Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes for The Paris Review on the history and transformation of London’s Bethnal Green Library, which was once an insane asylum.
Last summer, I moved into a flat on the edge of London’s Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I chose it only because it was where my significant human made his home. It was my first time moving in with someone. As I clattered up from the Tube, I found myself in a swell of schoolchildren on Jack the Ripper tours, Bangladeshi immigrant families, and men with tortoiseshell glasses and Scandinavian backpacks. The local cafe offers beetroot lattes and vegan croissants. The local supermarket has an aisle devoted to halal food. This was a beautiful place to live, but I was a mess. My first novel was about to come out, and I jittered and jangled around the flat, failing to read or write.
Finally, I did what I’ve always done when nervous. I looked for a library. My father told me once that he always has to know the location of the door of any room he’s in. I need to know the nearest bookshop and library. The theory is the same: we need an escape.
I googled to check the opening hours and found something stranger. The library building once housed an insane asylum—so notorious that the park was known as “Barmy Park.” On the outside, it looked like a library in a particularly fine picture book, one with watercolor illustrations and a moral ending. The only thing out of place was the violently modern library sign slapped onto the face of the building, letters in blunt red sans serif. When I sat in the main reading room, trying to work, I could not focus. I kept trying to imagine the people who had been locked within these walls. I could not detect a trace of madhouse. It was so quiet. The books were so well ordered. How on earth had this gone from a famous asylum to a home for books? Libraries have always made me feel saner. Perhaps someone hoped this would serve the same purpose?