Category Archives: Oral History

A tale of two libraries

It is striking how different book groups organise themselves. Take, for example the two that meet in Putney and Roehampton public libraries. They seem to be alike. Both are in the London borough of Wandsworth; they are about a mile and a half apart; within walking distance of one another. They meet monthly, are overwhelming female in membership and both have professional librarians making reading suggestions and facilitating discussion. There similarities end.

Readers in the Putney Library group follow the standard practice of picking a book which they all read and then discuss. The books chosen for deliberation are usually those that have attracted positive press reviews and include novels short-listed for major literary prizes. The discussions that follow are reminiscent of university seminars. In contrast, members of the Roehampton Library group each individually select a novel to read and then discuss their choice with a view to convince fellow members that their choice of book is worth reading. Roehampton readers are much less likely to restrict themselves to fiction endorsed by recognised literary critics and commentators. While Roehampton’s reading would include science fiction, horror and historical family sagas, Putney’s would not.

Individual interviews with members of both book circles provides evidence of important variations in their past lived experiences. The Putney group are in the main retired from occupations that involved critical discussion and most recall working in some capacity or another as professional readers, including teaching. In contrast, most of Roehampton’s members have been employed in a range of unskilled or semi-skilled occupations with periods of unemployment. Some remember coming late to literacy and then making up for lost time by voraciously reading later in life.

Putney Library

Attribution (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Mark Pack, Putney Library, 2010.

The individual life histories are in tune with statistical surveys undertaken in the Borough. Putney’s library sits at the centre of East and West Putney, with East Putney being one of the more affluent wards in England. Roehampton in contrast houses the much less well off.  Since the inter-war years Putney’s residents have been traditionally drawn from the higher professions, including today’s elite of bankers, entrepreneurs and footballers.  E.M. Forster and Nigel Williams are on the area’s long list of former and current notables. While Putney has retained its open green spaces, and remains popular with runners and cyclists, Roehampton’s once similar landscape underwent dramatic change in the twentieth century. The ward claims one of the earliest council housing developments in Britain, now called Dover House Estate as well as one of the largest housing schemes, the Alton, with 2,000 flats on 100 acres. Built by the London County Council in the 1950s, it provided the bleakly dystopian backdrop for Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.[1] Thirty-two years later English Heritage awarded the scheme status and more recently the estate that still dominates Roehampton has been praised as a fine example of the British Modern Movement – or ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture – mainly by people who don’t live there. Roehampton library sits at the edge of the estate.

Roehamption Library

Attribution  (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Graham Smith, Roehampton Library, 2016.

The two localities are also dissimilar demographically. Published government statistics, suggest that Putney’s residents are much more likely than Roehampton’s to have been educated to a higher standard and have either retired from or continue to enjoy more secure, interesting and better paid jobs. The same source suggests that the people of Putney are also much more able to defend their public services than those living in Roehampton.[2] Unsurprisingly, in their group interviews, Putney’s readers were keen to discuss their concerns about reductions in their library provision. At the time of the interviews, the Roehampton circle were meeting around a table in the middle of the library, with other readers wandering past. This was an arrangement put to and successfully resisted by Putney’s group and instead their meetings had been relocated to the library staff’s common room.

However, it isn’t just occupation and environment that provides contrast between the two adjacent wards. The population of Putney have long enjoyed much better health than those living in Roehampton. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, official statistics were recording significant differences in life expectancy. This amounted to an additional average of 6.8 years of life for females and 8.9 years for males in least deprived areas of Wandsworth compared to the most disadvantaged.  Such variances are amongst the widest in London for both men and women, with the two most frequent underlying recorded causes of death in the under 75s being cancer and circulatory disease; mobidity patterns more prevalent amongst the less well off. [3] Little wonder that members of the Roehampton group frequently observed that ‘life’s too short’ to read a novel that cannot hold the reader’s attention; regardless of the praise it might have received from literary critics.

1969324_447325358732738_791772825_nAt a time of continuing austerity, public libraries are in danger of being perceived by politicians as a luxury. Yet, the social value of libraries and their buttressing of the public good are recurring themes in our research. No matter the groups we worked with, our libraries remain significant in the everyday lives of both the better and the less well off. As community resources in localities as diverse as Roehampton and Putney, public libraries provide space and most importantly the expertise of librarians helping in turn to promote discussion. Readers understand libraries as places where civic society can flourish. Libraries continue to be important in the production of informed citizenship. But libraries are under threat. One final point: the risk from cuts and resulting diminishment is greater to libraries in places such as Roehampton, despite the population’s more obvious need for resource and thirst for reading

Graham Smith

[1] See here for a scene from the film set on the Alton (last accessed 8th July 2017).

[2] Extracted from the Index of Deprivation are available from the UK Government Website English indices of deprivation 2015 (last accessed 8th July 2017).

[3] Wandsworth, Key messages 2014: Health inequality, (last accessed 8th July 2017).

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