This copy of The Amber Room by Steve Berry (no relation) promises great things:
Open the book, though, for the reality:
During the many years I lived in Petersham, I’d ride my bike along the path past the back of Stanmore Library. Painted on the back was a graffiti mural, which I must have looked at in passing hundreds of times. Today, when I came to Stanmore library, I found the whole building painted over a dull green, the mural included. Despite the many times I’d seen it, I couldn’t remember exactly what was on it besides a figure of a girl in a short skirt with purple hair. It was one of those council sanctioned graffiti murals, perhaps with a don’t do drugs message, the kind that’s meant to be as exciting as actual graffiti. Now as I stood looking at the blank green wall, I imagined the figures in the mural buried underneath.
Stanmore library is one of the smallest Sydney libraries I have visited, although it looks smaller on the outside than it does on the inside. The building is one long rectangular shed, situated in the park beside the train station. This has always seemed to me a good place to have a library, in a space that has some kind of civic importance. Another civic object, to be found alongside the library, is this drinking fountain, presented to the citizens of Stanmore in 1949.
Although I like drinking fountains as civic objects, I can’t help but recall one time seeing a large, slobbery St Bernhard with its paws up on the side of one, while his owner turned on the water for the dog to drink. The dog’s big tongue slurped over the spout, which would then be later used by some thirsty passerby.
It was 11am on a rainy Wednesday when I arrived at the library. I’d caught the 412 bus to Stanmore with a number of small old Greek ladies. I was waiting at the bus stop with one of these women, and watched as she unwrapped a packet of cigarettes she’d just bought from the grocery across the street. She lit up a cigarette and I stood up to move upwind of her, reflecting how it was perhaps meant to be the other way around: wasn’t I meant to be the one smoking, being (although I’m not sure this word quite applies anymore) young? She and her cohorts stayed on the bus, going, perhaps, to the hospital further along the bus route.
The library had changed its colour scheme since I was last there, many years ago now. It used to have bright green chairs like big green apples. Now the colour scheme is beige and the purple of Marrickville Council. I looked around for somewhere to sit. It was man hour in the library, besides the two librarians, everyone else there was male. I went down to the round wooden table in the young adult fiction area, and sat in a position from which I could see the whole library in front of me.
Like Dural Library, Stanmore library has windows lining the two long walls of the building, up high. Through these I saw the trains rushing by on the train lines above. Every few minutes one would whoosh past. Planes came over as well, screaming down on their path to Sydney airport. The planes always come that way when it is overcast, something I know well from my Petersham years. Despite these sounds, the library was a place of great calm.
A man sat on one of the couches, reading a week’s worth of Sydney Morning Heralds. He was an old man in a beanie, the kind who has sockless, skinny ankles poking out from under the hem of his trousers. I watched him struggle with the large broadsheet, getting it into the best position for reading. On the other side of the room, two men used the internet. Both had notebooks with lists of things to look up, and both occasionally swore at the screen. I didn’t pry too much, but I peeked over the shoulder of the man nearest me, to see he was looking up different kinds of locks.
The table I was sitting at was near the Graphic Novels and the “Board Books”, a genre I hadn’t come across before. It means the thick cardboard books for children, the thick cardboard which readily gets damp and germy from being chewed on. I looked away from them. The table surface beneath me had a pleasing patina, the varnish wearing off a little. The bookshelves that lined the walls were the same colour wood. There were other desks, more modern melamine ones, in the centre of the room. A man was sitting there studying, bent over his notebooks.
A man in an orange safety vest entered and delivered a poster to the librarians. The librarians then debated for a long time where to put it up. Eventually they took it, and a jar of drawing pins, into the corner where the noticeboards were, with posters for events like National Simultaneous Storytime and Reading Challenge 2011. The new poster was for Refugee Week, although first I read the slogan and read Freedom from Fear and thought it was about anxiety. An older poster was taken down and this new one put in its place. Something I particularly enjoy is pinning up posters on boards, removing the out of date ones to make room for mine. I pinned up a flyer for the zine fair I’m helping organise on my work noticeboard last week and did exactly this.
