London’s libraries have long been my escape — from too many flatmates in Bermondsey, from cabin fever in Islington, from an envelope-stuffing job in Dulwich. Not for their books, though (a good book, I want for my own shelves), but for something much less noble: free WiFi, decent desk space, plug sockets, a printer. And a sort-of quiet, most of the time. London’s reading rooms are my office.
They saw me through nearly a year of nomadism, when the longest sublet I took was for a month, each time in a new borough of the city, and as I was finding my feet as a freelancer while wanting maximum flexibility. I tried a coworking hub in London Bridge for a while: it was overpriced and underfriendly, full of 20-year-old entrepreneurs loudly practising their pitch. I joined a shared workspace in Brixton for social businesses, but kept feeling I wasn’t being quite sociable enough. In the end, it’s the public libraries that have been the constant alternative to whichever kitchen table I’ve squatted at, or from too many trips to Costa.
As offices go, they’re not always ideal. The Chinese sing-alongs for toddlers in Canada Water library aren’t helpful when you need to concentrate. There’s a small one in Islington that has no toilet. There’s often another visitor talking to himself as he reads, someone else eating a curry, and another whose earphones seem to be transmitting music outwards instead of inwards. In Islington’s reading room, two old men argue over whose turn it is with the newspaper. In a small library near Finsbury Park, a laminated sign politely hints at more aggressive tendencies: Our staff are here to help you. Treat them with the respect they deserve.
But I love that these places exist. They don’t want your money, and so no customer is worth more than another: every struggling city-dweller is welcome. Humbly, the library offers an escape to which you can bring your own flask and sandwiches, and subsidised self-improvement in the form of reading challenges and computer literacy classes.
And the best ones make you want to read, even if what you’re reading is Financing universal access to sanitation in four African cities. Partly it’s the commonality of studying together, though we may all do it differently. The trainee accountant preparing for his qualifying exams after work. The teenager carefully highlighting her handwritten notes in pink. The hunched-over gent slowly turning pages of the International New York Times, an enormous hardback dictionary next to him. And me: laptop and not much else. The hum of a place at work, the irregular beep-beep of a scanner, a ticking clock, each of us wrapped in a private quest to get better at something.
And partly, you want to read because of the space around you. Enter the Grade I-listed building that houses the British Library’s 150 million items — including 4 million maps and the first ever edition of the Times newspaper — and you’re in the home of all the country’s knowledge. But the British Library’s scruffy little sisters, run by local councils and easily overlooked, get it right sometimes too. Fulham’s local library is an early 20th century building, with a solemn study of long wooden tables, high ceilings and leather-bound books on the shelves. Canada Water’s library, built in 2011 is a striking design: an inverted, metallic pyramid structure that spreads study desks almost the whole way around the top floor mezzanine, with views onto the open space below.
I love these spaces too, because even the most modern ones still make me feel like a child. While the rest of London tries to sell nostalgia packaged in the form of 1980s breakfast cereals or cafes staffed by “grandmas”, your public library is the real deal — unavoidably old-school, reassuringly ordinary. The CDs, DVDs and magazines; the paperback novels in plastic covers; the non-fiction section where you’ll find Computing, Mind and Body, and Mythology all in the same shelf. I may not need those books right now, but it’s good to know they’re there.