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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?