A London Library of Books and Bombs

This is a well written story of the origin of an amazing library and of its survival in the heart of London during WWII. And with that, a lesson in the important and surprising roles that libraries play in the history of a nation and city.

The article appeared in The Paris Review last week (May 18, 2017) and was penned by Though lengthier than other articles, it is worth your reading on this Friday.

This quotation begins about halfway through the article.

For a few years, the Bethnal Green Library seemed to be safe, but in 1938 an ominous note entered the library report. George Vale, borough librarian, wrote, “The estimated daily average attendance in the Newsroom was 554 and this department undoubtedly fills an urgent need in these troublesome times.” By 1939, Vale explicitly included solace in the library’s remit: “If amidst the threats and rumours of war and universal destruction we can bring, in some small measure, a sense of beauty and a general desire for truth into the homes of the people of Bethnal Green, the work of our public libraries will not be in vain.” The 1940 report reflected country’s move to war. Gone were the thick white sheets, replaced by translucent brown onionskin. Our librarian reported on his fractured clientele, “Some were exhilarated, but not a few suffered from depression, ‘nerves,’ bewilderment, restlessness, or ill health.”Then on September 7, 1940, the library was bombed. Vale described it like this:

The enemy raiders had fired on the Docks, and as darkness approached the night became an inferno. It was on that day at 5.55pm that our Central Public Library received a direct hit … The bomb went clean through the Adult Lending Library.

That year, Vale’s annual reports to the borough council stopped altogether. As London was battered and blitzed, librarians were trying to keep books safe. Bethnal Green asked for one hundred pounds to construct shelves inside the local bomb shelter. Though the London Civil Defense Region did not think this was the most pressing issue in time of war, they agreed that fifty pounds could be put toward the provisions of bookcases or cupboards, and the librarians carried four thousand books down into the tube.

This was how, during the Blitz, the Bethnal Green library became the first, and possibly only, bomb-shelter library in all of Britain. As bombs and fires cratered the city, Londoners hunkered underground, and librarians handed out poetry, plays, novels, nonfiction, and children’s books. Presumably, the readers discovered the library’s new location as they clattered down the steps away from air sirens, caught their breath, and looked around. It was open from 5:30 P.M. to 8:00 P.M. every weekday.

What courage all this must have taken. When he resumed his borough report, Vale wrote that “there were no Press photographs showing library assistants working on the edge of a crater and certainly no films or gay posters advertising the attraction of the library service.” And yet throughout the war, this little library offered a respite from fear, an education, and beauty.

Can you imagine celebrating our libraries as we do our battalions? What if world leaders put their egos in the number of libraries their countries boasted? Perhaps we should start by being grateful for those libraries we do have. There was almost no bomb-shelter library. If the war government had decided that books were too frivolous, if Carnegie had not found the money, if the residents of Tower Hamlets had refused to pay their taxes, if a few Victorians hadn’t wanted to shunt the poor from the pubs, then the residents of Bethnal Green would’ve had no books to unfold as they crouched underground.

Source: How a London Borough Turned an Asylum into a Library

Save

Published in: on May 26, 2017 at 8:24 AM  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://cjts3rs.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/a-london-library-of-books-and-bombs/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: