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Bombs and Pandemics: How Libraries Survive and Thrive

Kate Thompson, Journalist and Sunday Times bestselling historical fiction and non-fiction author, is currently working on a novel based on the remarkable true story of Bethnal Green Underground’s shelter library in WW2. Her blog sums up how she feels about libraries and their workers.

Kate Thompson

‘Want to see the world? Don’t join the Army, become a librarian,’ Denise Bangs, Idea Store Librarian at Tower Hamlets, laughingly told me last year when I began researching my latest novel, based on the true story of a little wartime library.

The Second World War reconfigured the literary landscape, literally in the case of Bethnal Green Central Library when a high explosive bomb smashed through the roof at five minutes before closing on the first night of the blitz.

In a split second, an orderly and well-equipped library became a scene of destruction. Rather than hurrying for the nearest shelter, borough librarian George F Vale and his deputy Stanley Snaith pulled a tarpaulin over the shattered glass dome roof and set about planning a pioneering social experiment that would transform the lives of wartime Londoners.

Bethnal Green Underground was a half-completed stop on the Central line when war broke out. One week after the blitz began, East Enders defied Churchill’s orders not to shelter in tube stations and claimed their right to safety. At 78 feet below ground, it was one of the few safe places to shelter in the area. Over the next 12 months it was transformed into a fully functioning subterranean community with an astonishing array of facilities.

Metal triple bunks sleeping up to 5,000, a shelter theatre, which hosted opera and ballet, doctor’s quarters and a creche. But here’s the best part: there was a library, too!

I love surprises in history and finding out about George and Stanley’s underground library, built over the boarded-up tracks of the westbound tunnel, felt nothing short of magic.

Next year (2022), Bethnal Green Library celebrates its centenary. The library opened in 1922 on the site of what was a male lunatic asylum, which only closed in 1920. Lunacy replaced with literacy, what a message of hope that must have sent to the community. What better way to mark that anniversary, I thought, than by interviewing one hundred library workers!

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Kate Thompson on the spot in Bethnal Green Underground where she believes the library was located. Image courtesy of Kate Thompson.

I’m ashamed to admit that prior to my research, I subscribed to the archaic belief that librarianship was a quiet, sedate job. Fast forward and after 60 interviews (40 to go) with library professionals of all ages and backgrounds and Denise’s comment now makes sense!

I see now that librarians are frontline workers used to dealing with the mentally ill, the disenfranchised, homeless, the lonely, and vulnerable. A librarian is often the only person someone might see all day. What’s more, they have the emotional intelligence to deal with whoever walks in through the door, which to my mind, makes them more than someone who loans out books. They are part counsellor, social worker, listening ear, facilitator, events planner and friend.

Such eye-watering tales! Like the librarian forced to eject a man for frying up egg and bacon on a portable gas stove in the middle of the library. Or what about the friendly old fella who used to smuggle out books under a trilby hat that grew higher on every visit, the gentleman who frequented Whitechapel Library dressed in a gorilla suit and sit quietly reading, or the woman who turned up to a small rural Suffolk library in nothing but a fur coat. Items used as bookmarks could be a chapter in its own right!

Libraries are anything but dull. They are a microcosm of society, so we should probably add humanitarian to the job description!

‘Librarians require infinite patience and politeness in the face of adversity,’ Charlotte Clark, Manager of Southwold Library told me, adding, ‘A love of people is as, if not more, important than a love of books.’

They are the big, beating heart of a community. I was really struck by an interview with retired children’s librarian Claire Harris, who told me about her 28 years in the impoverished London borough of Stepney.

‘What we lacked in funds, we made up for with our imaginations. One summer I had the idea to make the Titanic out of lolly sticks. The kids loved it! I could see their imagination growing as it took shape. Word spread and seamstresses from the local factories started donating old cotton reels and people started leaving lolly sticks and matchsticks on the library steps. More and more kids took part until it was gargantuan. Six weeks it took us. After it was finished, I held story time under the stern and read nautical tales. You’ve never seen so many children so entranced. Lots of love and a library ticket, that’s all you need.’

Librarians are, as your very own Mareike Doleschal, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust explained, ‘facilitators of joy’. What a wonderful description.

‘I'm a gatekeeper to the past,’ Mareike told me. ‘Sharing my knowledge of the riches of our books for others to discover.’

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Kate Thompson researching the library at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. Image courtesy of Kate Thompson.

