Austerity and the British Library

June 29, 2017 | 5 7 min read

The Hornsey Public Library sits off a gravel-paved sidewalk on a residential street in an outer borough of London. There are many beautiful libraries in London, but the Hornsey Public Library was built at a time in the 20th century when London did not require its libraries to be beautiful. The concrete and brick exterior has many right angles and determinedly unadorned surfaces. A marble plaque near the entrance says it was dedicated in 1965 by Princess Alexandra, a cousin of the queen and one of the corps of expendable royals dispatched to things like suburban library dedications.

The one very beautiful thing in the Hornsey Public Library is a large glass etching of an old map of the Parish of Hornsey on the floor-to-ceiling window near the north stairs. It is interesting to look at but feels hidden and out of place, as though added at the last minute when someone realized that the library should have at least one beautiful thing. The library’s interior is tidy and spacious. It has high ceilings lit by fluorescent tubes behind plastic panels. The walls are mint green and the floor is covered in that rough short-nap carpet that comes in squares. It feels dated but in a timeless way, as if there’s been no point in its existence when it wasn’t comfortably out of style.

The neighborhood that shelters the Hornsey Public Library used to be called the Parish of Hornsey. Now it’s called Crouch End. Crouch End is in the middle-outer rings of London, between the northern forks of the Piccadilly and Northern lines. It has a cobbler, a fishmonger, a poulterer, and several fruiterers. It has many strollers that frequently obstruct crosswalks and sidewalks. It supports multiple patisseries and health food stores. It is the type of place where a gay couple can walk down the street holding hands and the straight people around them swell with pride that they live in a place where gay couples feel so comfortable holding hands.

Crouch End has council housing, which is what the English call public housing, and it also has houses that are quite posh, which is what the English call things that cost a lot of money. English towns are rarely like American towns, where an address or intersection stage-whispers its inhabitants’ socioeconomic status. In neighborhoods like Crouch End the housing stock is jumbled together, with million-pound homes sharing a block or even a wall with crumbling rental conversions. Even with this democracy of address, class anxieties rumble.

Some famous actors live in Crouch End. Crouch End is the kind of place where a famous actor could tell an interviewer “I live in Crouch End, and instantly telegraph to the magazine’s readers that he is an unaffected everyman. Or “I live in Hornsey,” the actor might say, or “My flat’s in Stroud Green,” both overlapping neighborhoods that in the complex arithmetic of England’s class metrics are widely accepted as less “posh” than Crouch End and thus more everymanly. But the actor probably would not tell the interviewer the name of his or her neighborhood, because of privacy.

The inside of the Hornsey Public Library feels different from the neighborhood outside. In Crouch End there are many people who like the idea of community, but who also have the money to pay for nicer things than those available in communal facilities. They prefer to buy their books at an independent bookshop, but often, guiltily, on Amazon. Inside the library there are people who do not have the money to pay for nicer things and so need to use communal facilities. Not all of the people in this second category like the idea of community. The percentage of people who can be seen muttering softly to themselves is also greater inside the library than outside of it.

The library is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, except Saturday, when it closes at 5 p.m., and Sunday, when it is open from noon to 4 p.m. The fact that the library has not reduced its opening hours, even in this time of austerity, is a testament to the value that the council and its citizens place on the library’s services. Budgets cuts have shuttered more than 100 libraries across Britain already, and hundreds more are scheduled for execution. A national “Save Our Libraries Day” was held in 2011, featuring read-ins, “shhh”-ins, and one piece of performance art in which a hooded man crept through a Somerset library and snatched books from elderly patrons’ hands. After that, Haringey council issued a press release declaring that there would be no cuts at any of its nine libraries, Hornsey included.

It is a time of reduction in Britain: of spending, of staff, of certainty, of expectations. Calls placed to council agencies ring and ring and ring; programs that were available last quarter on the yellowing timetable in the glassine case outside the community center no longer exist.  The past feels now like the prologue of some other, darker, entirely different work. The virtual world fares no better. A visitor to the council website trips over broken links like the shards of forgotten tombstones, and “next” buttons lead only to the shuddering hiccoughs of error messages.

We are the first species clever enough to render ourselves redundant. Yet scarcity reminds us that even the most soulless automated systems need humans to water and feed them—the programmer cleaning the bugs from the system, the procurement officer signing the purchase order for additional servers. Austerity gives us the chance to miss ourselves and that, at least, is something.

