For me Whitechapel Library was a godsend. The only books our family owned were six Sidurim (Daily Prayer Books) and six Haggadahs (Prayer Books for the first two nights of Pesach – Passover). – one each for my grandmother, my parents, my two older sisters and me. No reading books. Those we borrowed from the library.
I could already read when I was enrolled at Jews Free Infant School aged 3, but I couldn’t join the children’s section of Whitechapel Library until I was five. From then on, I went to the library every Friday afternoon before Shabbat began. Hard to believe in our apparently more dangerous age, but I went there on my own as soon as I was old enough to join, walking from our tenement in Wentworth Dwellings, crossing the busy Commercial Street, walking up Old Montague Street and cutting through what I think is now Angel Alley to the Library.
My mother would tell me to find a big man to take me across Commercial Street and to hold his hand tight. These days parents would fear that the ‘big man’ was a paedophile or worse.
I could borrow six books a week from the Children’s section and later, when I was old enough, from the Adult Library, so for me most of the titles in ‘1000 Books You Must Read before You Die’ are familiar, even if I’ve only skimmed them – though most I’d have read cover to cover. As an Orthodox Jewish girl there was little else I could do on Saturdays after getting back from Shul and having lunch.
There was a plaque at the bottom of the staircase to J Passmore Edwards in recognition of the philanthropist’s substantial contribution to its construction under the aegis of Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta. It was only looking at the photograph that I saw the inscription on the building ‘The Passmore Edwards Library’ but I never heard anyone call it that.
The only thing I hated about the library was walking past the cases of stuffed animals and birds if I needed to look up something in the Reference Library upstairs. I can still picture the glaring eyes and sharp teeth of the foxes and visualise the poor little song birds tied to twigs.
I’m sure the new Ideas Store further up Whitechapel Road that replaced it after it was closed as a library in 2005 does a great job, but it’s nothing like the glorious old Whitechapel Library of my memories.
And I thank all those lovely people who read and commented on my memoir ‘Woman in White Coat’.