When I started researching my novel, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and as I conducted my interviews over Zoom, the parallels between the work of wartime and COVID-era librarians struck me. Granted there are no bombs, but COVID achieved what Hitler never managed and for the first time ever, shut down our libraries.

At the outset of war, The President of the Library Association, the grandly named, Arundell Esdaile wrote in The Library Association Record: ‘Patriotism is not enough. The right reading of books is one of the chief ways of maintaining and even enlarging the culture of the mind which knows no frontiers. And, after all, is it not on behalf of that culture that we are fighting to destroy that barbarism.”

The rhetoric was clear. Books were to be a key weapon in the fight for morale.

‘Librarians are alive to the conditions and are adapting themselves to the exigencies of the moment,’ wrote Arundell one year later when the blitz broke out. He was right. Libraries boomed and it could be argued that the democratisation of libraries took place in wartime. A Mass Observation Survey showed that a new generation of working-class readers enrolled in public libraries during the war.

By 1942, Manchester Library recorded a record-breaking issue of over five million volumes, one million in Portsmouth and areas like Barnes and Swindon, which had no public library service at all prior to the war, rapidly opened one.

Small libraries were formed in shelters, hospitals and prisoner of war camps. St Pancras Borough Council launched the first Travelling Library van, which promised, ‘A Library to your Door’.

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The Librarian at Bethnal Green's underground shelter library. Image licensed courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

Seventy-six years from the end of WW2, I see library workers reacting with the same resourcefulness, imagination and flexibility as their wartime predecessors.

‘Libraries are about more than their buildings,’ Carol Stump, President of Libraries Connected and Chief Librarian of Kirklees Council acknowledged. ‘They are an essential part of the local economic, social and cultural recovery from Coronavirus.’

And yet, they are vulnerable.

‘Libraries are low hanging fruits,’ says Chief Librarian John Pateman, who today runs libraries in Thunder Bay, Canada, but in the UK ran two award-winning library services in Lincolnshire and Merton.

‘There is hardly any money saved by closing libraries, but when you close a library bad things start to happen in the neighbourhood where the library used to be. The health and education indexes get worse, crime, teenage pregnancy and addiction goes up. It is difficult to prove the positive value of a library, but it is easy to prove once it has been taken away. The library is the glue that holds a community together and you only miss it after it has gone unfortunately.’

So what of the future of libraries?

John Pateman says community engagement is the way forward.

‘A public library is an engine for social change. When I was in Hackney for example, I set up a lot of collections there that were focused on the black community which didn’t exist before. When I went to Lincolnshire there was a huge army of migrant workers coming in from Poland and I developed a whole library service just for the migrant worker community. Here now [Canada] I focus my work on the indigenous community. If the library service is going to meet people’s needs then we need to understand what their needs are. It’s no-good preaching to the converted. Librarians must talk to the people in their community who don’t visit a library to understand why.’

John is understandably proud of his library services and cites US and Canada’s architecture as another way to encourage people in.

‘They hire the best architects in the world to build their public libraries here. These buildings look completely stunning. The one in Halifax looks like a book from the outside. Inside there are big green screens everywhere. There is a stack of technology, there is a roof garden, coffee bar, restaurant. Who wouldn’t want to hang out in that kind of space?’

Storyhouse in Chester has pioneered this approach. This art deco Odeon cinema has been restored and renovated into a library, theatres, a cinema, restaurant and bars. The books are creatively spread throughout all spaces and boasts the longest opening hours of any UK public library. Exeter Library has also moved in this direction.

‘We are constantly looking at ways to innovate,’ Karen Huxtable, Senior Supervisor told me. ‘We have hosted Drag Queen Storytime, Library Lates with live bands, music and food. We also began a hugely popular scheme where you can ‘Adopt a Book.’ Books and culture need to go hand-in-hand. We are now community cultural hubs. That’s the future for libraries.’

Eighty years ago Exeter library lay in smoking ruins after being hit by a German high explosive bomb. Just one book survived the inferno. Now look at the library. I wonder where it will be in another eighty years? I wonder what all our libraries will look like then?

But whether we call them community hubs or libraries, the fact remains that they are – and should remain - a safe, democratic, cradle to grave service where you don’t have to part with a penny to travel the world. Libraries are the heartbeat of our communities, offering precious resources to people in need. So here’s to all library workers. We need you.

By Kate Thompson

instagram - kate.thompson1974

Twitter - @katethompson380

The Little Wartime Library is due out in library hardback in the spring of 2022, published by Hodder & Stoughton

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The exterior of the underground shelter library as viewed from the platform. Image licensed courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

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