Local historian Jiff Bayliss gave an interesting talk earlier this month as part of Finsbury Library’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The talk described how the original public library in our neighbourhood was one of the most pioneering of its kind in the late 20th Century, before the demolition of the Skinners Estate in the 1960s, led to the construction of the library we know today.
Indeed, 2017 not only marks 50 years since the current Finsbury Library opened but exactly 130 years since the Clerkenwell Vestry invoked the Public Libraries Act to establish Clerkenwell Free Library which eventually opened in 1890. This building is no longer with us, it was located at a corner of Skinner Street and Whiskin Street. The library was renamed as Finsbury Public Library in 1900 after local government reorganisation.
By this time, the library had gained a reputation as one of the most innovative in the country. The first librarian, James Duff Brown, arrived from Glasgow’s Mitchell Library and under his watch, Clerkenwell became the first public library to introduce open access shelving in 1894 and one of the first Children’s libraries in the country in 1898.
London County Council and Finbsury Borough Council had started to work on plans to redevelop the Skinners Estate from the 1940s, and much of the housing stock had been lost during the wartime era. However, by the time the appointed architects, Emberton, Franck and Tardew, had completed their commission, local government reorganisation had placed the estate in the larger reconstituted borough of Islington. Thus, the library, originally planned as a new central library for Finsbury became a branch of Islington Libraries.
The commission to design the new Finsbury Library fell to C.L.P Franck – his vision was to create a cultural hub, in the mould of Lubetkin’s modernist 1930s Finsbury Health Centre at the opposite end of the estate.
The building clearly continues to fulfil this role. The Islington Local History Centre was opened in 2003 and the generous space, reflecting the original conception of a central library at this location, has been utilised by the council bringing its Housing Team and other functions into the site in recent years.
The current exhibition in the library foyer contains some fascinating material and superb photographs depicting the development of the estate from the 1960s onwards. It’s running until the end of March and is well worth a visit.