As a library re-opens after a £1.5 million refurbishment reporter Barnaby Davis looks back at the history of the prominent site described as a ‘symbol for freedom and democracy’ in Second World War propaganda.

Leytonstone Library in Church Lane was built by Leyton Urban District Council in 1934, under the instruction of librarian of the borough, Edward Sydney.

The previous library for Leytonstone was located in the 18th Century Park House by Leytonstone High Road Station, converted from a home for a wealthy businessman and his family that was to be demolished.

The desirability of a better, purpose-built, library allowed Mr Sydney to design his ideal public library, well-lit, cheerful, modern, and in the main shopping area at a time when Leytonstone developing as a burgeoning London suburb.

He said at the time of its opening, “the provision of an adequate and efficient local library service is a national necessity and should be tackled nationally, and it should be no longer completely at the mercy of local interest and local financial ability.”

David Boote, chairman of Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society, said the construction came out of a desire to create a more equal society.

He said:“By the 1920s there were those who wanted a public library to reach out, not just by being accessible to the blind and sick, but in helping create a more egalitarian and inclusive society, through proactive education and expansion of the library’s functions and services, to a broad social spectrum of users.”

Mr Sydney worked very closely with the local architect James Ambrose Dartnall to realise this dream in Leytonstone.

Between 1935 and 1948 the newly opened library was the venue for 322 play-readings, 282 discussions, 151 Classical gramophone recitals, 35 lectures, 45 exhibitions and 31 film shows with a total of 157,426 people in attendance.

To save money it was located on the first floor above a large L-plan Woolworths and an electrical appliance shop, but Sydney ordered the outside of the building to 'reflect the pride of the local authority in its library service'.

During the Second World War, in which the building was only slightly damaged, The British Ministry of Information commissioned a series of photographs of the library to be used in illustrated foreign-language magazines and used as cultural propaganda.

People were shown browsing through the vast collections of English history, literature and critical essays as a sign of the freedoms on offer in the Allied countries.

Henry Irving, from the University of London's Institute of English Studies, explained that the importance of books was a common theme of British propaganda.

He said: “The ability to access literature, science and philosophy in public libraries was regularly contrasted with Nazi book burning.

“Leytonstone library was chosen because it was modern, well-stocked, and full of 'ordinary' people.

“In short, it was a symbol of freedom and democracy.”

By 1950 Leyton had a population of 106,000 of whom 20,000 were regular library users.

Edward Sydney enjoyed over a decade of retirement with his wife and two children in Hainault Road, Leytonstone. Before his death in 1968, he acknowledged the importance of the library, saying: “Though the Press, the Cinema, and Broadcasting have enormous and dangerous powers of stimulation they can never fully satisfy the intelligent man, and must be checked and counter-checked by reference to books.”

Leytonstone Library was awarded Grade II*-listed status in May 2014 after being recognised for its ‘remarkable interiors’ by English Heritage.

The new modernised library will hold 19,000 books, the same amount as it did before, whilst still offering flexible space to use including a theatre hall, upgraded ICT facilities, faster Wi-Fi, and dedicated sections for adults, teens and children.

It will host a grand opening ceremony on Sunday (September 13).