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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Clapham Library's cafe remains closed – pity they didn't take some tips from Southwark

It's odd but true that two neighbouring south London boroughs, Lambeth and Southwark, have such different approaches to public libraries, despite having so much else in common.

These and several other thoughts emerged as I sat hunched on the terrible little narrow bench that passes for seating in the public library in Clapham High Street.

Clapham Library, half five on a Friday, the café is shut, and no-one can
use the seating. 
Thought one was: I should sue Lambeth council for doing my back in, as sitting on this bench for 20 minutes trying to find some info had revived long-buried lower back pain.

The bench was one of the only vacant seats in the library late on a Friday afternoon.

There were lots of empty chairs and tables in the café. But the café is closed. It seems no-one can enter what used to be the biggest seating area at ground level in this strange building, and it also seems that this café - which opened less than a year ago - has already shut down, at least temporarily.

No-one could explain why it was closed again last Saturday morning - surely a potential peak time. Have the operators decided to cut their losses? All the equipment is still there.  And why on earth can't we use the seats, whether or not it's selling its pricey hot drinks and snacks?

Absurd or what?

Given that most library users are schoolkids, students, OAPs, or young parents with toddlers attending storytime groups etc, it would seem that the cafe was aiming at the wrong market. The 30-something folk who love to spend their high earnings on small cups of coffee with silly names would not really need to come here - this area is full of twee little coffee shops, not to mention the obligatory Starbucks etc.

If the cafe had sold cheap and cheerful coffees, teas, and some simple grub, it might have worked. No item more than £1.

Mind you the café was well used, particularly in the exam season when there was really nowhere else to sit and study - but probably most of those customers bought one drink and then stayed the whole morning, revising or whatever.

You couldn't really blame the cafe operators - they probably thought Clapham, that's a wealthy area, let's go for the yuppie market. But the yups ain't there, they're all over the road at Cafe Nero. It was surely the fault of the council for agreeing to let this bit of public space for a private business.

They even threw in the toilet as part of the deal - outrageous or what?

Well, I'll check out this café again later in the week. Maybe if they have gone the council will be seeking another taker for this space...who knows. Maybe they should offer it to a food bank?

But then, this new library building was always a bit compromised. We only got it because they let the developers build that clunky edifice of expensive flats above and around it.

This library is rightly popular for its wide range of events and classes, especially for very young kids. The staff are great and someone clearly goes to a lot of trouble to try to maintain an interesting stock of books.

But from the start, it's been clear it's not really a very good space for what should be a core library activity - reading!

Yes there are some "teen" study areas, and a very cramped little general reading area up the top, plus a few small PC rooms. These are nearly always fully occupied. Right at the bottom there are cell-like meeting rooms, which are hidden away; you feel you are not really supposed to be there. The large floor area at the very bottom of the building has several tables and chairs for studying and a couple of sofas - but this is generally considered to be the children's area, and again you feel like you're breaking rules if you go down there to read.

In fact as I sat on my tortuous bench, two women with young kids came down the ramp, one saying in a very loud voice, "Oh I do hate it when grown-ups sit in the kid's area, it's creepy..."

Well I wasn't in the kid's area but halfway down the ramp. Every so often very young children zoom down the ramp on their scooters. Any moment you expected to hear a thump followed by much wailing. Luckily, no such disaster today.

All this made me think again what a wasted opportunity this library was, especially when you compare it with some of the much older libraries Lambeth has been closing or compromising under its heavily criticised scheme.

Lambeth only has to look east towards its much more competent neighbouring borough, Southwark, to see how to run libraries.

I've been working in Borough High Street for a couple of days a week, and have got to know the Harvard Library, close to St Georges Church and the tube station.

Despite its historic origins, explained on a blue plaque, this famously-named library also now occupies a fairly modern building, quite a bland one compared to the over-designed Clapham project.

There's nothing very pretty or exciting about it - it is simply a good, sensible building, which could just as well be offices or shops. But it provides plenty of space for all the activities a modern library has to offer.

So, there are lots of computer workstations for schoolkids and students as well as local workers seeking somewhere to wile away their lunch-breaks when it's cold and wet outdoors.

There's a kids' area of course. And yes, there is a café. It's right at the front of the library, but unlike the Clapham one it does not usurp any reading space. Anyone can sit in that large area, where they have sensibly located the magazine and newspaper racks. Anyone can stay there all day reading and not buy a single coffee.

But every time I've been in there, the café has been busy. It's a lunch destination for local workers, an after work place to relax for a while before meeting up with friends. And a wonderful sanctuary for all the drifters, the lonely, the homeless, the old, freezing construction workers, the young, tired tourists, whoever happens to pass.

That's what a public library should be! And by the way, they had two different complete translations of Proust on the shelves,  and their CD loan collections were amazing - 40p for a week's loan.

Talk about grass being greener over the administrative boundary fence.

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