Top Ten Small Outer London Libraries

Top Ten outer London Libraries

In towns and boroughs you may have heard of, but never had, or will have, occasion to visit they are there. On the fringes, the edges, tucked within the suburbs and the estates: the libraries of outer London. As a follow-up to the popular Top Ten Small Inner London Libraries I visited a few of these places. Time was limited and the distances between the libraries were further than first imagined. These weren’t just mere tube journeys anymore, some required actual overground trains. At certain points, on my way, in the rain, to zone 6, I questioned my capacity to fulfil my brief. But I visited ten. These weren’t always the ten I wanted. Some of the so called small libraries I visited were actually quite large and in good faith couldn’t be included here. Some, as you will read, I attempted to get to, but was defeated. Some boroughs just had to remain unvisited. For these boroughs and their small libraries I’ve missed I apologise. I hope the ones I did visit, however, give an idea of the great, for now, expansive area our public libraries in London cover. So in no particular order…

1. Worcester Park Library (London Borough of Sutton)
Turning into Windsor Road from the main high street Worcester Park Library is announced by a not insignificant sized, and quite impressive, stencilled Library sign on its outer brick wall. Inside, it may be because of my vantage point from a table in the middle, but the library seems to expand from the centre. There are also plenty of other spaces to sit and work available aside from where I’m settled. And, even after visiting quite a fair few libraries and waxing lyrical on their shelves, my enjoyment of shelving hasn’t diminished. Worcester Park has good (if my enjoyment of shelving hasn’t waned maybe the adjectives available to me to describe it have) and well labelled shelves. And can I give a mention to the toilets? There are some. This may not seem much but in a small library, or even a medium sized library, toilets are rare. And if I could dwell on this subject slightly longer than maybe is decent and give a mention to the sign in the toilets. It is a notice to all users of the toilet facility asking politely if they do use the toilet they must use it for what it is intended only. Then comes the part in which the library endeared itself to me. It asks do not eat or drink in this toilet. Not what I was expecting. It did make me wonder how bad things had got before it was decided that a sign was necessary. Anyhow, I digress. The library is genuinely impressively good. The children’s section (quite busy) was very much included in the design of the main library but did not seem to clash with the rest; the computers were also prominent but fitted in a corner near the issue desk. Indeed, everything about this library worked and certainly I left it in a better mood than I had entered.

2. Mottingham Library (London Borough of Bromley)
Mottingham Library is the biggest of all the small libraries that make it onto this list. As my possibly too detailed explanation of Worcester Park’s facilities hinted at, it is the little things that make up a library. And even before setting off, the photo of Mottingham Library on the council website cheered me no end. Being as it is a photo taken of the outside of the library in the rain. It speaks of remarkable confidence that you would confront your prospective library user with such a, some would say (not me), gloomy image. I found though that Mottingham Library are quite justified in their confidence.

At the junction of Mottingham Road and Court Road I was pleased to see another, this time more traditional, Public Library sign sending me the right way. Sadly it wasn’t raining when I reached the library entrance so I couldn’t recreate the photo. Nevertheless I entered. As mentioned it is a quite a large small library. If you walk towards the rear of the building there are sliding doors opening onto a courtyard, which would, though no one on that day was taking advantage of it, make a nice place to while away a half hour if you had such time. The shelving is wooden but what was impressive about the use of shelving was when it came to a section that was too small to continue the run of books, they displayed certain books facing out. This is maybe not new but certainly it struck me as a good idea I hadn’t recalled seeing before.

3. Little Free Libraries
To the largest small library on the list to the smallest. On the last stop on the Victoria line is Walthamstow Central. Here you can visit the twelve small libraries that have been set up in various places. Like the telephone box outside the International Students House on Great Portland Street these have been established as part of the Little Free Library Project. These small creations in Walthamstow are on a smaller scale, but each one has been individually designed. If you find yourself in Walthamstow, or indeed you reside there and you have so far remained unaware of them, it really might be worth some of your time to go and visit one or two. My favourite, if I was forced to choose, would have to be the one designed by Kiko Honda-Powell.

