The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

On London's dying libraries: where will future public intellectuals grow?

With libraries increasingly likely to shutter their doors in the digital age, Zung Nguyen discusses the risks London faces as it emphasises public housing over other kinds of social institutions.

Zung Nguyen

Zung Nguyen

Cities: London

Topics: Arts and culture, Youth and education

In the 1980s, on winter days in northwest London, a young Zadie Smith would pay a visit to her local youth centre in a baggy sweatshirt and jeans. Perched on a worn wooden chair in Kilburn's Granville Plus Youth Arts Centre, she would sit with an open book in one hand, a pad of paper in the other. The little library here is one of the few quiet spaces in the area where a child, no matter what race or class, can escape from the chaos at home to read. Today Smith is one of the world's most successful writers, and Kilburn features heavily in her writings. "Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here", she writes in her 2012 novel NW, which draws its name from the area's postcode prefix. "Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety rollercoaster."

But perhaps Smith spoke too soon. Now even Kilburn's historical character is under threat. In July 2016 local authority Brent Council decided to close the Granville Plus Centre to replace it with an unaffordable high-rise development. The local community has been fiercely going against the council cabinet to resist this development. In November 2016 the community organised a "Save the Granville" event, where Smith came to talk. She started her speech by criticising architect Patrik Schumacher's vision for London, calling it "a complete privatisation of all public spaces." Schumacher, who has led Zaha Hadid's practice since her death in March 2016, had recently called for, among other things, London's iconic Hyde Park to be replaced with private development.

The private sector's plans for a library-less London

As Smith correctly identifies, public spaces such as youth centres and libraries are increasingly under threat. Since May 2010, 343 UK libraries have closed, while another 111 are proposed for closure within another year. The UK budget for council youth services was also cut by £387 million during the same period. These closures provide opportunities for the city to repurpose the physical space for housing development.

Part of the challenge is that London faces a chronic housing shortage. To address this, in November 2016 London's mayor Sadiq Khan committed himself to increasing population density through new developments and regeneration of existing housing estates. Khan's plans largely rely on encouraging the private sector to build rental units. Notably missing from these commitments however are plans for spaces such as libraries and youth centres. The only types of public spaces prioritised in development plans are streets, parks and green gardens. While necessary and beneficial to quality of life, they do little to promote opportunities for the advancement of the underprivileged. While much has been written about what impact Khan's plans has on community dynamics, displacement and inequality, little has been written about the consequences of literature and public knowledge.

Libraries and the public intellectual

Shannon Mattern considers youth centres and libraries to be "opportunity institutions" that can open doors to the disenfranchised by providing opportunities for knowledge and skill enhancement at low cost. The idea of free libraries, physical study spaces or classes may seem anachronistic in 2017 when digital devices are ubiquitous. However they're even more important now. Formal education facilities and quality vary dramatically from school to school. Not everyone has access to digital devices and wifi for use at home. Even when they do, the home environment might not be conducive to learning. Libraries and study spaces offer refuge for many children and adults who otherwise would not have access to books, the internet or the space and instruction to help them learn. According to the National Literacy Trust, children who go to a library are twice as likely to read well than those who don't.

Opportunity institutions are critical to the nurturing of public intellectuals who will go on to reflect a working-class or marginalised perspective. Writing is a slow and expensive pursuit: intellectuals often come from wealthy or literary families willing to support them through years of rejections by publishing houses. As all writers speak from their own experience, these personal circumstances have resulted in a dearth of English-language literature that concentrates on the lives of the urban working class.

Smith is one of the few contemporary writers who offer us a window into the lives of the London working class: the Indian restaurant waiters, the Jamaican mothers, the local council administrators. Her work explores what it means to be poor or to have been poor; because of that, she's often referred to as the Charles Dickens of our time. Smith owes her writing to the public institutions of her youth: they allowed her to develop the type of empathy and insights that can only come from growing up in a poor neighbourhood and which would later be communicated with the clarity and skill you get from an education at Cambridge University. A US writer who has been able to offer similar insights into poverty is Junot Diaz who has, he says, "seen the US from the bottom up". The young Diaz, a voracious reader who grew up near a landfill in Parlin New Jersey, walked four miles every day to borrow books from the library. "My public library saved my life. My letter to Hogwarts was my first library card."

If libraries are closed, where will the public intellectuals come from? What intellectual voices will represent the next generation? As London reinvents intself to accommodate a growing population, the emphasis given to one kind of social benefit (housing) can't be used as an excuse by the private sector to severely reduce the chances to enhance another (knowledge). Just as cities can place mandatory requirements on new buildings to incorporate space for affordable units and green gardens, they can also mandate a portion of space and a percentage of capital to be used for supporting spaces for children and adults to read and learn.

Zung Nguyen is a PhD student in LSE Geography, where she focuses on urban planning and social movements in the global South. Prior to this Nguyen worked for four years managing ethnographic research and consulting projects for ReD Associates, a New York consulting firm, advising Fortune 500 companies, start-ups and international organisations and conducting ethnographic fieldwork in various cities in East Asia, Southern Africa and North America.