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Finsbury Library: Still relevant after 50 years

PUBLISHED: 11:18 01 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:23 01 March 2017

Finsbury Library in 1967. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Finsbury Library in 1967. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

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Finsbury Library in St John Street is a hub: for kids, history buffs and journalists to name a few. Five decades after it opened, the Gazette finds out why it is still important.

Finsbury Library in 1967. Picture: Islington Local History CentreFinsbury Library in 1967. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

The beauty of Finsbury Library is its relevance to anyone who lives or works in Islington.

Its Ben Kinsella Exhibition, for example, has been used to educate thousands of primary school children about the horrors of knife crime.

The building is also home to Islington Museum, with exhibitions ranging from the Holloway Prison Suffragettes to Trade, the renowned gay clubnight in Farringdon’s Turnmills venue.

And the Gazette regularly visits its local history centre, which holds our archives dating back to 1856.

Finsbury Library in 1967, with Patrick Coman House under construction behind it. Picture: Islington Local History CentreFinsbury Library in 1967, with Patrick Coman House under construction behind it. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Not bad for a building that historian Jiff Bayliss, right, compares with Miss Havisham in Dickens’ novel Great Expectations.

As part of the library’s 50th anniversary this month, Jiff is hosting a talk and guided walk about its £225,000 constuction as part of the Finsbury Estate in 1967.

He says: “It was designed as part of the clearance of the private sector Skinners Estate in the 1960s. This was speculatively built and it’s amazing it survived for the 150 years that it did.

“At that time, a lot of those estates went into local authority ownership and Finsbury Borough Council decided to clear the site. It commissioned the Finsbury Estate, which included the library.

Finsbury Library architect Carl Ludwig Franck in 1966. Picture: Islington Local History CentreFinsbury Library architect Carl Ludwig Franck in 1966. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“But in that time period, Finsbury and Islington boroughs merged under one council [in 1965]. It had been designed as the central library for Finsbury, but the central library for Islington was already in Holloway Road. It was a bit like Miss Havisham – it never had the wedding!

“So that is why Finsbury Library is much bigger than the average branch library. And this space is why so many resources are there: such as the museum and local history centre.”

But Jiff, of Clerkenwell and Islington Guiding Association, points out the library’s predecessor was equally as important.

“Finsbury Central Library in Skinner Street [originally Clerkenwell Free Library] was actually more pioneering than the new one in St John Street,” he told the Gazette.

The original Clerkenwell Free Library, which became Finsbury Central Library, in Skinner Street. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe original Clerkenwell Free Library, which became Finsbury Central Library, in Skinner Street. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“It was built in the late 1880s after the Public Libraries Act was passed. This allowed vestries [which existed before local authorities] to build a library if they wished.

“It was the librarian, James Duff Brown, who introduced initiatives such as browsing – being able to pick up a book and read it. Before that, you had to order at a desk to get your hands on a book. He was also the first to introduce children’s libraries, and exhibitions.”

Of Finsbury Library in 2017, Jiff, of Holloway, adds: “It’s still relevant, whether you are interested in history or live in the area.

“I think Islington – along with Westminster, the City, Kensington and Chelsea and maybe Camden – is one of the most historically interesting London boroughs. And as a resource, Finsbury Library remains very good as Islington Council has been successful in winning money to fund its upkeep.”

Finsbury Library in 1967. Picture: Islington Local History CentreFinsbury Library in 1967. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

At 6pm on Tuesday, Jiff is hosting a talk about the construction of the library and Finsbury Estate. And at 11am on March 11, he is leading a guided history tour around Finsbury. Search for ‘Finsbury Library’ on eventbrite.co.uk for tickets for both events. A ‘Finsbury Library at 50’ exhibition is also open until March 31.


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