Return to Rotherhithe

Return to Rotherhithe

The news from the public library sector has been pretty grim in recent months, with short-sighted councils seeking to curtail—sorry, “streamline”—their library services in ways that are often antithetical to the 1964 Act. So it was a relief to turn away from the gloom towards an unabashed good news story—the opening of the new Canada Water Library at Rotherhithe.  

I have to express an interest—I lived in Rotherhithe for five years, and have always retained affection for the area, which has moved from toytown houses to big apartment blocks over the past quarter century, but has never quite surrendered to creeping yuppiedom. It’s a family area, and is home to some of London’s least affluent citizens.

The new library is a “statement” building—in shape and materials, it recalls the ships and the timber-yards of the old Surrey Docks, and is a focal point in a new civic development of squares and shopping streets. Inside, however, it offers everything one could wish from an inner-city library—starting, of course, with a vibrant café.  Here’s the clever part, though.  The café is on the ground level (opening on to the old dockside), alongside a 150-seat “culture space": a theatre/venue/village hall integrated into the building. It underscores the building’s significance to the community—a library should have something for everyone.

And most of all, it should have books, and there are plenty here: 36,000 titles divided across two upper floors. The lower floor carries children’s, teen, adult fiction and lifestyle non-fiction (cookery etc) in a series of snaking, space-defining bookcases, and is peppered with seating, desks and computer terminals. The upper floor concentrates on reference and “serious” non-fiction, with a tricorn gallery of desks and an atmosphere of concentrated study.

All of this is very worthy, but is it justifiable in the current economic climate? Absolutely.  On a dull Tuesday afternoon, I estimated that there were over 120 people (plus a primary school class) making use of every part of the library, and those users included every relevant demographic sub-set. Rotherhithe needs its library, and the right facilities are enabling local people to study, access knowledge, and explore new worlds.  

The relative benefit of this investment is much greater than it would be in a solid middle-class area—though perhaps the aggrieved middle classes will do a better job holding their councils to account than some disenfranchised inner-city dwellers. In this part of town, Kindle sales will be low, and access to printed books, and online resources, remains fundamental and necessary. Since its November opening, over 50,000 people have used the new library—Southwark Council and architect Piers Gough have delivered something truly extraordinary, and I urge you to visit.