The Slow Death Of A Library

London

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It should have had a poster in its window: Kids! Read Books Here Without Paying For Them!

Instead were just warnings and notices of shorter opening times. A disfiguring red plastic sign had been affixed above the door, information without grace.

Libraries always held a sacred place in my heart. They are utilities as necessary as health centres or parks. They were always an escape and a pleasure. As a child I spent so much time in the East Greenwich Public Library that I walked around the departments in my socks. I never got over the fact that I didn’t have to pay to take books home. The librarians helped me choose what to read, starting with Rupert, Babar the Elephant, Winnie the Pooh, Finn Family Moomintroll and Toby Twirl, ungendered creatures who had adventures in places that were utterly alien to a suburban child, like woods and meadows.

After that it was anything the library could provide, including Professor Branestawm, Dr Dolittle, ‘Whizz For Atoms’ and Biggles. This last one was a big jump into Boys’ Own Adventure, and opened the world to Robert Louis Stevenson, R. M. Ballantyne, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and anything with pirates, tigers, caves, airships, tunnels, islands, stern patrician role models and secret evil Chinese societies. I made lists of words I didn’t understand: Incognito, Ingot, Contraband, Hottentot, Capstan, Runcible, Inscrutable, Quartermaster, Chocks, Infidel.

The East Greenwich Public Library was run by a woman of thrillingly diverse tastes who defied council regulations by letting me take out books from the adult section. I once withdrew a book called How to Make Your Own Explosives. It featured photographs of beaming housewives mixing volatile incendiary cocktails from ordinary household items in Pyrex bowls, as though they were baking cakes.

Greenwich Council should have given her a medal. Instead, they plotted to have the place torn down and sold off behind her back. I imagined the library becoming emptier and emptier, as this gentle, thoughtful lady remained seated at her counter with a look of doomed hopefulness on her face. A custodian of treasures with the power to improve more young lives than any politician, I saw her facing the forces of ill-informed darkness with a rallying cry like that of Boadicea.

When my family moved I had to change libraries, and it was like getting a divorce. The next one was small and quiet and immaculate, and had an excellent gramophone section. I would say ‘Do you have the new Rolling Stones album?’ and the librarian would gently say, ‘No but we’ve got Gilbert & Sullivan. Try The Pirates of Penzance instead.’

Amazingly, the axe didn’t fall on the East Greenwich Public Library and it struggled on, now in the shadow of a concrete flyover that was shedding soot over it. Forty years later I went back and was horrified by the library’s sad state, its damp and rotting emptiness and the paucity of its shelves.

In a society that prides itself on culture and progress it should have been bigger, better, more beautiful and filled with books. Instead they had shut half the building down, reduced the opening hours and stock to a fraction of what it was. The library had finally been defeated by negligence and unplanned obsolescence. The last time I saw it, it seemed so very tiny, but it had once contained the world.

Thanks go to the Greenwich Phantom, where I found this better shot of the library than the one I’d managed to take.

19 comments on “The Slow Death Of A Library”

  1. Davem says:

    I have similar childhood memories of Charlton Library in Charlton House.

    Wonderful place.

  2. DC says:

    This occurred to me a while back. I developed a lot of my literature skills and tastes from my parents and grandparents. As a kid I got a pile of books recycled from attics, so Enid Blyton, WE Johns etc were discovered. Later, I raided the book cupboard (and old built in thing) where I developed a taste for Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Victor Canning, HG Wells etc as a young teenager. There were plenty of books that I tested and put back. Point being I got to decide what suited my own taste at the time.

    Whilst we do have a lot of books at home, much of our parental library is on Kindle and so pretty much inaccessible. My kids can’t really dabble with styles of literature. They do read but nowhere near as much as I did and in all fairness if one of my parents suggested I read X or Y, I probably wouldn’t. Much more fun to nick one illicitly from the cupboard. Oddly enough, I found out later that my Mother read many of my books, I left in storage. So she discovered some Sci-Fi she liked and would never have touched.

    Point being that once I had read all the Alistair MacLean’s (etc) in the house, the obvious place to go was to the library.

    Maybe authors like yourself should be persuading the purveyors of digital media to be a little less restrictive. After all, if I buy one of your books in paperback, I can share with anyone, though almost exclusively in my household since I rarely lend books outside. If I buy on Kindle or Play Books then it is much less “discoverable”. Google’s family library feature is more the model, I’d like to see – where is is supported by a publisher.

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    My introduction to books was much as yours Mr F. I too had a lovely library lady who vetted (not vetoed) my reading tastes. I remember trying to borrow the Hound of the Baskervilles from the “adult” library and I was told that wasn’t really allowed because the books were sometimes too difficult. She opened it at random and asked me to read aloud to her. I passed the test and came away with the book, and the advice not to read it in bed at night – which of course I completely ignored, and frightened myself silly as a result.
    For those of us living in rural areas with poor public transport the tragedy is not the slow decline and decay, but deliberate vandalism by local councils. Northamptonshire council is currently “consulting” about the future of the library service and there is no “leave them alone” option available. The current expectation is that 28 of our current 36 libraries will shut. Only those in larger urban areas are likely to remain. Public transport in the shire is poor and current bus times fail to link to town centre library opening hours, so many of us fear this deliberate act will itself trigger falling usage of those libraries that do remain, and that in turn will give even more impetus for closure.
    The Guardian has an account http://tinyurl.com/ybzjrkeq

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    The first four or five Biggles books, when he was flying in WW1 are amazing, nothing like the rather daft image the public had of the character in the 70’s and beyond (Biggles Flies Undone – Monty Python). The description of Bigglesworth prematurely aged by killing, near death experiences, drinking and smoking heavily despite being only 19 years old is well delineated by Johns. His prose is simple but eloquent. The later books were just potboiling adventure yarns but the early stuff is history from someone who knew of what he spoke.

