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London, Seen through Its Libraries

By Pınar Öğünç
Translated By Ayça Türkoğlu

Turkish writer Pınar Öğünç finds a new perspective on London by visiting the city’s libraries.


You could walk every inch of a city and never uncover its secrets; these are to be found in the most unexpected of places, and to find them you’ll need a different sort of map altogether. In London, for instance, you might discover the city’s true face in its public libraries.

In London’s libraries, every hour of the day brings a different crowd, each one its own documentary, each story a Ken Loach film in the making. In Chelsea—where property values are among the highest not just in the country but the world—shop windows display goods priced in the hundreds. Walk into its public library, however, and another window opens before you, one that offers an entirely different perspective on the neighborhood. Indeed, this is how many libraries look on the inside, where the patrons include the poor and the increasingly impoverished middle classes; people living in local social housing while they still can; migrants of all ages; homeless people who arrive in worn-out shoes, coats fraying with age, carrying faded plastic bags. Of course, there are also secondary school students who come with their battered exercise books and colored pens and sit across from one another studying, giggling all the while. But they don’t make up the majority of local library-goers. 

As in all libraries, there is an unseen—but very real—queue for the day’s papers. Who can afford to pay for a paper every day anyway? A woman in her forties carefully reads the finance section, turning the pages slowly. She watches the person reading the weekend magazine; she knows it’s her turn next. In the distance, beyond the library’s walls, cranes are at work on skyscrapers, each floor worth millions, and now she is reading a piece in the finance section detailing the increasing difficulties faced by young people hoping to buy homes in London. She will wait for the weekend magazine, even if it means reading the sports section in the meantime.

If you stumble across a paper with its crossword puzzle still intact, you’ll be hard-pressed to stifle a grin. The crossword is very important. If necessary, one person will pick up from where the other has left off. Dictionaries will be brought down off the shelves, librarians will be repeatedly quizzed over “five across, eight letters” and they will resign themselves to pointing the puzzlers in the direction of a thesaurus. Over time, the librarians have come to learn what resources are of most use when it comes to the crossword.

Different libraries reveal different lives. A waiter who’s just clocked off or municipal workers in overalls dropping in to browse before heading to the pub. At Battersea Park Library, a young mother with her baby in a pram picks out a crime novel. A man in his fifties visits Finsbury Library looking to borrow a new jazz CD for the evening—yes, these people still exist. In South Library, a woman picks out a novel, then notes down a recipe from an East Asian cookbook. At Wimbledon Library, a man who has probably spent a good three quarters of his life in conversation with the bottle, flicks through An Anthology of the Nation’s Most Treasured Nature Poems, his cheeks rosy like a child’s.

The walls of Brixton Library display black and white photographs of protests and riots from years past—perhaps it’s the next generation of these families who now have their heads in the comics section. The ultramodern Peckham Library is situated in the center of a low-income area and looks like it has arrived from outer space. This is more than a library—it is a community in a neighborhood that is experiencing rapid change and gentrification. Inside, it is packed to the rafters, with space for children to run around and teenagers to meet up. In Stoke Newington, there is a Turkish language section, a common sight at many of the libraries in Hackney, which has a history of multiculturalism.

For some, a visit to the library simply serves as a good reason to leave the house. These patrons might otherwise go weeks without speaking to a soul. A woman in her eighties reads an art magazine from March 1986, making notes on her notepad in a shaky hand. It’s clear that this notepad is her way of maintaining a sense of vitality. She may go home and make herself dinner for one—her husband died long ago, and she sees less of her grandchildren as they grow older. She may watch a little television and go to bed before 10. Tomorrow, she might look at the magazines from 1987.

For others, the library is a welcome alternative to a day on the streets. Homeless people come to the library towing big suitcases or shopping trolleys covered in patched tarpaulins, hoping for a rest or simply a place to warm up. The statistics on homelessness show that an overwhelming majority of those who become homeless are people who have lost their social housing or been evicted because they couldn’t afford the rent after losing their jobs in a city where unemployment is on the rise. At Northcote Library, one visitor picks up a book from where he left off, while another charges a phone or passes the time reading the papers. Some swear out loud, others talk to themselves; all receive gentle rebukes.

There are some for whom the local library provides their first experience of using a computer. At Fulham Library, someone timidly asks the librarian to pull up a blank Word document. A woman in her sixties opens her first Facebook account; a man trawls through Afghan news sites; another spends an hour and a half tapping away at a keyboard. Take a look through the trash cans by the computers in any public library and you’ll find them full of CVs and application forms.

Despite the many communities they serve, the number of public libraries is decreasing due to budget cuts, austerity measures—call them what you will—and a fundamental shift in the understanding of the common good and sympathy for neoliberal municipalism. Each year, around one hundred libraries close their doors and the remaining budget dips a little lower. Campaigns have been set up to combat this. Some councils have passed the state’s responsibilities on to the public, announcing that services will only be able to continue with voluntary support. When it comes to the future of the libraries, there is not a single answer. Time will tell whether the public demand will be enough to protect these spaces that are a crossroads of different lives.

You might visit one of London’s public libraries to read a book, or perhaps it’s your own stories you’re hoping to write. It might be hard to catch hold of the story you have in mind as it floats with all the others, just above your head. Sometimes, stories simply write themselves.

Published Aug 17, 2018   Copyright 2018 Pınar Öğünç

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