By Roger Tagholm
LONDON: It must surely be the UK’s most unusual place to borrow books. At a time when the nation’s library service faces death by a thousand cuts, the ramshackle collection of wobbly shelves, picnic tables and old chairs that form the Occupy Library amid the anti-capitalism protesters’ camp in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, is something to be behold -– eccentric, chaotic, but with its heart in the right place.
Thirty-year-old south London care worker Ashley Bignall is the driving force behind it and the man who came up with the brilliant name: Star Books. “When we were setting up the tent, I just looked up and saw Starbucks and that seemed perfect.” The makeshift library is now just yards from Starbucks front-door and since no writ from Seattle has been forthcoming, he seems to have got away with adapting the name and using a hand-painted cardboard imitation of the famous logo.
The library may not offer wi-fi and there’s no doubt that, being largely open-air, a sense of panic ensues when it starts to rain, but it in its own small way it embodies the true spirit of what libraries are about. It offers a meeting place for ideas, as well as a place to shelter in its tent-cum-storeroom.
“We had two guys from Holland sleeping in our tent the other night –- they had nowhere else to go,” says Bignall. “I set the library up because I want to highlight the plight of libraries. I think a lot of young people get their information from the internet, but if you want to check something factual, it’s important to see it in a book. Libraries were important to me when I was growing up. The library is a place you can go where the information is reliable. People keep telling me about Kindles and being able to edit and update things – but it’s nice to know there’s somewhere you can see it how it was originally.
“On the first day we put a shout out on Facebook for donations and it’s been incredible. We’ve had a lot of authors bringing their books in and signing them for us. Anthony J Hall was brilliant. He gave a speech on the steps of the church, and told everyone about us.”
Hall is the author of The American Empire and the Fourth World (McGill – Queen’s University Press). Other authors who have donated books include Paul Broderick (The Bankruptcy Diaries, Revenge Ink), Tim Gee (Counter Power, New Internationalist), Helen Yaffe (Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan) and Michael Reiss (What Went Wrong With Economics, Createspace).
The library is run entirely on trust. There are no cards and Bignall and the other volunteers staff just hope that people will return books they borrow –- or make a contribution if they are buying them. Stock is growing by the day. Somebody donated a Willhelm Reich title during my visit and the shelves are suitably eclectic –- Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money (Penguin) sits next to Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891 –1924 (Pimlico) which is next to Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random House Trade). But the stock is not all non-fiction. The shelves also boast Ian McEwan’s Atonement (Vintage) and John Grisham’s The Broker (Arrow) for example. “We hope to be here for a long time, so we want to create a space for people to come and chill,” says Bignall, who adds that fiction helps pass some of the dead hours of being a protester.
Bignall is opposed to the Government cuts that are affecting all public services in the UK, not just libraries, and hopes that the books and leaflets on display will help educate people “on the main failures of the system. Cutting public services may solve the debt crisis in the short term, but it will create other problems in the long term. The Government has to engage with the people more, and experience how people are struggling.”
Star Books is well-used. A young man was sitting in the sun reading Colin Cremin’s Capitalism’s New Clothes (Pluto Press) and there was a constant stream of inquiries and people dropping off leaflets. One of Bignall’s fellow library volunteers is 17-year-old Francis Haseldon -– older than his years and surely destined for a future as a writer, academic or politician. He was smoking a roll-up and reading Apologie de Socrate, in French -– this is nothing if not an extremely well-educated, middle class protest camp.
Haseldon is at high school in France -– a private school, perhaps with the sons and daughters of the very bankers whose behavior is being called into question. He says: “I heard about this on the news and wanted to come and see what it was about. I gravitated towards the library because I’m a bit of a bookworm. I think people are gradually dissociating more from books which is a shame. I think the act of reading makes you think -– you confront ideas and opinions. I love the idea of the Occupy Library -– a permanent place where people can interact with new ideas, or look at old ideas in a new way.”
At the moment, there is a friendly atmosphere, with the police smiling and chatting with protesters. The camp has become something of an alternative tourist destination, compensating slightly for the fact that the cathedral has had to close for “health and safety reasons.” The situation with regard to the camp’s legal status is complicated. It seems likely that they will have to move on at some point, but for now, this canvas camp is a forum for ideas and debate -– and home to a rather special library that is worth a visit.