Zadie Smith writes not just a eulogy for a particular bookshop but also about the defunding of public libraries in the UK and the demise of free indoor spaces in the New York Review of Books. I liked how she mocks the idea that loitering (aka hanging out in public) inevitably leads to “anti-social” behavior. As per usual, images are linked through to their sources:
The key thing about Willesden’s French Market is that it accentuates and celebrates this concrete space in front of Willesden Green Library Centre, which is at all times a meeting place, though never quite so much as it is on market day. Everybody’s just standing around, talking, buying or not buying cheese, as the mood takes them. It’s really pleasant. You could almost forget Willesden High Road was ten yards away. This matters. When you’re standing in the market you’re not going to work, you’re not going to school, you’re not waiting for a bus. You’re not heading for the tube or shopping for necessities. You’re not on the high road where all these activities take place. You’re just a little bit off it, hanging out, in an open air urban area, which is what these urban high streets have specifically evolved to stop people doing.
Everybody knows that if people hang around for any length of time in an urban area without purpose they are likely to become “anti-social.” And indeed there were four homeless drunks sitting on one of the library’s strange architectural protrusions, drinking Special Brew. Perhaps in a village they would be sitting under a tree, or have already been driven from the area by a farmer with a pitchfork. I do not claim to know what happens in villages. But here in Willesden they were sat on their ledge and the rest of us were congregating for no useful purpose in the unlovely concrete space, simply standing around in the sunshine, like some kind of community. From this vantage point we could look ahead to the turrets, or left to the Victorian police station (1865), or right to the half-ghostly façade of the Spotted Dog (1893).
[Willesden Green Book Shop]
Meanwhile my daughter is running madly through the centre’s esplanade, with another toddler who has the same idea. And then she reverses direction and heads straight for Willesden Green Book Shop, an independent shop that rents space from the council and provides—no matter what Brent Council, the local government for the London borough of Brent, may claim—an essential local service. It is run by Helen. Helen is an essential local person. I would characterize her essentialness in the following way: “Giving the people what they didn’t know they wanted.” Important category. Different from the concept popularized by Mr Murdoch: giving the people what they want. Everyone is by now familiar with the Dirty Digger’s version of the social good—we’ve had thirty years of it. Helen’s version is different and necessarily perpetrated on a far smaller scale.
Helen [of Willesden Green Book Shop] gives the people of Willesden what they didn’t know they wanted. Smart books, strange books, books about the country they came from, or the one that they’re in. Children’s books with children in them that look at least a bit like the children who are reading them. Radical books. Classical books. Weird books. Popular books. She reads a lot, she has recommendations. Hopefully, you have a Helen in a bookshop near you and so understand what I’m talking about. In 1999 I didn’t know I wanted to read David Mitchell until Helen pointed me to Ghostwritten. And I have a strong memory of buying a book by Sartre here, because it was on the shelf and I saw it. I don’t know how I could have known I wanted Sartre without seeing it on that shelf—that is, without Helen putting it there. Years later, I had my book launch in this bookshop and when it got too full, mainly with local friends of my mother, we all walked up the road to her flat and carried on over there.
And it was while getting very nostalgic about all this sort of thing with Helen, and wondering about the possibility of having another launch in the same spot, that I first heard of the council’s intention to demolish the library centre along with the bookshop and the nineteenth-century turrets and the concrete space and the ledge on which the four drunks sat. To be replaced with private luxury flats, a greatly reduced library, “retail space” and no bookshop. (Steve, the owner, could not afford the commercial rise in rent. The same thing happened to his Kilburn Bookshop, which closed recently after thirty years.) My mum wandered in, with some cheese. The three of us lamented this change and the cultural vandalism we felt it represented. Or, if you take the opposite view, we stood around pointlessly, like the Luddite, fiscally ignorant liberals we are, complaining about the inevitable.
What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell. Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact every single student in here could be at home in front of their macbook browsing Google Books. And Kilburn Library—also run by Brent Council but situated, despite its name, in affluent Queen’s Park—is not only thriving but closed for refurbishment. Kensal Rise is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them.) Meanwhile it is hard not to conclude that Willesden Green is being mutilated not least because the members of the council see the opportunity for a sweet real estate deal.
All libraries have a different character and setting. Some are primarily for children or primarily for students, or the general public, primarily full of books or microfilms or digitized material or with a café in the basement or a market out front. Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.
Just read the Design Observer post on little libraries and tactical urbanism. The mammoth post (but well worth reading even if you aren’t a child of a librarian) ends with the UNI project in Boston.
We “started with the space,” Sam Davol said; we “didn’t really have an agenda about books.” Yet their neighbors had been hoping for decades that the Boston Public Library would replace their branch, which had closed in 1956. The Davols saw an opportunity; they found a 3,000-square-foot storefront on Washington Street, partnered with design students at Harvard to create shelving and furniture, drummed up local support and attracted volunteers and accepted donations — and the Chinatown Storefront Library was born in 2009. The group shelved 4,100 books, issued 540 library cards, hosted community meetings and offered innovative programming, including a Drawing Lab and zine-making workshops led by the Papercut Zine Library. Because the space was small and community-focused, and because the Davols were present to oversee the space and the collection, they were able to adapt and improvise. As Sam Davol puts it, “The Storefront Library was R&D” for what came next. Appreciating the potential extendibility, flexibility and portability of their creation — and inspired by the Project for Public Spaces’ call for “lighter, quicker, cheaper" urban development — they hatched an idea for the Uni.
The Davols knew they wanted to create small public spaces for urban neighborhoods, but they weren’t sure what the space would be. Perhaps a portable community center or a library — although they were reluctant to carry or imply the weight of either institutional type. While they wanted to partner with libraries and other public entities, they were reluctant to call themselves a “library.” So they chose the name Urban Neighborhood Institution — or Uni, for short.
The Uni structure consists of 144 open-faced, trapezoidal cubes stackable in various configurations depending upon the site and program; thus far the Uni has been installed at the New Amsterdam Market in Manhattan and at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Borough Hall Plaza. Each 16-inch cube can hold 10 to 15 books, and each is outfitted with a weather-resistant protective cover which, when removed, can double as a bench, a table, a podium, or a display surface. The design is always evolving.
Improvised or ambulatory libraries have a long history. (see Bookmobile) The best examples may be from South America.
Weapon of Mass Instruction (Argentina)