I went to browse the non fiction collection, which was on the wooden shelves lining the walls at the other end of the library. The good thing about a small library is that you can look at all the books, and don’t have to pick a particular section to work your way through. One section I will be focussing on in particular during this project is the books about books, which is the very start of the Dewey decimal numbers. I picked out a book from the 002s, “The Book of Lost Books” by Stuart Kelly. “The incomplete history of all the great books you will never read” was its subtitle. In general I find these kinds of list books very boring, especially ones that suggest I ought to do all the things inside before I die. I look at the book and think Oh my God I’m going to die? Rather than rushing to book holidays, buy books, listen to albums or whatever other essential experience is listed within.
This book, however, appealed to me as it was about things that no longer existed. These books had existed at some point in time but were lost or destroyed somewhere along the way. I took this book back to my desk and examined it further. The two entries I read first – the book is structured chronologically, according to author – were Nikolai Gogol and Sylvia Plath, both stories I already know. Gogol burnt the second half of his novel Dead Souls in a crazed fervour, and Plath’s second novel, Double Exposure, “disappeared” sometime after her death. The author notes how chilling the word “disappeared” is in its vagueness. There were no contemporary examples. There is more of a trend for works in progress to be published in whatever state they are in after an author’s death, such as The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov (which he explicitly didn’t want to have published) and The Pale King by every angsty boy’s favourite writer, David Foster Wallace. Instead, contemporary lost books are the countless books that people have written and never had published. These are the “novels in the drawer” of people who would never be referred to by their last name in a literary context.
As I sat pondering this, my thoughts were interrupted by a careful voice reading out “I do not like them Sam I am” from the children’s area behind me. A little girl and her grandmother had come in and settled there. The girl had immediately gone for the open jar of thumbtacks, in that precise way children have for locating the most dangerous or precious thing in a room. A librarian came to the rescue, saying “Don’t touch, very sharp”, putting them out of reach.
I moved on to the next book I’d picked out, this one from the 300s, which was “A Dictionary of Old Trades, Title and Occupations”. I was hoping for some clues for a new job for me. I was not looking for a new job, but I believe it’s important to have a back up plan. So if being an Associate Lecturer falls through, I can try my hand at being an:
Amanuensis – a secretary or recorder of transactions.
Chronologist – a documenter of events
Dragon’s Blood Dealer – dealer in resins and gums
Mouldiwarp Catcher – a mole catcher
These occupations, many from 19th century England, were notable in their specificity. If only all I had to do was sell chickweed!
It was peaceful in the library, with the men busy working and me looking through books in the corner. The librarians kept up a low, steady conversation about library related problems, someone’s timesheet not filled in correctly, where to find a JP on a Wednesday… I felt almost as if I was in someone’s house, it was so cosy in there. A couple with a baby came in a return some books, Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, a Kathy Lette book. The baby, parked near the entrance, while its parents looked around, was zipped up in a rainproof pouch inside a stroller, with only its head showing. It stared out uncomprehendingly, as if stunned by the strangeness of everything around it.
The final book in my pile was from the biographies section, a book about Joan Jett. It was a big square book with lots of photos inside, which seemed to be a kind of autobiography, although it was hard to tell exactly. The majority of it was photographs. The introduction was by Kathleen Hanna and there were some slightly blurry photos of the two of them posing together. The first page of text was, perplexingly, the letters W.W.J.J.D? What Would Joan Jett do? That’s a question to ask yourself next time you are in a moral quandary. My favourite pictures in the book were of Joan Jett on the phone. Did I ever expect photos of people on clunky, curly cord phones to be retro?
In one photo she’s lying on a bed, her shoes still on, a small soft toy elephant on one beside table and a tape recorder on the one on the other side, leaning against a wall that’s patterned with bamboo and big yellow flowers. The room is 70s domestic but she’s in black jeans and a t-shirt, of course. The other photo is in a kitchen, and she’s wearing a tuxedo t-shirt and staring at the camera while she’s on the phone. On the kitchen bench is a box of Hostess Suzy Q’s, mini boxes of Corn Flakes and a box for a kind of candy called 8 Stripes. Suzy Q’s are a chocolate cake sandwich with cream in the middle (and I see you can buy them on Amazon…but would you?) I like photos of famous people in domestic situations, especially if they have a style that looks out of place around packets of Corn Flakes and 70s wallpaper. (here for those who don’t trust word descriptions)
I photocopied these pictures of Joan Jett on the phone, noticing the photocopier had a sign on it warning me to use coins.
