The words “obsolete” and “expensive to maintain” could well be words used by those who oppose the preservation of our local libraries. And yet they were in fact the words of the Dagenham council joint committee, assembling in 1971 to discuss the future of Wantz Library in Rainham Road North. Their decision to replace it with a new building, officially opened in 1976, is a testament to the borough’s past dedication to such places. Sadly those were different times indeed as Wantz Library finally closed its doors for the last time on 31st March 2012. Barking and Dagenham council said the decision came in light of the “huge savings” it was having to make as as a result of the reduced government funds it has received in recent years. The library may not have been the borough’s biggest or grandest in appearance or function but it did enjoy a celebrated past based on simple social ideas.
The history of Wantz Library stretches back into the Second World War, where it was known as the Wantz Civic Restaurant. Built as part of the British Restaurant Scheme, it provided a communal kitchen for locals who had lost everything through bomb attacks or merely run out of rationing coupons. Community activist John Gerard O’Leary oversaw its transformation into a library in 1945 as the war drew to a close. Appointed in 1928, his position as borough librarian meant that he was responsible for the building of many of the borough’s libraries, including its first purpose built one in the form of The Rectory, erected in 1934.
At the opening of Wantz Library in 1945 Dagenham Major Fred Brown reflected, “I know how much the library service can mean to individuals. Many of us realise how lots of our important people in the country today, particularly those in government, have great cause to thank the opportunities that have been given them by the provision of libraries.” He continued, “I do hope the people of this district will use this library, for if they do they will have a happier and better outlook on life, which I know only a book can give.”
After helping so many people in its original function as a community kitchen and then a place to obtain information and free study opportunities, Wantz still has a place in many resident’s memories. Pensioner Norman Anderson, a regular visitor to Wantz, said: “Havering have spent many millions of pounds improving their libraries, such as the recent refurbishment of Romford, while Dagenham is closing them. As a British restaurant and as a library, Wantz has always been used for the benefit of the people of Dagenham. I hope it will continue to be used as such and not become neglected like The Rectory library building. There seemed to be no publicity about the closure and it seems like the staff were not able to speak openly about it with the public.”
Last month The Post ran an article about a book lover who is attempting to drum up support in the community in a bid to bring the building back into use in some form. Grandmother Linda Ruby, 58, said she planned to collect signatures and wanted to enlist volunteers to give Wantz Library a new lease of life. Mrs. Ruby, of Dagenham Road, had told The Post: “It’s an asset that is going to be lost and missed.” She said she decided to take action after meeting “upset” staff members at the library on the day it closed. A recent council statement said the decision to close the library was necessary, “as a result of reduced money we are receiving from the coalition government.” It went on: “Unfortunately because of this, we have had to make some tough decisions.” One can only wonder if this is what Mr. O’Leary envisaged when, in 1928, he set up the library service with a mere budget of £2000 and with, “enormous hope and enthusiasm” for the future.