    One of the greatest thrills of my life was when at the age of 10 I was allowed to have 10 library cards – I could hardly carry the books home.

  5. David Dumas Nohelty says:

    It’s time for me to boast as a US citizen. I live in the city in which I grew up. The library here is an awesome palace of books, digital media and wonderful staff. It was designed by H H Richardson. The city (the residents) have decided to expand it. I am with no reserve and great pride to live in such a place which recognizes the value of such a place. I await the grand opening with great expectations.

  6. Trace Turner says:

    One of the few places I could consistently cajole my mother into taking me when I was a child was our local branch library. I still remember the thrill I got when I became a member of the Mystery Readers Club and got my own library card and badge.

  7. Crprod says:

    Our children were limited to the number of library books they could carry by themselves.

  8. C Falconer says:

    In the 70s when we had a holiday in the UK, we used to take our home library tickets with us and ask to join the local library for the week or two we were there. Saved the luggage being comprised of entirely books and some socks and knickers!

  9. jeanette says:

    They have closed so many of our libraries in Lincolnshire, the few remaining are run by volunteers. Our village library is in the grounds of a Academy, and luckily the Principal is a lover of libraries and had kept it open for the public.

    When the proposal from the County Council was known. There was a huge protest of over 2000 people through Lincoln City Centre (You Tube Lincoln Libraries Protest Sep 21 2013), and the CC tried to belittle us by saying only a couple of hundred marched. Have a look at the video, it only filmed half of those marching. You can see the marchers coming from the top of the hill.

    The outcome was that the closures were already set in concrete, regardless of what people though. The CC were taken to the High Court in London, as the questionnaire was questionable in that it was not questionnaire rather just a tick box for us to say yes to closures. We won the decision in the High Court.

    I said in an earlier post that because I got through my ‘Janet and John’ books so quickly I was allowed to choose books from school library. My first ever Christopher Fowler book was from a library ‘Off the rails’.

  10. Jan says:

    Nice to read a piece by a writer actually praising the library system.

  11. Debra Matheney says:

    I refused to go to Kindergarten after one week since all we did was play and I had been promised I would learn something like how to read. (In the 50’s children were not to be taught to read until the age of 6.) I was sent to a child psychologist for testing. I kid you not. The deal was I had to attend school but I got reading lessons and a trip to the library once a week. The library with all those wonderful books saved my life. I am sickened by the closures of libraries both here and in the UK.

  12. Peter Tromans says:

    If the books go to a paper re-cycling plant, will the council win points for being green?

  13. Laura Humphrey says:

    West Greenwich library next to the town hall, it was wonderful place and the librarian was so exotic, this was in 1980, she used to wear emerald green Chinese jackets and had a tattoo of a lizard round her wrist. I used to love going in there, it was an escape from home and surrounded me a raft of interests

  14. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Libraries are essential to community and in particular to families and children. Here in Maine they are a forum for local civic groups and provide after school programs. Decisions to close libraries or reduce funding and hours reflect disdain for civic society by the ruling class.

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    My library memories are much the same, sadly several have closed in my area, In Stretford the local librarian started doing local history way before it became such by word.

    Must go to my local library, my young daughter goes usually once a week. It’s now a place called Limelight, which now has flats as part of the complex (they have an en-suite wet room each). It used to be a community centre, local council hub, local credit union (now at a local church hall last time I heard.) and library and it took years for it to be replaced.

    Sport suffers just as much, a local sports centre is due to be lost, as have several local football pitches and lets not talk about pubs & parks. And the government wonders why the young may become fat and thick.

    Wayne.

  16. Bill says:

    Once, a librarian refused to let me take out a book.

    “It’s too advanced for you!” she said, gazing down upon my tender, unformed features.

    So, I whipped the volume open and began to read flawlessly, stopping to explain to her the more arcane passages. I was sure she needed my explication.

    I walked out with the book tucked under my arm. She never challenged me again.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Vancouver started building neighbourhood branch libraries to meet the post WWII population boom. Burnaby (next door) started soon after. All those libraries are healthy; Vancouver central is in a building that looks like the Roman forum and Burnaby is expanding ours. There are reading circles, immigrant and ESL classes, information sessions and “Librarians’ Choices” with an evening of recommendations. I took a group of grade 6 and 7s to the main branch where they were awed at the concept of 7 floors of books and materials, plus musical instruments that can be borrowed. At 15 I catalogued our little rural library and accessioned it all. Librarians are born not made. That library has enlarged and is in a new building with the Post Office next door. Summer people borrow there as well as 20 min. up the highway to the Sechelt library or 20 min. in the other direction to Gibsons. My mother volunteered in the little one for 35 years. No town should ever lose a library. Children are brought by their teachers to the city libraries and helped to get borowers’ cards if they don’t already have them. What is the matter with English County Councils?

  18. Ian Luck says:

    A very drunk man wandered into a library, and, leaning on the counter, said in a very loud voice: “Cod and chips, please.”
    The Librarian said to the man: “This, sir, is a Library.” At this, the drunk apologised profusely, and beckoned the Librarian to lean over the counter, which he did, and the drunk whispered in his ear: “Cod and chips, please”.

  19. Porl says:

    I was distraught to find out my childhood branch library of the 70s is now a hydroponics shop. Drugs more important in a village than books. I’ve never got over that realisation. 🙁

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