I was happy to – I dislike control cards, especially the ones that you have to set a pin for. Do you really need a pin for a photocopy card? I put my 40c coins into the machine and copied the pictures. Over this side of the library was another appealing desk, this one beside a big indoor plant. I decided to relocate here. This desk wasn’t wooden but it was a wood patterned laminate. The accompanying black vinyl 80s armchair with wooden armrests are not so good, however, it was were the kind of chair you feel you might never get up from. Even if you are strong and healthy you get a taste of what it must be like to be elderly and have trouble getting up. I hauled myself up out of it and chose one of the beige desk chairs instead.
From my position here, half hidden by the plant, I continued to observe the library. The plant was like a kind of camouflage – here I was, peeking out at library users in their natural habitat. A man in a track suit with stringy long grey hair borrowing books about depression; a woman with a huge noisy bunch of keys who was wearing a stick on label with KAREN written on it, and sunglasses even though she was inside, and had some urgent business at the counter. In quieter moments the librarians discuss how they need a bucket or an umbrella stand during wet weather and the popularity of their Premier’s Literary Awards display, which had been set up that morning and already been borrowed from.
From this desk I noticed that the bookends are the same green that I remember the lounges being. The longer you inhabit a place, the more details you notice. I can now see the snowflakes cut out of coloured construction paper stuck to the windows, the other side of which is sprayed with an angry silver graffiti tag.
One of my tasks at the library was to find a novel to read while I’m on holidays. While I looked I took note of the books I can’t imagine anyone borrowing from a library:
How many times would you have to renew it?
I haven’t felt very excited about fiction for a while now, but forced myself to pick Utopian Man by Lisa Lang from the display rack. The novel won the Vogel Literary Award in 2009 and I remember reading about it in the newspaper. I also remember thinking, while reading the article, “I am never going to win the Vogel Literary Award”. This was not me lacking self esteem, this was a kind of acceptance that I’m not going to write a novel. For a long time I thought, as is the general perception, that a novel is the height of literary achievement and I would naturally write one. I might have one in my drawer from a long time ago, but I don’t think it’s going to have any siblings in the near future.
Utopian Man is about Edward William Cole, who was the Cole behind the Coles Book Arcade, and Coles Funny Picture book, the first port of call should you ever need a picture of a monkey in a hurry. Opening up the novel, I saw that it has a lot of dialogue, which made me wary: I get sick of reading dialogue and hearing their voices in my head. I hold the book and struggle with my own head-voice: it just needs to be the kind of book you can read on the plane, Vanessa, just borrow it.
Which brings me to another question: is it a good idea to travel with library books? I’ve taken them on holidays quite a few times, sometimes over the other side of the world if it’s only for a short period of time. I enjoy returning them, thinking that I’ve taken them on such a journey, which will forever remain a secret.
One of the things I love about library books is that they’ve been in other people’s houses, in their bags, read while in bed, in the bath, on buses, who knows? Sometimes the crumbs and hairs caught inside give me clues to their previous journeys. What I’d like is a register in the back of the book where people could write notes on their reading of the book. Places where the book kept them company, or strange things that happened while they were reading the book, rather than the kind of book club musings or Amazon reviews that would, of course, be the most likely things people would think to write there. I will keep you up to date with what happens while I read Utopian Man, to test this idea.
With all this talk of borrowing, it’s obvious that I’m a member of this library. The Stanmore library is one of the branch libraries of Marrickville: the others being St Peters (currently closed for refurbishment) and Dulwich Hill. I like how libraries exist in families, with the big main library and its smaller siblings. In my extensive readings of the local papers over the years I’ve read debates about whether to retain branch libraries, and remember reading one about plans to close down the Stanmore branch, which attracted irate letters to the editor.
Although there are plans to built a new central Marrickville library in the old Marrickville Hospital site, I see no plans to close the branch libraries. But who knows, what with the death of books and all.
