In 1902 the Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth applied to Andrew Carnegie for money to build a branch library for Herne Hill and Tulse Hill ward. As Carnegie believed in giving benefactions the community would continue to support, he asked whether the site would be “sufficient for the proper maintenance of a library if erected.” On Lambeth’s assurance the rates would be quite sufficient and there was “no danger the library would be starved”, he agreed to supply the £12,500 needed “to complete your library system.”
The Council purchased land from Mr Robert Sanders, the indenture stipulating a public library and reading room be built within five years and that the Council would make up and pave new streets around the library. Library Committee Chairman Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence offered to present 23 pictures if an art gallery could be incorporated.
Applications from 14 local Quantity Surveyors were considered; tender was accepted from Messrs Leaning. Of 48 architects given particulars, 25 submitted designs; that of H Wakeford & Sons was chosen. The builders were Holliday & Greenwood.
Plans included a main lending library, magazine and newspaper reading rooms, children’s library with separate entrance, staff office and workroom, room for files and repairs, basement store room and heating chamber, plus upstairs lecture hall for public meetings, talks and exhibitions. When Carnegie learned the Chief Librarian’s residence was to be included, he had his private secretary fire off a sharp letter to Lambeth stating Mr Carnegie was paying for a free public library, not a private dwelling place. Persuaded this was common practice and would provide security, he agreed, subject to minor design alterations.
The library was completed in 1905, fitted out with steel bookshelves and oak furniture, and opened to the public on 9 July 1906. It is a fine example of Edwardian civic architecture, built with red Flettan bricks and terracotta, with some 45 “blue” bricks. It combines a classical framework with Tudor style large mullioned, transomed windows. The Lakeland slate roofs feature bell cupolas. The library plus outside walls and railings were listed Grade II in 1981, sadly after most of the original bookshelves, which in the central room had fanned out in a sun-ray design, had been removed.
Andrew Carnegie wanted a building worthy of its purpose. The superb windows, panels and glass dome afford plenty of natural light, giving the rooms a bright, welcoming feel. Parquet floors add extra warmth, and the graceful Corinthian columns provide further elegance. There are many pretty fixtures and fittings, including metal finger plates and base panels on internal doors.
The library was ahead of its time, being the first purpose-built to allow borrowers to walk around and choose books from the shelves, instead of having to ask a librarian if a book were available and waiting for it to be fetched. The Carnegie’s open access system set a trend for all to follow; now of course we take browsing for granted.
Over the years formerly public rooms have been turned into office space for central library and IT staff, used for storage or transit of material, or to house the borough’s joint fiction reserve stock, including play-sets and music. At some stage the librarian’s residence was carved into four council flats, two of which were sold off in 1991. By November 1997, opening hours reduced to 16 per week (from an already low 34), with a consequent fall in usage. The former music library section was deleted and supply of new books diminished.
In 1999 the Friends of Carnegie Library was formed in response to Lambeth Council’s plans to close the Carnegie and several other libraries. After a three-year campaign we succeeded in preventing closure. The book stock briefly improved, music cassettes (later CDs) and videos (later DVDs) became available, Internet access arrived and some refurbishment work began. From August 2003 opening hours increased to 31 per week (lowest in the borough). Until recently, severe weeding kept book stocks low. The Friends’ aims remain to protect Andrew Carnegie’s gift to our community, revitalise the library and raise its profile within Lambeth, the Southwark catchment area and beyond, and to liaise with other friends groups promoting local libraries.
The Art Gallery, which the Friends created from part of the largely disused former magazine reading room, hosts a flourishing chess club and adult literacy reading groups. Beginning in 2000 with a special exhibition of portraits of and pictures by John Ruskin, Herne Hill’s most eminent former resident, it has featured prestigious displays on occasion and has shown works by many local artists and projects by local school children.
Community Services, including Home Visit stocks, are now housed in the Carnegie. Funds from the sale of the former mobile store allowed urgent repair and redecoration to be undertaken and the layout of some areas reconfigured to accommodate these services. With this architectural gem largely restored to its former glory, Lambeth Libraries and the Friends hosted a community celebration on 9 July 2006, the centenary of opening. One year on, we launched a Breathing Places project, funded by the Big Lottery, to refurbish the back garden; this highly successful Reading & Wildlife Garden enhances the library going experience. Volunteers of all ages get involved in planting, maintenance and enjoying events in the open air.
The installation of self-issue machines late 2014 enabled a refit, with neat enquiries point, discrete teen zone and public computer area, laptop counter (free Wi-Fi available throughout the library) and all new furniture. Bookshelves on wheels allow great flexibility for a wide range of activities and events beyond library hours. In anticipation of borough-wide spending cuts, we are developing ideas for income generation while aiming to bring the library into wider use, reflecting its role as the hub of the Herne Hill community. Comments by visitors and users and greater involvement by community groups are welcome.