computer recycling firm, Blackheath Village library has transferred to nearby charity Age Exchange, and New Cross is being wholly run by volunteers as New Cross People's Library.

Kensal Rise Library
This is a sorry story. Kensal Rise Library was opened by Mark Twain in 1900, and is a fine looking redbrick building on a corner plot. The interior was restored in a Neo-Edwardian style in 1994, and the place was well used when I visited a couple of years ago. But council cuts put the library on Brent's closure list, which even a lengthy court case couldn't stop. The battle was lost when council workers sneaked inside in the early hours, emptied the shelves and removed Twain's commemorative plaque. When Brent pulled out the lease reverted to All Souls College Oxford, who'd gifted the reading room in the first place, and a protracted battle between council, users and the landowner ensued. All Souls offered to lease some of the space within for a smaller library, but local residents said it wasn't enough. Brent council then placed the library on its list of community assets, only for the college to claim they'd already sold it on to a developer. They're called Platinum Revolver, and they have their eye on transforming the building into six flats. Contracts were exchanged only last week, apparently, so don't expect this sorry saga to be over just yet.

And yet the library is still, sort of, open. Local campaigners aren't the sort to give up easily, not in the face of offensive officialdom, so they've set up a pop-up library on the pavement outside. It's more a shed really, draped in plastic in case it rains, which yesterday it definitely was. A series of book crates have been turned on their side to create makeshift shelves, five high, with a few extra novels crammed on top of the lowest layer for good measure. Each box is labelled by first letter of author's surname, with A-L at the front and M-Z round the back. If it's non fiction or children's books you want, try the lean-to round the corner in College Road. A volunteer will be able to show you around and check out your borrowings, according to the wipe-clean rota pinned up on the exterior. It's all very homely, there are even pot plants, and a chair for the volunteer to sit on and read if nobody turns up. Nobody turned up while I was there, but like I said it was raining, and this isn't the sort of library you visit for lengthy literary activities any more. [close-up photo]

The people of Kensal Rise are angry about this, as reflected by the number of "Let us run our libraries" posters pinned up in local house and shop windows. It is a hugely impressive commitment to take on a public service like this in the face of council indifference. You could see it as a striking vindication of David Cameron's Big Society philosophy, as citizens step in to provide services in an age of austerity. Or you could see it as the inevitable outcome of top-down enforced budget cuts, decimating cultural necessities and demeaning society. Whatever, we now live in a London where residents loan books from a shack on the pavement because nobody'll let them inside the library building behind. Raise a cheer, and weep.

Libraries in Brent: Two years ago Brent funded 12 libraries, but funding cuts have reduced that number to six. Neasden has closed without trace. Tokyngton's building is due to be sold off shortly. Barham, Preston, Cricklewood and Kensal Rise have all closed, but now have small community pop-up libraries. Barham Library may become a Free School. Meanwhile Willesden Green Library Centre, Brent's largest library, is due to be knocked down later this year and replaced by a smaller library, plus flats.

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