Guest post by June O’Sullivan MBE, Trustee at Upper Norwood Library Hub
I am sure that like many of you, I know my own neighbourhood less than I know the place where I work. To mitigate this, I joined the board of the local library Upper Norwood Library Hub as I am a keen library fan and it was under threat. In the UK, libraries are closing at a rapid rate and once you lose a building you never get it back.
Many people have developed their love for libraries from their childhood. I am one of them. From the time, I could walk into town on my own you would find me in the Cork City Library I went to the library every Saturday to get two books for me and two books for my grandmother. She loved Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland and I loved Nancy Drew. I was one of those nightmare children who on finding three books I wanted to read, would dither about deciding which one to hide behind the large philosophy books in the hope that it would be there next Saturday. Years later, when I started taking my own children to our local Wandsworth Alvering Library (now a school) I was thrilled to find we could each take out six books. What a joy!
When I was studying for my Open University degree I used to squirrel away in the Battersea Reference Library the only place I could seek solace away from small children and a DIY husband. I have since gravitated towards libraries as I truly believe that they are critical to education in the truest sense of the word.
There is no doubt that libraries, like anything, must change and adapt to meet the needs of modern society. In our refurbishment at UNLH we ensured there would be a workspace to plug in laptops. As a social enterprise, we are very sympathetic to the many people developing start-ups and small businesses who need a place away from their cold flats within which to research, write and think. According to the latest Entrepreneurs Index, Britain has maintained a healthy level of start-up growth since the research began almost three years ago. The most recent report, covering the second half of last year, showed that the number of start-ups rose 3.7pc in the period, taking the total of active UK companies to almost 3.14m.
We live in a city where planners and developers are mean with space, where they shave an inch here and a foot there to save a few bob. The result is often small cramped living spaces. The library homework area is therefore critical for children wanting quiet place to do their homework. I take a traditional view about library etiquette, I do not like noise in the library and when we take the children from the LEYF nurseries to the library they are taught how to behave. Children really need to understand quiet and adults need to provide a place where quiet is the norm and they learn an appreciation for silence. It’s one of the few places where they can wallow in peace and calm.
I recently read about the new library in Helsinki built for 96m euro, a country which takes its libraries seriously so much so they have a Libraries Act which means all libraries are free to use. This new library was modern in its concept, sited in a working class area, so that people who may have a limited budget and cultural capital access to a library building designed as a community hub with books, story times, quiet space, recording studio, event space, workspace, sauna, cinema and library of things; all free to the local community. It’s the original Victorian library with a modern twist.
At UNLH, we would love to create the Helsinki model, but we are limited by the building size and the finance needed to keep the show on the road. Sadly, unlike Finland there is very little financial support for libraries, but we are luckier than many because we have the continued help of Lambeth and Croydon; two boroughs which still see the benefits of libraries as community hubs. And we do have exciting things happening; we are delighted to be partners with Crystal Palace Transition Town Crystal Palace Transition Town and Library of Things in creating a new Library of Things at UNLH.
Our message is the same as the Finns though, libraries are great community hub. Fight for them because if we don’t we will lose another piece of our heritage, probably to some huge developer who will turn the building into unaffordable flats. Graham Green said there is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. This is surely the library door.