This is the third incarnation of Ashfield library I have visited. The first was the old library, a long rectangular space which was always busy with people reading. Then this one was closed for renovations, and the library was moved to a temporary site in the basement of the same building. This was an uninspiring little cave, which was no less popular, and thus always unpleasantly crowded. After some time down here the library moved back to its previous, expanded and renovated, position.
It is still accessed by the same dingy walkway, which a man was cleaning with a broom, pushing the pools of rainwater into the drain. I’d just come from the shopping centre, in which I was in search of the post office, and thus was in a high state of irritation. Post offices, like other important places like libraries, are more and more often being incorporated into shopping centres. As a person who will avoid shopping centres unless I absolutely have to go into one, this development dismays me, although it makes sense to put things people need where people congregate.
The Ashfield library isn’t in the shopping centre, but it is adjacent to it in the Civic Centre, as this rather unimpressive photo reveals. It was a rainy day so any urban environment immediately turns drab and white-skied when captured in a photo.
I was excited to enter the new library, the entrance to which has a kind of nightclub feel to it. At a glowing red wall you can return and check out books, or visit the solitary indoor plant. I paused, a bit disoriented by the dim, red light, not knowing which way to turn. I noticed that I’d come at storytime, and a lot of noise came from the kids area in front of me, including a raucous “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”. I was not clapping my hands.
The current thinking in library architecture is to have an open plan, with lots of natural light and low shelves. Ashfield library follows this design, and is an improvement, space-wise at least, on the previous one. There are two rooms, one a meeting room and one a reference room, and apart from this the rest of the library space is open, with nooks here and there for different sections of books, science fiction, Australian fiction, graphic novels, and my favourite, “The Digital Life”.
Had I the power to redesign the library, I would have put a door on the kid’s section, because it was almost unbearably noisy in there. Kids want to make noise, and why wouldn’t you if you could get away with screaming your lungs out? The combined sound of singing, screaming, and babbling filled the library, which was unfortunately coupled with the sounds of construction, drilling and hammering, from the building next door. I thought longingly of my quiet house, and sadly of my drowned iPod (although I don’t think you should have to rely on such things to drown out other noise) but decided to make the best of it, and went to look at the classics section.
I have decided to read some Dickens over the summer. Most summers I choose a classic author to investigate, and this year Dickens has come up often enough for me to feel guided towards him. I haven’t read any Dickens before, though I’ve read a lot of classic literature. When I was in high school I was happy that I was in the class that didn’t have to read David Copperfield. To my relief we studied Jane Eyre instead. I looked at the huge doorstop of a book that my friends in the other class carried around and feel glad I didn’t have to make my way through it. Contrary to what one might think, with me being a writer now and all, I didn’t particularly enjoy English in high school, and I had no particularly inspiring teachers who fostered my love of words, apart from the one teacher who put me on to Sylvia Plath. My early investigations into literature were sparked by references in pop songs, so I read whatever Robert Smith was reading, and I learnt to write by making zines.
Dickens novels are the kind of texts I imagine one reads on one’s e-reader, but I am still at the Penguin Classics edition level of technology. Approaching the Classics section, I appreciated the sombre colours of book spines, nothing like the lurid rainbow of the general fiction. It is particularly satisfying to read a Classic edition, rather than a brightly coloured book with embossed title and splashy quotes all over it. It is the equivalent of eating a small, simple salad while the person across from you slavers over a burger. One feels very pure reading a classic book; I am always impressed when I see someone reading one on the train, for example.
I picked out David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby, and sat down on the purple couch nearby. The classic books are next to the Australian fiction, which, like all of the shelves in Ashfield Library, has a display shelf along the top for the more enticing titles. I stared briefly at one called “88 Lines about 44 Women”, which was not an enticing title, at least to me. I imagined the author meeting a woman and telling her the title of his book, and the many ways the conversation could progress.
Back to Dickens. I picked up David Copperfield and closed my eyes for a moment, concentrating. The sound of someone running in high heels disturbed my focus and I looked up to see a woman run past me, through a door into the secret librarian room, and then emerge a few seconds later with a UHU glue stick. Adhesive Emergency!
Dickens again. I would choose which book I would read based on what it said on the page I opened it at. I fluttered the pages for a while, until I felt like it was the right moment, then opened the book:
It was hard to choose but I had a better feeling about Nicholas Nickleby. I wasn’t going to borrow it from the library, though, it would take too long to read and there is a satisfaction in taking a new classic book from its pristine state to a somewhat battered one, after it has been your companion for months. I looked back on the shelf and saw that the most read of the Dickens’ was Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities. My next competition, once I had got through Nicholas Nickleby, would be between these. Decision made, I put the books back on the shelf and went to stroll around the library.
At every library I’ve been to since Rockdale, I’ve seen the same Rolling Stone with Lady Gaga on the front, prominently placed in the magazine section. In the Rockdale post I compared this cover to the Courtney Love cover from the 90s that I’d bought from an op shop, and now a surprising number of people find my blog searching “courtney love rolling stone” (surely even more will find it now). Sometimes I wonder who these people are and what they are after. Are they reminiscing? Are they Courtney fans? Are they doing a school project on the 90s?