Having heard and read plenty of things in the last week about the death of the book, I am starting to feel like I am a dreadful conservative. Maybe I am. I hope to die before the day comes when I can surf the internet in my own mind and see webpages on my retinas. All I will say about the debate this time is that my opposition to arguments for making libraries less the books and more about social space is that I’m one of the people who goes there for the books. And whose business is it for anyone to tell me if I should still read books or not?
For now I’m a woman wearing a red jumper, borrowing a book from a library. I go up to the desk and hand the librarian the book with my card on the top, she scans my card, hands it back, scans the book, prints out a borrowing receipt and tucks it inside the pages. I put it into my bag and go out into the overcast afternoon, as another plane roars overhead and I walk through the underpass and out towards Enmore, happy to be out in the streets again after a few hours of library peace.
Sydney libraries have been in the media a lot over the past few months, although the focus has been more on university libraries filling skip bins with books and journals that have been weeded from their collections. In just one response, at Sydney University, a mass book borrowing action was organised, to save books from failing the “dust test”.
People have weighed in on both sides of the debate, which seems to be neatly divided into these arguments: Libraries are social spaces and technology is changing the way we use information vs. Libraries are for information, they are places to collect books and knowledge and for people to be able to go into that world, research, and discover.
Last weekend an article in the News Review section of the Sydney Morning Herald effervescently proclaimed the new order:
The library manager for the City of Sydney, David Sharman, says public libraries are also changing. Their function has gone from a warehouse for books to a pleasant place in which people want to spend time. There, the focus on book preservation of 40 years ago is now balanced against the demands of visitors, who want more than to sit on a patch of carpet with a book on their lap.
“The belief at the time was that books and light don’t mix because it makes the paper fade,” he says. “We’ve gone full circle because natural light and people do mix.”
Libraries are becoming airier. Rows of shelves are opening out to lounges and cafes. Desks come with powerpoints for students to plug in laptops and sunlight passes over squat shelves that no longer need a ladder for access.
I am assuming David Sharman (and perhaps the article’s author?) are not the kind of people who have ever spent an afternoon browsing the shelves, in search of unexpected treasures. To suggest that libraries have never been a pleasant place where people want to spend time is ridiculous and the “patch of carpet with book on lap” scenario is hyperbolic. As I go exploring through Sydney’s public libraries, my guess is that I will find people spending time in them regardless of whether they have lounges and cafes or not, and there are some people who probably like sitting on the carpet with a book on their lap.
Underneath all this I sense an anxiety for libraries to be viewed as contemporary spaces. Who are these lounges and cafes designed to attract? Young people with laptops. Libraries are worried that young people with laptops will go elsewhere.
One of the problems in our cities and suburbs is the lack of public space. Is there anywhere besides the library where people can go that is a true public space? The only other places I can think of are parks, which are recreational spaces. There is nothing that comes close to a library for inclusiveness or ease of use: pretty much anyone can walk in and use the space.
With these heavy demands on the library as the one public space accessible to all, it is no wonder that the social demands on them have forced a change in their priorities. This, however, is no reason to forget the fact that they are places for information and information archiving. Why do I go to the library? It’s not to have a cup of coffee. Further on in the article, David Sharman suggests that Wikipedia could replace a lot of books in the library:
Search engines have also changed the information people look for. Requests for low-level information – what Sharman calls “Wikipedia-level references” – have given way to increased interest in niche information. Search engines and websites such as Wikipedia satisfy the initial demand for information.
“[Wikipedia] may be right, it may be wrong, but it will give you an answer,” Sharman says.
While I agree that Wikipedia does provide a convenient first stop for information, as David Sharman himself says, this information may be right or wrong. To suggest that Wikipedia lifts the responsibility on places like libraries to provide basic information is dangerous: after all, where does the information from Wikipedia come from? Books, of course, and people researching books and journals in libraries. The people contributing to Wikipedia, especially about specialist topics, are most likely people of a generation who grew up with books and libraries, and it is for this reason they have a depth of knowledge. There is more focus on luring young people to the library to fulfil a demographic desire than to educate young people in information literacy.
I am reticent to side with the view that libraries should not change. Personally I love old places and objects, and there’s a lot about the current culture of surface engagement with things and places that I disagree with. However I do see the need to adapt to changes in technology, although I also believe that decisions made in panic, when the future of publishing, media and digital technology is still unclear, can be dangerous.
