Remembering Myra Schehtman: A hero of Camden's libraries

Myra (centre) at Belsize library with Jessica and Maria - holding a book from one of her Rhyme Times sessions

Myra (centre) at Belsize library with Jessica and Maria - holding a book from one of her Rhyme Times sessions - Credit: Lucy Telfer

Tributes are pouring in for a “library champion” and “community institution” who has died aged 75.

Myra Schehtman spent more than 40 years as a “kind, gentle and positive” worker and volunteer for Camden libraries in Primrose Hill and Belsize Park.

Nicknamed the “Library Lady”, Myra was instrumental in fighting to save Camden’s libraries from closure a decade ago.  

Her love, passion and purpose for helping people of all backgrounds access books, literature and adventure “was not a job, it was her calling and destiny”, her daughter Simone said.  

“There was no one from north Camden right down to Baker Street who didn't know mum," she said.  

"Myra was very well liked by all who knew her, especially the youngsters who loved her story reading and events"

"Myra was very well liked by all who knew her, especially the youngsters who loved her story reading and events" - Credit: Family handout

“I remember so many walks taking triple the amount of time because everyone would stop and ask her: ‘How’s this going? How’s that going? How can I help? What’s happening and what’s the project?’ 

“I remember her many times saying to me to not look out for number one, but to look after your community because that will enable people to flourish and go on to look after bigger picture subjects that are important to them.  

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“Whether that was making sure that the Starbucks didn't appear on Primrose Hill village to destroy the heart of the local cafes, or whether it was maintaining any of those local stores, the community centre, the childcare provision in the village... She really got people people to think locally.” 

Born and raised in Kensington, Myra later lived in the USA, Australia and Israel, where she met her future husband. The family moved to Primrose Hill in 1978. 

Opera, spending time with her grandchildren, and relaxing in the rose gardens of Regent’s Park were among Myra’s favourite hobbies – but she will always be remembered for her lasting impact on Camden’s libraries.  

She was staunch but pioneering in bringing together the young and old, and she was renowned for Rhyme Time sessions, book clubs, developing the Silversurfers in Camden, and putting on a Mad Hatter’s tea party in 2018.  

One of her longstanding desires was to have a bench installed outside the Belsize library in legacy of local and leading illustrator Arthur Rackham. 

Colleagues, family and friends now hope to see out her wish and create a bench in memory of Myra, and Arthur.  

“She had an incredible community spirit that I've never seen,” Simone said.  

“She was very well respected as someone who looked out for lots of people.  

“She was very private with her own world and she always wanted to help and enable.

“So what we can do going forward is to try and respect and reflect those values ourselves within communities, because boy do we need it right now.” 

Myra (left) with former Camden mayor Richard Cotton and Belsize library manager Lucy Telfer

Myra (left) with former Camden mayor Richard Cotton and Belsize library manager Lucy Telfer - Credit: Lucy Telfer

Among myriad stories of help and support – one stood out in particular. Simone described how, after helping an elderly lady get to hospital following a fall, her mum met an Italian couple visiting the UK who wanted to get married.  

Within 48 hours the newlyweds were walking out of St Pancras registry office to Simone on the violin – all thanks to Myra.  

Her son Tony paid tribute: “It’s difficult to capture in a few words how important Myra’s contributions were, to families and children as well as to the elderly. Her benevolence and kindness were quite unforgettable.  

“She touched many lives, from young to old, and as some have told us, she was in a real sense, an Institution.” 

Lucy Telfer, the manager of Belsize Community Library, said: “Myra was devoted to bringing the community together through her inspiring ideas and powers of persuasion.  

“She was a true champion of Belsize Library. We will miss her friendship, parents will miss her Rhyme Times, and libraries won't be the same without her.” 

On behalf of Primrose Hill Community Library, Cllr Lazzaro Pietragnoli said: “She was a great asset to the local community and her passion and commitment to help others will be sorely missed.” 

Ed Miliband MP, who went to Primrose Hill Primary School, said: "Myra was an incredibly kind, warm generous person. I will always remember her friendly face at my local library when I was growing up.

"She will be sadly missed and my deepest condolences go out to her family. "

Myra died on May 10 after a period of illness. She is survived by her husband Yochanan; her children Simone and Tony; her brother Henry; and her grandchildren Mateo, Jeremy and Oliver.  

“Even the last couple of weeks mum was around, she reminded me to be kind, gentle, positive, and to keep trying,” Simone added.  

“She said to me as a joke: ‘I would have turned down an MBE, I didn't want a blue plaque, and I didn't want a salary raise, I just wanted people to be able to work together and to accept difference and to enable core community values of living together in good harmony to continue' – and she did her best to do that.”  