4. Thames View Library (London Borough of Barking and Dagenham)
Thames View Library is part of the community centre. To enter the centre you walk under the arch that says “Sports Centre”. It shares the honour of smallest library in the borough of Barking and Dagenham with Marks Gate Library (maybe just pipping it to the post, I was told). However, Marks Gate Library eluded me. I tried. My umbrella gave out first and had to be left behind. Then, after the second or third pass around the area, I gave out. My breaking point came when, reaching a junction, I was confronted by a 9ft whale next to a waterfall. Call me astonished. Fearing for my nerves, knowing I had missed the librarian on duty, and rightly or wrongly considering this whale the peak of what Chadwell Heath could offer me today, I turned back to the station. From the safety of the train towards Barking I discovered this whale is part of a mini golf course themed around Moby Dick. One day, I hope, I can return to this area and find that allusive Mark Gates Library
On entering Thames View Library there was the usual hustle and bustle of a good library, but the shelves looked remarkably bare. Taking a turn around I noted a good facility that was the study room. Separated off from the rest of the library you have to be a member of the library to use it. The room is a nice feature and the library is just the right size to allow it. There was also a sign that I discovered on my course which explained the empty shelves: the library will be closed for refurbishment from 5 September. It will be interesting to come back and see what they do with it. I hope they keep that study room.
5. Sanderstead Library (London Borough of Croydon)
Before starting off on this brief tour of outer London I wondered if I’d notice any difference between the inner and outer London libraries I visit. It may be a small point but Sanderstead Library was the first of the libraries listed where I noticed that the outer London libraries are sometimes set back away from the, usually busy, street they are on. This gives these libraries, like Sanderstead, quite a calm atmosphere.
It was quite a picturesque, if steep, walk (past Sanderstead Memorial Hall and Wettern Tree Garden) to get to the crossing of Purley Oaks Road, Farm Fields and Sanderstead Hill where the library sits. The building itself is a half a hexagon shape, with the issue desk straight in front of the entrance, a children’s section at one end, and four public computers at the other. Book shelves line the walls and the high windows at either end of the library contribute to that calm feel. The range of books is good. However, my interest was piqued by the section labelled “Unknown”. Sadly though, on closer inspection, it revealed itself to be a section of shelving given over to books with such titles as Area 51 and Witchcraft. Not what I hoped i- a shelf for the books of the boroughs which numerous librarian have struggled to categorize.

6. Upper Belvedere Library (London Borough of Bexley)
On the table where I am sitting is a lot of information to do with the consultation of Bexley libraries. They have a nicely placed and set out library. It is next to Belvedere Recreation Ground, so the location feels just right. It is a good size for a small library and everything is new and well set out. There are the usual displays, and the computer section and children’s section are tidy and neat. I can’t stay long for my I must move on to Bostall Library but I hope, whatever the outcome of the consultation, Upper Belvedere Library doesn’t change too much.

7. Bostall Library (London Borough of Bexley)
It was ever since visiting Kensal Library in the borough Kensington and Chelsea that I discovered a feeling I termed “just visiting”. Bostall Library is sufficiently suburban – the surrounding streets and roads feeling very far away (what they feel very far away from I’m not sure) – for this feeling to remerge when I walked in. It is an interesting library in its location and building. The approach along King Harolds Way takes you past a selection of bungalows. The library is situated on the end of a row of these and at initially appears to be just a small house. Turning into Westbourne Road, however, you see the library extends. Inside, the children’s section is down the street end with a large table and chairs; the remainder of the library is given over to the rest of the collection. There are a few chairs in this part but not really any room for someone to sit and work, but maybe the library doesn’t need this type of facility. I took a seat by the selection of recommended reads and a possibly somewhat narcissistic thought, but one I’m perfectly happy to admit to, came to me: was I the type who usually popped in here for a quick half hour? Or did the librarians on duty mark me down as a stranger? Or – and I’m equally open to this possibility – the librarians do not give me a second thought at all.