Next to Gaga and the magazines was the photocopier, and I remembered that I had in fact brought something to photocopy with me. This copier still has the coin machine attached to it, so I didn’t have to fiddle around buying a copy card, something I resent doing (it is NOT easier). I inserted my coins and pressed the green button. My copy, though, came out very light at the edges, too light to be useful. I stood looking at it, wondering if I should bring it to the librarian’s attention. I’m not usually the kind of person to make complaints, but it was not a complaint, exactly, more an enquiry. I should have asked the librarian which Dickens to read, that would have been more interesting. But no, I trotted over to the desk with my too light copy and waited for someone to serve me. There were three librarians there, one on the phone, another doing something in a drawer with great urgency, and another staring into a computer screen with unbreakable attention. Was this one of those occasions where a small cough might help? The woman on the phone held up her finger in a “one moment” gesture.
After a few minutes her call ended and I explained my light photocopy. After we established I knew how to use a photocopier, yet might not have pressed down on the lid while the machine scanned the book, she got the magic key out of the drawer and said she would give me another copy for free. To someone who spends a lot of time photocopying, the magic key is the stuff of dreams. We repeated the photocopy, this time applying some pressure to the photocopier lid, and it worked better. I had my photocopy, she had the pleasure of having her suspicions confirmed. She took the magic key away and I thought about how, to a zine maker, you don’t dream about the key to the city, you dream about they key to the photocopier.
Most of the bookshelves are in the centre of the library, and couches and desks are in nooks that face onto the street. I wandered past these, hoping to find somewhere to sit down, but each was occupied. In one area was a man reading the Coles catalogue, and another man who had a book open but was asleep. In the next area a woman had spread her notes all across the table. She had the book Commonsense Vegetarian alongside her notebooks and highlighters, but I don’t think that was what she was studying. I imagined the Commonsense Vegetarian a little like the business “Realistic Real Estate”, which I often travel past. Commonsense Vegetarian would give you down to earth advice as well as recipes:
Now a lot of people are going to give you shit for being a vegetarian. They will offer you steak, they will brag about eating monkey brains, they will interrogate you as to your reasons. The important thing here is not to lose your cool, even though you have heard this many times before. You might like to ask them why it means so much to them, or just fix them with a withering glance and go onto another topic of conversation. Do not give them the satisfaction of argument.
In the next alcove, the most secluded one, was a couple tickling each other. Although there were spare seats at that desk, as there had been at the Commonsense Vegetarian’s table, both areas seemed fully occupied. In the next seating area was a man who had taken off his shoes and was sitting with his laptop on his lap and his arm draped across the seat next to him. Someone must have done a study about how many seats a person takes up with their presence. In Ashfield library it was about 3 -6. Apart from having to encroach on someone’s space, it was so noisy with kids and drills that it would be impossible to concentrate on much anyway.
I decided to visit the Reference room, which was closed off from the rest of the library by a door. I could see individuals working silently at the two long tables, and this seemed like the place for the noise-sensitive library user. It was quiet in there, the only space with the traditional library hush of air conditioners, the shuffle of papers, the zip of a pencilcase, the tap of fingers on a keyboard. I got out my papers and investigated them for a while, sneaking glances at the people across from me. One girl was set up for studying with endless notebooks, a packet of dark chocolate Tim Tams, and milky tea in a 500ml bottle. She was studying something that involved a lot of graphs. I wanted to wait until she ate a Tim Tam before I left, but she was annoyed that I kept looking up to see if she was reaching for the packet, poor thing. As well as her there were plenty of people on laptops, silently tapping away, and a woman with her shopping bags around her, reading a romance novel.
After a little while I went out into the noisy main section of the library again, to browse the non-fiction books. There were a lot of big books about Dickens, one even bigger than any of Dickens’ novels. This was getting ahead of myself, though. I moved on to the science section, books about sand, books about taxidermy…
Then, in the fashion section, I picked up the book version of the blog My Mom the Style Icon by Piper Weiss. A collection of photographs of people’s groovy moms, my favourite was this wedding portrait:
In the event of me having a wedding, an occasion which even the thought of has me reaching for the Rescue Remedy, I would like to have photos like this. Although I could just re-enact it at home without the need for all the rest of it.
Looking through this book I pondered this particular style of authorship. The author, in a curatorial role, sets up a blog based on an idea, people submit their own stories, photographs, and ephemera and it gets published as a book. In this case the blog is a way to collect information and images of a time before the internet. We’re in an age of archiving and digitising, and this will one day pass. I’m curious about what life will be like when all this archiving and digitising slows down; when all the mom photos, for example, have been scanned. Already we can visit our past through the pasts of others. Although I knew none of the women pictured in the book, the photos were familiar to me. My family has the same kinds of photographs in its history. I have photos of my mother looking stylish in the 60s, but I’m not sure I’d submit any to My Mom the Style Icon, having read the legal rights this gives the blog author: they can do whatever they want with the image of my mum, in any medium including ones yet to be invented, forever. This is probably a standard agreement, but it gives me the creeps.
With all the heavy thinking out of the way, I could now relax and browse through the photos of everyone’s groovy mid-century mothers. I was sitting facing out onto Liverpool Rd, and could see two people with clipboards trying to entice passers-by without success on the street below. I watched this for a while, the book open on my lap. Storytime had finished and now it was now well and truly Screamingtime. Kids were having a fabulous time racing around the open spaces of the library, and I wished I was five years old so I could enjoy it too. But my days of this are back in an era when my mum would have qualified as a style icon. I put the book back on the shelf and decided to go back to the peace and quiet of my house.