Spotlight on Minet Library

Arts Editor Ruth Waters finds out more about the home of the Lambeth Archives

The Minet Library today, illustration by Sophie Gainsley
The Minet Library today, illustration by Sophie Gainsley

Originally donated to the community by wealthy local landowner and philanthropist, William Minet, to commemorate the life of his wife, the Minet Library on Knatchbull Road has always had a unique relationship with local history.

To this day the library houses the Lambeth Archives, as well as functioning as a lending library and community resource. Arts Editor, Ruth Waters, met Jon Newman, Manager of the Lambeth Archives, to find out more.

William Minet was “arguably something of a control freak” and “very concerned that his library should be distinctive”, Jon Newman told me. He was a keen local historian and adament that his library should collect and curate local history. Putting his money where his mouth was, William Minet funded the buying of collections of documents, photographs and watercolors at auctions, and so began the genesis of the Lambeth Archives.

The original building was bombed during the Second World War, but safely hidden in the basement, the archives survived, going on to become the official Lambeth Archives in the 1950s, when the library moved away from being jointly run by Lambeth and Camberwell councils (now Southwark) to being a Lambeth library. Gradually all the archives from Brixton library and the town hall were brought to Knatchbull Road, to form an extensive collection of local historical documents.

The archive today, courtesy of London Borough of Lambeth, Archives Department
The archive today, courtesy of London Borough of Lambeth, Archives Department

But what are archives? The definition of archive is “documents generated by an organisation going about its daily business” Jon tells us.”They are the unconscious paperwork of everything from the planning of drains to the running of elections”.

In the traditional sense, archives don’t include magazines and newspapers, but minutes, agendas, committee notes, title deeds, plans and maps. Amongst many other purposes “the archives act as Lambeth Council’s memory”.

Keen to keep this impressive resource open to a wide range of people, Jon is proud to say that they “always have someone on the desk at the library to help people use the archives and find what they want… The nature of archives means that there’s always a high level of mediation involved.”

Aside from council business, we’re keen to find out what else the Lambeth Archives are used for today. “Ten years ago I would have said family history”, Jon tells us; “now, although it’s a major use, a lot of people are doing this research at home. One of the interesting knock- on effects of the gentrification of large areas around Minet has been the growth in proud home owners wanting to uncover the history of their house.”

People also use the archives to find out more about their local area, their street, their park, and we get a lot of students from local colleges, as well as undergraduates and postgraduates using the archives for in-depth research.

There are also various types of business use – people come to the archives to get a piece of information that they need for practical reasons. Sometimes people are looking for established certificates of use or looking at drainage plans to work out why they’re having sewage problems; archeologists and property developers alike often use the archives to find out about the history of a site.

Asking Jon about some of the interesting stories which have been uncovered through the Lambeth archives, he reveals the story of an elderly man, who visited the archives on the anniversary of his parents death in a bomb attack on Brixton’s Acre Lane during the Second World War. A baby at the time, the man had lived with the story all his life and came to the archives to read the incident file. The archives helped him gain a kind of closure and his story greatly moved the staff who assisted him.

Although certain uses of the Lambeth Archives are on the decline, Jon remains buoyant in the knowledge that the online picture archives are increasingly popular with both individuals and companies: “People are still using the archives, but its increasingly through the website.”

Can he see a time when the archives are entirely digitalised? “Digitisation wouldn’t be a cost or time effective option for the majority of the Lambeth Archives – it’s really only suitable for ‘popular files’ such as photographs.” And he can’t see the physical archives going anywhere soon.