Visit to the Whitechapel Idea Store

“Idea Stores are more than just a library or a place of learning. As well as the traditional library service, they offer a wide range of adult education classes, along with career support, training, meeting areas, cafes and arts and leisure pursuits”

As a relatively new project (completed 2005) with a rather aggressive marketing campagin, I admit I approached the Whitechapel Idea Store with reserve. The press coverage and promotion of the project puts me on guard; it’s easy to be cynical about Tower Hamlets boasts (“after consulting with local residents in the largest consultation exercise ever undertaken by Tower Hamlets Council”, and I have a natural suspicion to any public service that describes itself in advertising language and buzzwords (the “contemporary space …encourages people to engage with library and learning services”, “Idea Stores combine the best of traditional library and information services with first class lifelong learning opportunities in comfortable and friendly surroundings).

I can quite happily report that overall the Whitechapel Idea Store is great; it seems genuinely open and inclusive, the design is smart and pleasant and it appeared well used.
The strength of it’s inclusiveness lies in some very simple ideas, for example, it has a crèche so users can leave their kids while they take a class or use the resources. There are a large number of classrooms (learning labs in Idea Store speak) rather than being secreted away, they are posted throughout the building. There’s a dance studio next to the local interest section and classes on offer range from beginners street dance to English as a foreign language.
In terms of the building itself, it’s a bold, unashamedly modern, blockbuster of a design - smack bang in the middle of the community, on the main road amongst the market stalls and right next to Sainsbury’s (I think this was kind of metaphoric for it’s mission statement as such – a marketable, branded chain that is still tailored to the local community and encompassed it’s traditions and history).
The building is light and airy, the isles and signage well-spaced, accessible and clearly labeled and there seems to be plenty of seating but I can’t help wonder about the long term maintenance of such a brave design – how will it look in 20 years time?
There are plenty of computer terminals for self check-out of books and the emphasis seems to be of exploring, of playing around and working out how you want to use the space and then staff are stationed at help points should you need guidance. The children’s library was brightly coloured with child height computer terminals and shelves.
Although there was ample space, all four floors were busy; evidently well-used by a broad section of society, particularly around the café (we had to be quick on our feet to nab some seats!)

Overall, I think the project is truly interesting and proving popular and I suppose it’s a case of ‘you can’t please all people all the time’, yet you can offer a democratic service which pleases most people. I would be terrible to think of all public libraries having this brand makeover but as long as Starbucks doesn’t take out a franchise in the Idea Store Café, I think it’s a smashing project, well worth a visit and especially for the gentle challenge to assumption.

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