Monday, July 13, 2015

London Libraries #5: John Harvard, Southwark

The coffee sign bigger – and more prominent – than the library sign

Because of the nice weather I hadn't been to my nearest library to work for some time. It was raining on a recent lunchtime so I nipped in. I was in a shock but in a way it sums up what I dislike most about the inevitability of modern life in general and London specifically. I never liked the library that much to start with; it feels pokey and claustrophobic. But there's now a cafe with canteen-style wooden benches which takes up about a quarter of the library. There's a rug on the wooden floorboards, retro over-hanging lamps, ambient-type music playing (in a library! And people talking! It's meant to be a place of study and silence – like a church) and a few books here and there; there's a general feel to it of being cool, vintage. Obviously, I hate it. But what really struck me was the people. In place of the old-timers, weirdos, out of work Poles and general layouts are stock image looking youth folk laughing over lattes and croissants. WTF? Where did they come from? What's happened to the old regulars? About a quarter of the library is now a lifestyle cafe, leaving less room for sitting down and actually... well, reading. I've bemoaned previously that books and reading are now low down in a library's list of priorities – internet, TV and DVDs are certainly higher up on the list, but this takes it to another level. I actually quite like the combination of coffee and books but this is money-making lifestyle nonsense. And like the nearby demolished Heygate estate where, one day, all of sudden, all the residents just vanished, to be replaced by sparkly new rich people, so the library has zapped the old regulars. Where do they go now? How do they fill their days? It's a mystery, and a sad one.

Previously there was a library around the corner at 56 Southwark Bridge Road, a beautiful tall Victorian building with lots of windows (it's now – shudder – a media training centre). The likewise lovely old Newington library on nearby Walwoth Road is now permanently closed (along with the Cuming museum), due to a fire in 2013. There's now a temporary library called, er, Newington temporary library.

The John Harvard library is named after the Southwark clergyman John Harvard (1607-1638), who went to Massachusetts and founded Harvard University. The library stands on the site of the infamous Marshalsea prison, featured in several Dickens' novels (his father was imprisoned there; and Charles was too, aged 12) and run privately for profit, as most prisons were up until the 19th century. Inmates consisted mainly of debtors, as was the case of the majority of prisons at the time, as well as a healthy dose of pirates, smugglers and those accused of sedition. Sounds great, though I wouldn't have lasted a day. The only part of the prison that remains is a wall adjacent to the library.

Surrounding the rest of the building is a new development (and opposite – new luxury apartments being built) – looks nice, spacious and comfy inside; at first I thought it was a library extension. Wishful thinking, no – it's going to be The Office Group, who 'provide design-led flexible offices in fantastic locations'. Currently cased in scaffolding with childlike illustrations of happy, simple looking-people happily going about their work – including one guy mooning on a photocopier. Do people still do that?

Previously on Barnflakes:
London Bridge Lunches
Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark


Englishman in kiwiland said...

Get with the programme man, my local library (Richmond, in Tasman district, New Zealand) also has a coffee bar in the corner.
There are kids talking too loudly and listening to that said awful 'RnB' and lots of Internet/computer terminals, comfy beanbags, spaces for babies and young children, and lots of books.
If libraries don't diversify and 'move with the times' they get closed down cos there using up too much tax payers money without a return, yes it's all economics/profits/services (delete as appropriate).
And then next day the coffee bar will take over and the books will all be sold off....what then?

Barnaby said...

...You'll be left with a coffee shop. Cities will just be coffee shops, estate agents and mobile phone shops.