8. Bradmore Green Library (London Borough of Croydon)
Travelling towards Bradmore Green Library I felt much the same way as I did when I travelled to St Anne’s Library in North London. St Anne’s Library, in the borough of Haringey, with its separate computer and kid’s room is just too big for inclusion on this list. However, the sense of place was the same as that in Bradmore Green in a strange way even though the libraries are miles apart. I began to wonder when and how the decision was made to place them both where they sit. St Ann’s is only 15 minute walk away from Seven Sisters tube station but it feels a city away. It is situated at the end of a street of terraced houses and on the side of one of these houses is a lovely old sign, an item appearing regularly on these travels, directing whoever cares to look up to the Public Library.
Bradmore Green has the same sense of apartness as St Anne’s. But instead of terrace houses you come to Bradmore Green after a long walk up two hills, past detached and semi-detached houses. The foyer to the library has lots of community information and I don’t think I’d be wide off the mark if I said it plays quite a part and features heavily in the community of what I believe is referred to as Old Coulsdon. The building is a small hexagon shape. As with Sanderstead library the book shelves are of the solid wooden kind, running round the side walls with shelves and displays taking up the centre ground. The computers number two and one of them is occupied. There is not a lot of room if someone wanted to study but I believe the librarians would accommodate someone if it was necessary and if it was asked of them.

9. Burnt Ash Lane Library (London Borough of Bromley)
Burnt Ash Lane Library is set back from the busy Burnt Ash Lane and is between Kingswood Park and Plaistow Cemetery. This is another library where I would consider researching the history of it. I suspect it could be interesting. It’s compact. The children’s section is directly to the left as you walk in and the issue desk is directly opposite. This means you’re welcomed by the librarian when you walk in (see – little things). There are a number of computers at the front of the library but I could imagine the one that is most in demand is the one computer that looks out onto the park. It’s quite early so it’s not too busy, but there is a steady flow of people coming in to look at the papers or request magazines. I sit at the medium sized wooden table at the back of the library grateful for, however many years ago, someone or a committee, decided this would be a decent spot for a library to go.

10. Shortlands Library (London Borough of Bromley)
The same can be said for Shortlands Library. For whoever planned the placement of the Bromley borough libraries I’ve seen got it spot on. The library is just at the Hayes Lane end of Shortlands Road. Maybe it is something about the libraries I visit at the end of the day but I’ve been lucky that they’ve all been great and offered me a good space where I can sit my travelled bones. Of course my favouring of Shortlands may also have something to do with my failure to locate St Paul’s Cray Library just before coming here. My failure was partly my fault and partly the vagaries of the B14 bus’s hail and ride section of its route.
When I do arrive at Shortlands tired out, bumbling around looking for a spot to sit, the librarian kindly offers to move one of the computers out the way for no one will be coming in now to use it anyway. I’m looking out onto a courtyard and the door which opens on to it creates a nice draft through the library. In the front of the library is the children’s section. Even though there are a few children ploughing through the books they’ve read and haven’t read, the elderly couple reading the papers in the comfy chairs by the computers seem undisturbed.
When I first started visiting these libraries at the start of the summer the Summer Reading Challenge was just starting. Overhearing the young volunteer being thanked for helping I guess it is just now finishing. And I suppose I am building up towards the possible pat closure ending. But I remain unrepentant and ask to be allowed it for just this once. For this is the last small library I’ll visit for this column and I am glad it’s this one. It starts to rain outside but the librarian tells us all inside we have half hour left. And I’ve, for the first time today, no library to go to and nowhere to be.

Paul Little

About Paul Little

Paul Little is a writer based in South East London.

Paul Little is a writer based in South East London.

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