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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Death of the Library?

By Norman Lebrecht / August 22, 2005

It is not really closing, they said, just moving down the road. That is the official line, for what it's worth. But when they shut the Whitechapel Library on the first Saturday of this month, they shut the doors forever on an epoch in English civilisation - on the elevated ideal that every person can acquire knowledge without cost or discrimination in a place that is safe and warm and neutral to the world and its conflicts.

The scientist Jacob Bronowski, born of immigrant parents, learned to read English at the Whitechapel Library. The artist Mark Gertler discovered colour. There is a blue plaque on the outside wall to the War poet Isaac Rosenberg, who belonged here more than any other place on earth for his body was never found on the Somme.

They called it 'the university of the ghetto' and without it many East End Jews might have wound up as alienated as young Moslems nowadays, shunning the milky tea of multiculturalism for something fiercer, more coherent. The closure of the Whitechapel library symbolises much more than just the end of a Victorian vision.

It illuminates the glaring failures of English education and integration over the past generation, and its transferral to an 'ideas store', half a mile away beside a Sainsbury's supermarket, says all you dreaded to know about the confusion of culture with consumerism that has overtaken the governing classes of this country with such devastating social consequences. Need to know cause and effect for street crime and drink culture? Start with the wrecking of our library system.

The Whitechapel was built by an Anglican canon with funds from a philanthropic Liberal MP in the ornate fashion of the 1890s and the conviction that nothing could be too good for those who seek self-betterment through the pursuit of knowledge. It stood for just over a century as the epitome of English enlightenment, granting access to the gates of wisdom and fantasy, to books full of skills and illusions. No excuse could be accepted for common ignorance in any borough with a good library.

Few of these great edifices exist any more and those that do have been sectioned off with plasterboard to create spaces for women's groups, movie loans and internet browsing. The unity of purpose has been lost in a muddle of provision. The grandeur that overwhelmed me as a boy has been diluted to mundane utility.

Five, I remember, was the minimum admission age and I couldn't wait to get a ticket. We had a set of Dickens at home that I had devoured, along with other classics, but I longed to be admitted to the community of reading that was represented by Stoke Newington Public Library. The thick cardboard ticket I was issued in the week of my birthday would grow furry and blurred with overuse. There were busts in the entrance hall and a reading room modelled, I would some day discover, on the British Museum's. The silence that prevailed within was like a fifth dimension, a space for thought and speculation, for chewing gum and eyeing girls. There was something of the numinous about the library experience.

I returned a couple of years ago with a film crew. A false ceiling concealed the grand cupola and the remaining space was partitioned up to exclude any possibility of transcendence. Run by the rackety borough of Hackney, it was a miracle the library stood at all when the adjacent town hall stood derelict, and I was heartened to find that Stoke Newington has active reading groups that maintain a slim advantage for book loans above the general run of CDs, DVDs and pervasive internet use.

Somewhere along the line, and it can't have been long after the liberating Sixties, the authorities lost the plot as far as libraries were concerned. A resource that had always been aspirational was converted for political reasons to recreational use, amid hypocritical denunciations of elitism and woolly-headed claims that free loans of chart records and Hollywood movies would attract teenagers to read Pope.

Maybe they do. I see teenagers with armfuls of both coming out of my local library, but I see also that they don't linger. Modern libraries are painfully unattractive and feel less safe than the grand old domes of yore. The contents, too, are meagre by comparison. Where a self-respecting library once stocked every new title of merit, it now costs twice as much to process a book for library use as it does to buy it in a shop - the result of rising public-service pay rates and frozen book prices. As stock dwindles, so does public interest. Library associations are forever holding crisis 'summits' at the Culture Department. At this rate, there will be no libraries with real books by the time our grandchildren come clamouring for their tickets.

How have we let this happen? Every now and then a privileged neighbourhood like Belsize Park kicks up a stink when the council threatens to close their cottage library, roping in resident celebrities to help save their amenity. But where were the Lord Melvins and Dame Antonias when they came to padlock the Whitechapel?

None among the Bengali community could speak up for a place that was much loved and still served the purpose imagined by Canon Barnet, to give children of the ghetto the space and freedom to find their footholds in this country. Council officials said the plaster was falling off the walls, the place was unsafe, much nicer to be in a new spot down the road with squeaky-clean plastic shelves. Much nicer, my Arnold Bennett.

The officious vandals of Tower Hamlets have shut two other libraries, at Bow and Chrisp Street, to make way for synthetic 'ideas stores'. We are witnessing a massive act of cultural self-destruction, the deprivation of undeveloped minds in pursuit of yet another policy that sacrifices tradition upon the altar of correctness. Soon, no-one will remember there ever was a library in Whitechapel - no-one, except the playwright Bernard Kops who has written an epitaph that will be staged in the vacant building later this year. Returning, We Hear the Larks, it is called, the title of one of Rosenberg's sombre battlefield poems. No Whitechapel Library, no more poems. End of story.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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