I don’t believe we can expect the digitising of books and information to come to us for free, as these items would within a library. The internet that people dreamed of back in the 1990s, of the free distribution of information, has failed to eventuate. We’re all looking at google books with the pages missing, and we know our credit card numbers by heart.
On the Hills Bus, with 2CH blaring loudly from the speakers above every second seat, I look out the window at the national park. The M2 cuts through it, a long pale scar. I’ve never been on a Hills bus before, although I’ve seen people queuing for them at peak hour, lined up neatly in single file along the pavement outside the QVB. I’ve also seen the buses travelling over the Harbour Bridge, packed with commuters, and wondered what it would be like to have to stand in the aisle all the way to Dural.
Dural is one of those suburbs that unless you have lived in the Hills District, you probably haven’t heard of. When I say “Dural”, I might as be saying Dubrovnik. It’s possible that I too would be unsure of its location had I not lived in the area as a child.
“You Light up my Life” wails from the radio as the bus turns into Old Northern Road. We pass the Koala Park, with tour buses out the front and a couple of Japanese girls taking peace sign photographs in front of the entrance. Simon used to live across the road from the koala park. He tells me that strange shrieks would come from the park at night, rumoured to be the sound of the koalas’ frantic coupling.
The bus turns off and makes its way through suburban streets. All the houses are McMansions of various sizes. Cars with P plates in the driveways, everything neat. I’ve never been on these streets before and when the bus comes out the other side of the estate onto New Line Road, I realise why: all these houses were built in the years since I left the Hills District. They were in the area that, when we’d drive through it on the way to and from the city, used to be fields. I’d look across it, counting the cows dotted on the hills.
It’s a novelty to be in a bus on a road I’ve only ever been on as a passenger in a car. Not being a driver gives me a different perspective on travelling around Sydney. I sit and let it slide by the windows. For residents of this area, though, it would be impossible to rely on the bus service, which is designed only for commuters to and from the city.
The bus terminates at Round Corner, the central village area of Dural. As a child I enjoyed what I felt was the strangeness of “Round Corner” as a name. The corner itself is a dogleg where Kenthurst Road comes off Old Northern Road. In the corner is Dural Mall. The Mall isn’t a multi-storey Westfield kind of mall, it’s an L-shaped court lined with shops. Built in 1979, it is a compromise between the old way, of on-street shops, and the new way of enclosed shopping centres. The covered walkways give Dural Mall the visual appearance of a maze or a computer game.
Since I lived there the mall has been built upon, but its general shape has been retained. I follow the only other passenger who had stayed on the bus to the end, a young guy with long ratty hair and puffy sneakers, down into the end of the Mall. As I do this I catch sight of an old sign on the wall, in a gap between where the Mall used to end and a new building beside it. The signboard lists all the shops in as they used to be when I remembered it, all of which (besides the post office and fruit shop) are no longer there.
I regard this as a good omen for my project. I slip into the gap in between the buildings and examine the sign. The dark green, the signature colour of Dural Mall, triggers something in my memory, as do the shop names, La Pomme Bakery, The Shoe Tree. I like that it must have been left on the wall because no one thought it important enough to remove, and that it hides in a gap, tucked away, like it is the Mall’s own memory.
I love these details that remain through neglect, I have an eye for things that are weathered, old, almost hidden. When I visited Dural Mall as a child it was with great excitement. I liked the dank Franklins with high shelves (now an Aldi) and the gift shop from which I’d think about stealing pewter ornaments (now a butchery). When I got a bit older I was interested in the hippy clothes in the Recycled Clothing store, and I’d buy my first copies of Smash Hits from the newsagency. The old sign was on the wall of the once newsagency, now bottle shop.
I walked into the Mall and went to the Daily Delicious Bakery to gather my thoughts. Not the Bakers Delight or the Michel’s Patisserie (hell is a string of chain stores) but the former La Pomme. I was sad it was no longer La Pomme, with the big green apple on the sign. Apart from the location it was completely different, although it did have a fantastic sign out the front picturing everything they sell. I ordered a salad roll and a jam tart (I’d been thinking about a jam tart for weeks) and sat in the corner, reading the Hills Shire Times.
