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Sunday, 6 December 2015

Love letters to Lambeth's Threatened Libraries part 3: The Minet Library and Archive

Solid, functional, built to last: the Minet Library is not the sort of place that looks likely to take kindly to fashionable
notions of pop-up gyms and unstaffed libraries-lite….it's an archive, for heaven's sake!

However you arrive there, the Minet Library is always a surprise. Coming from the traffic-snarled grime of the A23 and Loughborough Road, it seems like an oasis of tranquillity, keeping an eye on the massive housing developments of past (Angell Town) and present decades (Oval Quarter) to either side.

Sat there in the middle of leafy Knatchbull Road, a street of fairly grand Victorian, Edwardian and later houses,  it has a strange crouching presence, with the outward appearance of a low-lying suburban redoubt. There's even what at a first looks like a drawbridge leading up to the entrance, which is in fact  a wheelchair access ramp.

That impression is perhaps not entirely misleading. The original Minet Library, built in the 1890s, was destroyed during aerial bombardment in 1940. This building, judging from old photos, was a neo-gothic affair with an octagonal reading room.

It was built at the expense of William Minet, the great-great-grandson of Huguenot immigrants to London who became major landowners in the Camberwell and Lambeth areas in the late 18th century.

At this point, I will quote from the wonderfully detailed  Myatt's Fields Park website:

"Minet Free Library and a parochial hall opposite St. James’ were…[William Minet's] bequests to the neighbourhood. William Minet was interested in the Co-operative Movement and the library was built by a company which he formed on co-operative lines.

"Myatt’s Fields Park was an integral part of the philanthropic projects undertaken by the Minet family for the estate. As Sir John Betjeman, who found the area ‘a strangely beautiful place’, put it in 1978, ‘Thank God for the Minet family’."

Have to agree with Sir John there…though Lambeth residents already knew the areas between those brutal trunk routes, the A3, A23, and A2, were beautiful, nothing strange about it.

Pre-war, the library was run jointly by Lambeth and Southwark boroughs. It also, then as now, had a dual function, being both a public lending library and the home of the local council archives.
Open door policy: the public are welcomed into the Lambeth Archive, and
have access to the same expert advice form staff as any academic

These, fortunately, were stored safely in a deep basement and survived the blitz.  The new library, built by Lambeth in the early 1950s, has that austere, brick-built solidity of the post-war era: functional rather than decorative, but admirable in its functionality.

It's saying, this time, we're here for everyone, and we're here to stay. As you enter, there's a large vestibule full of interesting things - and two big glazed entrance doors. One leads straight into the library, the other into the archive. Both are equally accessible to all. This is 1950s democracy in solid brick, wood and glass.

Strong, permanent: the library sits there, challenging by its presence the shiny architecture of the new Oval Quarter being thrown up a bit to the north. But we're entering a new age of austerity (for some)  and wealth (for others) and conflict, and the Minet's going to need all the help to can get, so it would seem - just at a time when it could in fact act as a hub for an even bigger community.

But, as we know the Minet is one of three libraries Lambeth is threatening to turn into gyms. Lambeth say the archive will stay in the Minet "for the time being".

Like all the other threatened libraries, the Minet has an active Friends group which has been keeping everyone informed on the council's moves, representing local interests at meetings, and which is now organising campaigns to challenge the threats to this institution, which remain, after months of protest, pretty much unchanged.

Yes, look how much goes on here:  is all this to be
be squeezed out to house some running
Friends of Minet Library are part of the Minet Hub which also represents the nearby Myatt's Fields Park and the Longfield Hall, a well-used community space which house a dance academy and much more, just two door up the road.

Lambeth made the Minet its official archive. Everything that has been documented in the government of this borough is there. There's an excellent account of the way this archive is run, and its value, by Ruth Waters on the Brixton Blog.

As we've already reported, the longer-term future for the building is far from safe. 

It's not a re-development prospect right now because of surrounding residential property, but that can change very quickly.

Meanwhile, I am stuck in the vestibule, looking at the amazing balsa-wood model of the future of Brixton, as seen by town planners in 1967. This table-top model is all that remains of the grandest, most radical redevelopment scheme in the borough's history, and it reminds us of that time, just before the Six Days War and the ensuing oil crises, when the car was king and every city was going to be modelled on Detroit or Birmingham.
Brixton as it might have been -  in 1967 the whole of central Brixton
was to be redeveloped as part of the inner-London orbital motorway
 scheme, and now this model in the Minet LIbrary is (nearly) all that's
left of it….

A six-lane inner South London orbital motorway flys over central Brixton, lands somewhere on Acre Lane and ploughs off through Clapham Common to the A3/South circular interchange near Wandsworth Bridge. That little stretch down to the river at Wandsworth Bridge was the only bit that was actually built in south west London, apart from the Coldharbour Lane barrier block, which was designed to insulate its residents from the worse impact of traffic speeding past their kitchen windows.

There are two groupings of slightly wonky 50-sotrey residential towers (eat your heart out, Nine Elms), built on the stacked threepenny bit model you can still see in a more modest form above East Croydon station.

And can just about see the notional aerial recreation centre, suspended on a gantry bridge above the motorway, just like one of those early service stations on the M1, such as Watford Gap. Just think, Brixton might have had the first glass-bottomed swimming pool in the UK, 50 years earlier than the one planned for the well-heeled residents of the future Battersea Power Station.

Poignant exhibits in the miniature Brixton Museum,
showing until December 8th in the foyer of the Minet Library
Just think…and then thank god for OPEC and the quick binning of all those road-building schemes. As a result we still have Brixton, rather than a zone 2 version of Croydon on this stretch of the Brighton road.

All this and I haven't even got into the library yet. Ok, but hang on over to the left there's another exhibit: the Brixton Museum, an art installation by Anchor&Magnet,  a space for "dialogue, reflection and exchange". It's only there for a few more days so get along to see it and contribute if you can.

Into the main library, and again it's a light, welcoming space, and it is being used by all age groups. Just like Tate SOuth Lambeth and Carnegie, this is a popular, busy public library, serving the community with print and digital media, advice and information, and maintaining spaces that used by so many community groups.

If you're feeling like you need some exercise after your
visit to the Minet Library and Archive, why not go for a
stroll in beautiful Myatt's Fields, two minute's walk
 down Knatchbull Road?
Check the various noticeboards to see just how much goes on here - it really is an amazing variety of activities. You only have to glance at the news pages and twitter feeds of the Friends of  Minet library to realise how important this library is to local residents, and how deeply felt the affection for this place is. You can't help feeling Lambeth council has taken on a bit more than it reckoned with, when you visit this  marvellous place.

And, if you're in need of a healthy workout after your visit, walk the 100 yards or so to Myatt's Fields, a park very carefully and sensitively restored by the council a few years ago. Here surely is the true healthy living centre of this part of Lambeth.

Why ruin a cherished library so that a few hundred of the thousands of local residents can build their muscles up to a point which will probably be difficult to sustain into their late middle age?

Was that a fair question to ask you, Lambeth Co-operative Council? Was it? Was it?
Is this a busy library, or what? Just where are all these activities going to go if - as proposed - Lambeth decides to install a GLL-run keep fit centre into this building…?

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