Myra during a musical performance

Myra during a musical performance - Credit: Family handout

Tributes 

Professor Tom Selwyn, founder and former chair of Camden Public Libraries User Group

“Myra was THE inspiration behind the library campaign: all our work followed her huge experience and insight into how libraries work and the invaluable service they give to society.” 

Cllrs Richard Cotton, Pat Callaghan and Lazzaro Pietragnoli (Camden Town with Primrose Hill ward) 

“We write to express our sadness at the passing of Myra Schehtman, better known as Myra Newman. 

"Myra had lived in Primrose Hill for 40 years and had worked at Chalk Farm Library (now Primrose Hill Community Library) for many years before her retirement. In retirement, Myra devoted her energies to community work.  

“She was an active member of Camden Age UK and a volunteer at Belsize Library and the Winch and she founded Primrose Hill Neighbours Help. She organised so many events including  a monthly ‘Tech and Tea’ at the Oldfield sheltered housing estate helping older people get online; ‘No More Walls’ at Primrose Hill Community Centre where local resident Michael Comley launched his book and spoke movingly about being a rough sleeper and ‘The Mad Hatters Tea Party’ at Belsize Library. 

“There were many other events and Myra was always available to help local residents in whichever way she could. Nothing was ever too much trouble for her. 

“She will be sorely missed, most obviously by her family and close friends to whom we extend our heartfelt sympathy but also by the wider community of Primrose Hill. May her memory be a blessing.” 

Ingrid Smits, Camden Council library customer services officer

“I was always greatly impressed with, and in awe of, Myra’s total commitment to the library and its importance to the local community.

“During her day to day work she was completely focused on our service offer to children, families, and the carers of children.

“Alongside this, she was constantly working on new projects, for example she once hosted a wonderful art exhibition showcasing the work of local artists.

“I could see that she had a great talent for this work, which is what we would now describe as community engagement.

“Therefore I was always very grateful to her for her efforts. Myra was the reason that the library was at the heart of the community, and a warm and welcoming place.”

Celine Castelino, Friends of West Hampstead Library  

“A true champion of libraries, not only did Myra Schehtman help save this valuable resource for Belsize and develop it into a much loved centre by devoting her energy and talent for creating and leading activities that brought in the community.   

“Most of all she inspired many children to become enthusiastic readers.” 

Flavia Cortesi and Fabrizio Cascio

“We recognised ourselves in the “Italian couple visiting the UK who wanted to get married”.   Even though many years have elapsed since that extraordinary day, our memories did not fade in the slightest.

"Her empathy and care for the other human beings transformed what could have been only a matter-of-fact conversation with an occasional acquaintance into a never-to-forget occasion.  

"She lent a sympathetic ear to our story and then she went out of her way to help us fulfil our wish to get married in London before coming back to Italy.

"Not only did she do all what needed to be done, but she also asked her daughter Simone to add to the festive occasion with her violin playing. It was unbelievable!

"Many thanks Myra. We shall be grateful to you and to your wonderful family forever."

Author Lauren Child 

"I am so very sorry to hear the sad news of Myra’s death, she was such a force for good.

"I was fortunate to meet Myra at the Belsize Library when I had just begun my career in children’s books. 

"Her passion for the library was very evident – I know she fought hard to keep it open – but so was her understanding of the children who came through the
doors and browsed the books.

"You could tell that their experience really mattered to her. It goes without saying that she will be terribly missed."

Cherie Hayes

"An amazing  person called Myra entered my life in Bournemouth July 1990. I was an Australian then living in Saudia Arabia but holidaying with my two young children.

"Myra & Simone were taking a well earned break. Myra was exceptionally friendly and her warm and caring nature enabled us to  develop a wonderful friendship.

"We spent many happy days together eating ice creams, paddling in the waves along the foreshore & exploring the local area. Such beautiful happy memories.

"Myra's gracious departing gift was to offer her phone number & suggested I ring when  transiting  through London.  Passionately encouraging us to come & spend some time in the library she loved & then enjoy dinner at the local pub.

"My transit in London turned into a nightmare. Kuwait was invaded. A call from my husband saying I could not return. All flights cancelled to SA.

"I frantically called Myra. Without hesitation Myra extended her embrassing & caring hand. Her prestige & goodwill in the  local community found us emergency  accommodation nearby.

"She gave freely of her time & energy to help me care for my young children. The children enjoyed many happy & safe hours in the library  participating in well loved story time & craft activities.

"Myra's knowledge of children's  activities in the area was invaluable. Myra graciously & generously spent three weeks looking after us. We enjoyed the Punch & Judy show, the Zoo, Regents Park & Primrose Hill & many other fascinating local places.

"Over 30  years Myra & I have stayed in contact. My last visit to London was in 2011. Myra was heavily involved in saving the local libraries. Her enthusiasm & desire to keep local libraries open has been ongoing for more than 40 years.

"My dear friend, you will be so sadly missed."

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