University of Reading researcher Alice Mpofu-Coles spoke with Marjorie in February 2021. Together, they discussed and reflected on the 15 years that Marjorie spent working with the Oxford Road community at Battle Library.
Below, discover highlights from their conversation.
Marjorie worked at the Battle Library from 1997-2012, although not a resident of Oxford Road herself, she tells us how she felt very much a part of the community; "I felt as if it was like a second home".
Marjorie used to travel in to Battle Library every day, arriving at Reading West Station and walking up Oxford Road.
"Battle Library is a very distinctive, landmark building, of course we're talking about a few years ago, when it was the most distinctive landmark building. It is of special historic interest. It's a listed building,and it was opened in 1908, funded by Andrew Carnegie, the entrepreneur, who had a wish to fund libraries around the world. So, Battle Library is an original Carnegie Library."
When Marjorie first arrived at Battle library, she said it was completely different to when she left. She tells us how she was absolutely determined that she was going to make the "old library" into something really special. It was quite unused when she arrived - she explains that the wonderful thing about Battle Library is inside is this great big room. When she arrived, it was filled with rubbish like old shelving and everything that people had thrown away. She said that she wanted the room emptied, and she would re-purpose it for the community.
The West Branch, later Battle Library. The Bindery, photographed in 1958 (c) Reading Libraries Local Studies Collection
"I wanted to make it more of a community library, so it wasn't just about books, it was about people coming to be able to, to really join in activities and feel that community welcome."
Marjorie explains how she understood that official buildings like the Library can be quite daunting for people, they don't immediately want to come in. But Marjorie had a vision to bring the community in for all sorts of other reasons than what they usually might think would be the reason to come to a library! Within 6 months Marjorie had started a baby clinic in the library, and lots of mums would come in to have their babies weighed, and they would meet with health advisors. This then led to a breastfeeding clinic also, and a job seeking advice class that was run every week, and it kept evolving from there. Soon they were running regular English classes, homework clubs for children who struggled to do their homework at home, and Mother and Toddlers "sing along with Marjorie" sessions too.
After a visitor asked Marjorie why they weren't running anything at Christmas time, Marjorie responded quickly to the challenge and arranged a special carol service. So every year that Marjorie was there they also had a Christmas carol service. Marjorie got as many local people involved as possible, and had the band from the local Salvation Army, a local brass band, and a local Black gospel choir, as well as having community singing. There was always mulled wine and mince pies and everybody from the local area used to come along.
Battle Library in 2007, room formerly used as the bindery (c) Reading Libraries Local Studies Collection
Marjorie also tells use about all of the work that she did with school children. Every year, the schools used to come in to the library and Marjorie used to talk to the children about black history. She tells us about how she used to sit with classes of children, telling them stories about all sorts of things about the old times on the Oxford road as well. She loved to tell them how the new library was built, how it had a green emphasis and what they had been able to do with the million pounds they had received. Marjorie says; "I just love telling stories". She still goes into the schools today even though she is retired now, and has been retired for eight years. She regularly goes back to the Oxford road school where she used to be a governor, to talk about black history.
On the Libraries 100th years Marjorie arranged that they plant a time capsule in the ground. She described how they got a big box and filled it with treasures from the library, and then asked the community to add things in to the box as well, which represented them. So there is a time capsule still in the ground which commemorates 100 years of Battle Library.
In 2008, Marjorie was part of the team that put together a successful bid for £1.5 million Lottery Funding for the Library. She describes how special this was to her to win this bid which enabled the library to do more community work. The project aimed to reconfigure and transform the library into a real community library that could offer activities and services that would enrich the community and improve educational attainment.
Battle Library in 2007, photographed by David Cliffe (c) Reading Libraries Local Studies Collection
We asked Marjorie how she would describe Oxford Road:
"Every day I walked along the road to the Library, and residents would wave, people would recognise me! Oxford Road is just so colourful, and it's quirky too. And I think I would describe it as an ever evolving urban community. It's been shaped by its characters. And the characters on Oxford Road are mix of people that live there, people that work there, some have been residents there forever, some people come and go, some people want to be part of the community and other are just passing by. I always found there was humour too, and there was fun. And that was intertwined with a sense of caring."
"When I look back, it was a strong, loyal, faithful and colourful area with really interesting people. And I just, I just loved the privilege of, of really being part of it. So I've got incredibly happy memories. I never forget it. And I'm still in touch with people, especially the school and the teachers that are there. And they were lovely, lovely people, lovely children and families and it was just a very special place."
Marjorie tells us that there was also sometimes sadness, that sometimes she would meet people with such drive and ambition, but there was up and down family relationships, and loneliness too. People would come and talk to her about their struggles.
Marjorie would love to see the library building celebrated more, for more of the community to get a chance to experience to beauty of the building and learn more about it's history. She also thinks that a series of large photographs of the Oxford Road displayed prominently somewhere like the Reading West Bridge would work well. She feels that there's lots of history that can be showcased along the road, "we should never forget the history of Oxford Road."
"My memories of the Oxford Road, I just have complete happiness. I just loved being there from beginning to end."
- Marjorie McClure