Taking Back Libraries

There are certain spaces where some people easily belong whereas others are easily overlooked and ignored.

These spaces can come in many forms and one of the most dangerous things these spaces do is create divisions across race, class, gender, etc. This is particularly evident when we look at institutional spaces like schools, governments, and even libraries. Institutional spaces can create alienation which quickly becomes the norm; something that is later hard to break or challenge as people come to accept it as the status quo. I add libraries to this list because the service they provide is essential . Their existence allows us to escape, learn, research and it’s often a pillar institution in communities. As a child the library was a second home and a sanctuary from the boredom of a small town life, later  it became a place I slowly distanced myself from. Looking back it seems this was because I couldn’t see myself or a representation of my culture in the books around  me. London is well known for its cultural diversity, so the genres and topics of novels are justifiably broad and extensive. I was simply grinning from ear to ear when I glanced at some of the titles and authors available at my University library, names such as Soyinka, Fanon and Mabanckou glittered in front of me like treasured pearls ready to be grasped. Its must be considered however that my university caters to African and Asian studies so my own experience can not be generalised to all library enthusiasts  in London.

However, I took it upon myself to register to any libraries close to me whether University or public. But once again my heart slumped slightly as I was saddened that these great sources of knowledge where the ability for many from different cultures and backgrounds could gather was not always a reality. It was clear that they were another alienating spaces with a  mindset that must be reconfigured,a mindset that only a certain type of person can be here.  The issue goes deeper and can be found in many places like this. How can we belong in a society where there are invisible lines in which we feel we can’t cross or that when we do cross we feel odd and excluded ?

Fortunately this is a question that is beginning to be addressed. All you have to look to for evidence is the internet. Creative platforms known for addressing problems or celebrating minorities in the UK are using white spaces to break the barriers and create new spaces, welcoming and celebrating our diversity. As well as people occupying spaces encouraging inclusivity, the institutions themselves are also making an effort. I later discovered that the British library frequently tries to reach out to different communities, encouraging them to step forward and takeover with as much creative imagination as possible. This is how I learned about events such as Africa Writes.   

The Africa Writes annual festival at the British Library has become an event which appeals to a more holistic and representative audience. More specifically, it speaks  to an audience which is often marginalised and ignored in places where traditionally the voices of white and middle class are elevated . The literary festival has become a landmark for those from Africa and the diaspora, gathering talented people both young and old. It’s a chance for authors, publicists, poets, playwrights and avid readers to intermingle and unite their passions for underrepresented narratives.

Events like this have become essential in the wake of recent political tensions and ignorance in society as they create a safe space for the disenfranchised as well as a place for education and the arts. Other creative platforms associated with promoting diversity such as Galdem have also become a part of this hopefully new tradition, of breaking barriers through location and utilization of spaces not traditionally associated with minority groups. Their late night takeover events at the V&A museum is an example of the success of fusing new with the old and  blurring the line between tradition and exploration. The same can be said for the introduction of a R.A.P Party to open the Africa Writes Festival. The night is full with talented musicians and spoken word artists such as Malika Booker, Kei Miller, Kayo Chingonyi, Fatimah Kelleher, Jolade Olusanya, Rachel Long, Roger Robinson, Amaal Said, Yomi Sode, Theresa Lola, Inua Ellams and DJ Sid Mercutio. It’s a powerful statement for creative artists like these to be performing in a space such as the British Library, sharing their stories, lyrics and music, showing that your voice can be heard wherever you are and no matter where you come from.


Rhoda Tomilola Ola-Said is the summer intern for the Royal African Society. She is a second year student studying English at Soas University, exploring literature from around the world. She also interns at Magnify magazine and developed Dashiki and Mom Jeans, a website promoting stories of black women in the UK which features her writing alongside others.