The Hornsey Public Library does not possess a staggering number of books. On the ground floor, past the checkout desk, is a long wall of fiction. History hides under the stairs; gardening and cookery hug the back wall; and economics, sociology, and assorted non-fiction line a few shelves upstairs. It is an eclectic mix of bestselling and obscure authors, new titles and old. If there is a special book you have in mind—a lesser-known short story collection by a famous novelist, for example, or a book on Burma that you saw in an airport bookshop—chances are the library does not have that book. If you are not committed to a particular title and have the time and inclination to browse the shelves looking for something interesting to read, then certainly you will find at least one book that fits your personal criteria of readability.

Books are only a small part of the library’s mandate. When the council elected to spare its libraries from cuts, it announced that they would be redeveloped as “community hubs.” Among the groups using the library’s facilities for regular open meetings are stroke survivors, cancer survivors, seniors, dads, knitters, aspiring songwriters, Pilates enthusiasts, and philosophy buffs. There is an art gallery and a café with tea, coffee, and a refrigerated case with a small selection of juice and boxed sandwiches. No one ever eats the sandwiches.

The café is manned by a local artist who dresses each day in the clothes of an 18th-century dandy, complete with hat, ruffled cuffs, and stockings. He wears these clothes when doing errands around town, and to after-work drinks at the local bar. He is very friendly, but he will correct people who mistake him for a pirate.

The children’s section is separated from the rest of the library by a small picket gate. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings the children’s librarian sits on a chair inside the big wooden corral in the center of the children’s room and sings a chorus of children’s songs. Dozens of children crowd onto the carpet, along with the parents, nannies, and grandparents in their entourage, and the corral quickly takes on an overheated and claustrophobic feel. Always, children cry. Some throw things. Some react to the overstimulation by curling up against their caregivers with blank, watery eyes. Others go wild, careening mad-eyed across the floor on a Little Tikes tricycle without regard for tiny fingers or toes in their path. The librarian sings on, through “10 Fat Sausages” and “Row Row Row Your Boat,” because if she stopped for every small emergency, sing time would last forever, certainly longer than the 25 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday that sing time is supposed to last.

It is not perfect for anybody, but it is a little bit good for everybody. It is good in some ways for the moms and nannies who hold their children in their laps and clap along and lift them high during “The Grand Old Duke of York.” It is good in other ways for the moms and nannies who sit on vinyl couches far from their charges while thumbing through their phone or reading OK! magazine. Some Crouch End mothers avoid library sing time, preferring the smaller session in the park café that cycles through the same songs but costs £3.50. “It just has a different feel,” they say. “It’s just a different crowd.”

Across the main lobby with the cases of DVDs and CDs for borrow (old titles free, new releases £3 for two days) and up a flight of stairs is a loft with couches, desks, and three rows of desktop computers. The computers are for public use except during First Bytes class. First Bytes is a free class for people using computers for the first time. First Bytes is not officially a seniors’ course, but most of the people in First Bytes are seniors. First Bytes students can be a surprisingly raucous crowd. When problems arise they are quick to blame systemic failures, often in anthropomorphic terms: their arrow has suddenly gone missing, their Internet doesn’t want to open.

The librarians who teach First Bytes reproach recalcitrant students with tough love. “I’m not going to do it for you,” a young male librarian explains to a woman in a knitted vest. “If I do it you won’t know how to do it yourself. The thing with computers is, it’s more about confidence than knowing what you’re doing.”

A glance at the titles on the magazine racks—Nursing Times, Arthritis Today, Gramophone—confirm that many of the library’s most dedicated users are, in fact, old. Theirs is a demographic accustomed to making do with less, who are used to everybody listening to the same few radio programs and of waiting one’s turn for a book. It is good if the public library appeals to seniors, but it is not good if seniors are the only people to whom a library appeals. New generations need to use their library, need to need their library, if the library is to remain inside the tightening circle of things the government will do for its people.

On this front, there is hope. After school the desks upstairs are full of teenagers studying and flirting. There are young entrepreneurs and self-employed freelancers of all stripes bent over their laptops; there are writers in the corners watching and scribbling. And there is the electric piano.

At least once a week a woman walks up the stairs and sits down at the bench. She removes from her bag a sheet of music and a pair of headphones that she plugs into the outlet before clapping them over her ears. Then she plays, fingers dancing across the keyboard, body swaying unconsciously, a silent concerto for all to see.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a journalist and the author of Ghosts in the Forest. After five years in London, she now lives in southern California with her family.