A piece of my mind
Julie Wassmer, TV writer, author and local campaigner
I WAS very pleased to accept an invitation this month from Swalecliffe Library to talk to readers about my life, my time writing for TV shows like Eastenders and my new series of crime novels set in Whitstable. The Talktime sessions take place at Swalecliffe on Thursdays and I was surprised by how many people came along — until I recognised what an important asset this small library is for local people. This was a valued community event at which dedicated staff relayed news of the health and wellbeing of other members unable to attend. Several ladies who attend are in their 90s. Homemade cakes were brought along.
I was quickly reminded that in 1971, at 18 years old, my very first job was as a junior librarian at Whitechapel Library in London – an impressive building founded by the Liberal MP, J Passmore Edwards, which was to become known as “the university of the ghetto.” During my time there, only 26 years after the last war had ended, the area was widely populated by members of the Jewish community, many of whom had escaped the horrors of the concentration camp. Recognising that a public library must acknowledge and serve the needs of its community, Whitechapel Library was at one time home to the largest collection of Yiddish books in Europe.
At a particularly difficult time in my life, Whitechapel Library represented to me a sanctuary as well as a means of supporting myself until I could go to university. As someone who has always respected learning and viewed education as a gateway to freedom, I was proud to spend each working day in the same library in which the scientist Jacob Bronowski, a former student at my school, had taught himself English before eventually going on to create his internationally acclaimed TV series, The Ascent of Man. In the same library the artist Mark Gertler borrowed books on art and drew on sheets of notepaper in the reading room. Playwright Arnold Wesker, another student at my school, was first brought there as a child and wept over The Wind in the Willows. The poet, Bernard Kops, admitted that he had educated himself at Whitechapel Library and wrote a poem in which he claimed:
“The door of the library was the door into me.”
Libraries are not simply a place to store and lend books; they are a gateway to learning which is why their specially trained staff have as much of an important role to play as any teacher. But in an unproven cost cutting move, Kent County Council proposes to offload the valuable and valued resource of our public libraries to a trust – a move that could threaten the survival of small libraries such as Swalecliffe. Politicians so often know the cost of everything ana the value of nothing. But a petition to oppose plans for a trust, signed by no fewer than 4,000 members of the community, demonstrates how unwise such a move would be. Libraries are the doors into us all.
Herne Bay Times, April 22nd 2015