Why Heritage?

Reading a Book
It’s amaz­ing what you can find in a lib­rary. Photo by Publicenergy.

Sharon Howard has com­ments on the clos­ure of Whitechapel Library known as, “the uni­ver­sity of the ghetto”. The Guardian notes:

One of the things which sealed its fate was dis­abled access in a lis­ted Victorian build­ing. Bruce Shuter, who has a gammy leg and used a stick yes­ter­day to struggle up the tower­ing stone stair­case — “I like it, the exer­cise is good for me”, he insisted — was scornful.

They’re throw­ing away a rich and import­ant his­tory, without even real­ising what they’re doing. It’s symp­to­matic of an unre­flect­ive, uncrit­ical, con­sumer­ist cul­ture. I find it really depressing.”

Is this another example of New Labour axing her­it­age? It depends. What is the her­it­age here?

The lib­rary was set up to serve the poor pop­u­la­tion of Whitechapel in 1892. It’s hard to under­play what an amaz­ing idea this was. If you start edu­cat­ing any­one, then who knows what ques­tions they might ask? The users weren’t just any­one. From the very begin­ning Hebrew books were provided for the large Jewish pop­u­la­tion in the area. A large part of the cost of provid­ing these books and the build­ing to house them came from the Liberal MP Passmore Edwards. It’s a habit to look back at the Victorian era as a Golden Age, but for once there is a story about char­ity and phil­an­thropy to tell. People were giv­ing money so that other could learn.

What is the best way of remem­ber­ing and hon­our­ing the people who made this hap­pen? Usually we pre­serve the build­ings, but is this appro­pri­ate in this case? The idea was to open access for those who would oth­er­wise not be able to read books on a reg­u­lar basis. Today Tower Hamlets is still one of the poorer sub­urbs of London. I have to agree with Sharon. We’re now in a time where the cost of edu­ca­tion has spir­alled. Twenty years ago people got thou­sands of pounds in grants to study. Now people have to pay thou­sands of pounds to study as uni­ver­sity. If the new lib­rary is the best way of get­ting inform­a­tion to people then surely the ideal continues.

A lib­rary that people don’t use isn’t a shrine to thought, it’s a grave of thought.

I also agree that nam­ing lib­rar­ies Idea Stores is also awful. Stores are where you pay for things. And is put­ting “Idea” in big let­ters on the side of the build­ing really such a good idea? How many people will go away dis­ap­poin­ted when they can’t buy styl­ish furniture?


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.