Having read all about Granny Plankers and the proposed Hills district train line from Epping to Rouse Hill, and listened to tradespeople ordering large amounts of pies, it was time to head over to the library.
Walking through the carpark, a version of me at eight years old walked alongside, with my sister and my mum, on our way back to the blue Telstar to load groceries into the boot. We would have stopped at La Pomme for our favourite treats: a Neenish tart for Fiona, a Vanilla Slice for me.
I’m in a stage of my life when I feel sad when I think about my childhood. Not because of any inherent sadness from that time, or wish that I was back there, but something to do with its distance. I’m living in a future that back then didn’t exist: the year 2000 was as far as my imagination stretched. I calculated the impossibly adult sounding age that I would be in 2000, hardly believing it would ever come. Now I am living on the other side of it, in the unknown.
The library is much smaller than I have remembered it. I feel like laughing as I walk along the path through the tall Ironbarks that surround the library, because it looks almost toy size, compared to the one in my imagination. My memories of it have merged the library building and the taller building adjacent to it, a gym which I have never entered. This feeling of smallness is a strange one. I feel like a giant girl, big legs in black stockings, wearing a red dress, my black hair a cloak, on a secret mission.
The first thing I realise is that the library is the perfect place to take notes. I’ve been the recipient of plenty of odd looks in the past when I’ve been taking notes in unexpected places, but here there is nothing more normal than to sit at a desk, get out my Spirax and my pencil and start to write.
The “angled ceiling” of my memory below is incorrect, but I remembered the exposed bricks of the interior correctly. Although refurbished in 1998, according to a plaque near the entrance, the library building retains its 70s design. High windows stretch the lengths of the two long walls, giving the library the feeling of being a kind of treehouse, as the windows look into the branches of the trees outside. As a child this had seemed magical to me.
Dural Library is peaceful. As I sit at one of the desks in the Adult non-fiction section, I watch people entering and leaving. No one’s doing work at the desks besides me, perhaps because this is a part of Sydney where most people have enough space to work at home. The Hills District is of course famous for its vast McMansions, although the Dural/Kenthurst area still has a lot of older houses, built in the 60s or 70s, on five acre blocks of land. We lived on one of these 5 acre blocks, in a long, thin house built in the 1970s. This house, a castle in my imagination, has the same toy appearance to me the few times my mother and I have driven out to see “what they’ve done to it”. The library and this house must have been built at around the same time.
As I sit writing, a little girl wearing a silver puffy jacket, her hair in a pineapple ponytail on top of her head, approaches the loans desk.
“Do you have a book about how to build the pyramids?”
The librarian, a woman with a rich accent I can’t identify, though I can tell it is European, enjoys this request. She takes the girl over to the Ancient History section, near where I am sitting. She gets out a number of different books that have information about the pyramids and spreads them out on the nearby desk.
“I don’t know if it explains how they are made,” she says, pointing at one of the open pages, “it’s something to do with these blocks. It would be easier to say how to make an igloo…”
The girl’s family have come to join her, her mum, a couple of sisters, and a brother, who is wearing a primary coloured cap with a propeller on the top, still slowly turning from his latest movements. All of them look seriously at the books the librarian has selected. The girl chooses a couple of the books to borrow and the family soon leave, on their way home to build a pyramid.
The library gets quiet again. I can hear the hush of the air conditioning unit and the conversations of the librarians behind the desk. The librarian who was so happy to help the little girl is not impressed with the man who has forgotten his card and then forgotten his password to log on to the computer. She clicks her tongue and sighs at him. Librarian disapproval is powerful; he looks chastened.
He is hoping to use one of the computers that are lined up in a row along one wall. I go exploring this section of the library and look over the shoulder of the man who is searching through a woman’s photos on Facebook, happy pictures of a group of people camping. Smiling faces fill the screen and I look away. The happy snaps of strangers make me feel miserable. I resist trying to imagine what he is thinking as he looks at them.
