The long-awaited Dalston C.L.R. James Library finally opened its doors on Monday of last week, and as a resident of Dalston, I feel qualified to say: it’s about time. Having walked past this huge glass building numerous times over the last few years, I have often peaked through the windows and wondered when – if ever – it would finally open its doors, helping to beat my Amazon addiction into submission.
Set in Dalston Square, the heart of the area’s multi-million pound regeneration, the large open space screams community: with benches, bike racks and saplings right outside the library doors. And there’s no denying that this state-of-the-art library is a fantastic gift to the residents of Hackney – both old and new.
Walking through the shiny new automatic doors, I was greeted by a smiling security guard who welcomed me in and told me just what I could find, and on which floor. The entrance itself is slightly stark but has a useful ‘quick picks’ section, where members can run in before say, a long train journey, and grab a bestseller or DVD and check it out in two minutes or less, before hopping onto the Overground. It’s a clever, user-friendly idea and I really liked the first collection of books entitled ‘Mood-lifters’ – the perfect theme for gloomy January.
It’s also worth mentioning that a Starbucks will shortly be opening on the ground floor. Minister for Culture Margaret Hodge has previously championed the ideas of Starbucks’ UK MD Darcy Willson-Rymer, who argues that the way to save libraries is to follow the example of the US and put coffee shops in them, though the choice of partner for this venture is sure to divide opinion in the area. Needless to say, coffee and books go hand-in-hand, so the café should go some way to making the library a social place to meet friends for a latte before browsing the latest bestsellers.
Up the winding wooden stairs (there’s also a glossy new lift for pushchair or wheelchair users), the library splits into two sides; the left for children and the right for adults. A quick look in the children’s library made me smile. A great selection of books at child-friendly height, and a reading section in which parents or kids can sit and pore over their choices, was spot on. The library looks to be particularly user-friendly for children and offers an Education Room which can be hired by schools. I really liked how the section overlooks the street – the big glass windows give a genuine feeling of openness and immersion in the local area.
Onto the adults library: a long, if slightly narrow, room with that inimitable new book smell and more windows all around. The fiction selection was impressive and even more so by the brand new books adorning the shelves. As a self-confessed book snob and Penny Vincenzi-phobe, I did a test to see if they held books by two of the best authors of all time (in my humble opinion of course), and was pleasantly pleased to see they did – though only one by each author; not much for such prolific writers.
A quick wander later I found an inexplicably comprehensive assembly of books for my dad. Something tells me the library’s buyer speaks Vulcan.
For the first time in a library, I also found something to excite comic book geeks – an extensive graphic novel selection. This impressed me – there are plenty of places to buy graphic books in Hackney where the arty types proliferate, so the library is playing to its audience.
The adult’s library also has a cosy breakout area complete with giant beanbags, perfect for settling down in when you need a bit of quiet time.
Heading up to the top floor, you’ll find the Hackney archives where members can find maps and public records. Be warned; you have to leave your bag in one of the lockers on entry or risk the wrath of the appropriately strict Archives librarian.
Moving onto the community aspects of the library, employees I spoke to said that events hadn’t been planned yet, though a local children’s school is already producing artwork for display. The general chitchat around the opening suggests community events, readings and interactive exhibitions will be key to the project.
Feedback on Twitter has also been largely positive, with Bim Adewunmi tweeting: ‘Visited the new CLR James library in Dalston tonight. It’s only 2 days old & still has that ‘new book’ smell. It’s beautiful. #savelibraries’.
Meanwhile Loving Dalston enthused ‘New CLR James #Dalston library opens in #Hackney. Magnificent, despite delays.’ The library has also announced a three-year programme called MyVoice, which aims to open up creative reading and writing opportunities to young people who would not usually use their library.
I look forward to the library’s hard launch in February, when those community plans will be detailed. In the meantime, I’m already saving money on Amazon.