Hackney Community Library Service celebrates 70 years

The service today

The service today - Credit: hackney council

Chris Garnsworthy has amassed loads of information about Hackney’s community library service since beginning his research – except the name of the woman whose benevolent wartime actions inspired the whole thing.

The community librarians

The community librarians - Credit: hackney council

Her name isn't mentioned in council minutes, and service manager Chris has not been able to track down who she was.

The library officially began 70 years ago, thanks to her innovative actions at a time when the East End was still devastated by the Second World War.

"During the war she had been taking books into air raid shelters so people could read," said Chris. "During the Blitz she thought it would be a distraction.

"Then after the war she recognised a lot of people who had been injured in the war or bombing raids were housebound so she started going to their houses with a book."

Hackney's first delivery van design

Hackney's first delivery van design - Credit: hackney council

Chris has spent his days off researching the history of his profession at the Hackney Archives.

"She was one of the earlier people who recognised the power of reading," he said.

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The idea was so popular and well received the council agreed it should become a formal service in 1949, with its own delivery van.

"Shoreditch Council minutes said 'due to the good work of this person' they were going to set it up as a proper library service to offer to all residents, and Hackney and Stoke Newington came on board with that," said Chris.

Mavis, one of four customers who is over 100 years old.

Mavis, one of four customers who is over 100 years old. - Credit: hackney council

Chris believes it was the first of its kind in the UK.

"In the minutes, they called it the 'invalid library service'," he added - "invalid" meaning people who were ill or injured. "It was only after they put that on the door that people were saying: 'What's an invalid library service?' ["invalid" meaning "not valid"] - so they changed it to the 'infirm'."

Trawling through the archives, Chris also realised that they had to make provisions for books coming back from people with tuberculosis.

"The books had to go into quarantine and a disinfecting station," he said. "TB is virtually wiped out now, but at the time it was a massive problem so a lot of people would be housebound with it."

The service developed into London's largest home visit service, serving more than 750 disabled or elderly individuals, and providing a library service to local residential homes, housing schemes, lunch clubs, nurseries, Homerton Hospital and St Joseph's Hospice.

It differs from a mobile library - which has existed for much longer - in that it is a bespoke service with books, films and jigsaws hand picked especially for each person.

"One lady who's about 74 and in a wheelchair has 50 books a month and reads every single one," said Chris. "She's a speed reader - you've never seen anything like it. It's a nightmare for us to find 50 books she hasn't read each month."

He continued: "You get some funny requests. People ask for no books where animals get killed. How on earth we would know if an animal got killed on p27? Or murders with no killing, or cowboy books with no Indians - always a bit of a challenge."

The community library doesn't only deliver books, and provides access to a telephone reading group, as well as linking residents up with social services, befriending charities, and health services.

"Some of our service users can remember the puzzlement of the first flickering television pictures and have no understanding or access to today's digital world," said Chris. "We can help address the digital divide that separates them from the access to information and assistance the rest of us take for granted."

Chris was thrilled to discover the service was 70 years old, and now he's now helping organise the first ever national home visit library conference in October, to share seven decades of learning with other authorities from across the UK.

"In 1949 it was a great idea and I doubt they thought it would be going 70 years later," he said. "These days we try to address all sorts of things, like agoraphobia, and disabilities. Individuals who are housebound in this day and age can be very isolated. They used to be looked in on by the community but nowadays they aren't.

"I've been doing this 39 years and I really believe in it. I've seen the difference it makes.

"There is a lady who is blind with crippling arthritis, and she says all the tablets and treatments don't have any effects, but listening to a talking book is everything to her."

Kathleen, 94, gives testament to the important role it plays in her life: "The books and talking books I receive at home are everything to me, and the service I get makes me feel just that little bit wanted. Without it I'd be finished."