In the corner is a lounge area with a magazine rack, in roughly the same spot it was in my memory story. I sit here for a while, copying down a cake recipe from a Woman’s Weekly book of baking. The cake has whole pears embedded in it, their stalks poking out the top, which strikes me as weird enough to consider making. It is like they are entombed in there, or growing in there, depending on your perspective. Next to me is a coffee machine, a fixture I have noticed in Marrickville Library also, although I’ve never seen anyone use it. I look at the options but none re very appealing. I imagine the crunching noise of the machine filling the quiet library, and imagine how self conscious I would feel, hoping that my cringing would serve to muffle the sound of it. I would have bought one, though, if I was more of a coffee drinker. One of the things that people complain about concerning the changes in libraries, especially university libraries, is the getting rid of books to put in more computers and cafes. The vestiges of that were here, with the coffee machine and the computers, but from all the evidence I saw, people were still interested in books.
A woman at the counter, one of the many older women who have been coming in with their empty canvas bags ready to load up on novels, asks the librarian to look up some books for her. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? On loan. The Poisonwood Bible? On loan. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow” On loan. I want to tell her she needs to go for something more obscure. Finally one of the books on her list is on the shelf, and the librarian goes in search of it.
I’ve browsed all the sections in the library, the green spines of the gardening section, the ring bound volumes in the local history folder, the bright, sparkly young adult books. The children’s section is different to what I remember: I borrowed classics there but these days it’s mostly the current YA and children’s fiction. Across from the children’s shelves there’s a mural of a tree with native birds in it. A couple of little girls are sitting below it, gossiping. The older girl cries out “I can see your nappy!” to clinch the argument she is having with her sister. Their mum, a harried woman with a white jumpsuited baby strapped to her front, shushes them.
I sit down at my desk again and listen to the librarians talking. “Yesterday,” one of them says, “I came home to find a parcel on my doorstep”. I imagine her walking up the path to her door in the dark and seeing it there, an unexpected shape. Of course I pictured it being a book, but I was wrong.
“She sends me yams, they’re not commercially available in Australia.” Apparently they are good, very good, either steamed or roasted.
The yam discussion is interrupted by two teenagers, a boy and a girl, entering the library. They walk in and wander around the shelves, looking for something. The girl receives a lot of messages, the iPhone ding-ding keeps ringing out like someone very impatient is waiting to be served.
What could they be looking for?
The boy approaches the counter.
“Do you have any books on Ancient Egypt?” he asks.
“You’re not going to build a pyramid?” the librarian asks. The boy looks confused but takes it in good humour. The librarian waits a moment before explaining about the little girl’s request an hour earlier.
She returns to the Ancient Egypt section with the couple in tow. I feel proud that I have chosen to situate myself in such an important area of the library. The boy and girl look through the books for whatever particular information they’re after, slipping between talking about this and carrying on a conversation about their friends, the kind that is cryptic to any outsider, peppered with the kind of nicknames that make you picture the worst.
They choose the most useful book and negotiate sharing of it: she’ll have it until the weekend, and then he’ll take it. I try hard to overhear it, but can’t determine which aspect of Ancient Egypt they are interested in.
I’ve been in the library for almost two hours now. If I wanted to I could stay there all day. This is one of the things I love about libraries, that no matter who you are you can come and spend as much time as you want in there, and no one will tell you to leave until closing time. You don’t have to have any money or even be doing anything particular besides keeping quiet. During my hours in there I got up and browsed the books, moved between the desks and the lounges, and never once was the focus of any particular attention. Me, ever the observer, likes this kind of quiet place where I’m under no particular scrutiny.
Back at the couches I flip through today’s Sydney Morning Herald, reading the obituary for Bob Gould, who died a few weeks ago. Goulds, his huge and chaotic bookstore on King Street, is a type of library in itself, in fact it’s probably more of a library than a lot of public ones, in the sense of a library being a collection of books. Public libraries weed their collections regularly, but the only way a book leaves Goulds is if you buy it, or maybe steal it, as I’m sure many are tempted to. (But really, would you?)
I felt sad about his death because he was such a Sydney character, although I will never forget my anger at him telling me I was a “lovely plump girl” during my very brief stint working at Pulp Books, my friend’s bookstore which was across the road from Goulds. This perhaps was my only real interaction with the man, apart from buying the odd book from him.
As I think through all this, I notice a man enter the library. I get the feeling he isn’t the kind of person who frequents libraries. It isn’t anything about his appearance, his monogrammed shirt, work trousers and no nonsense haircut, but more his behaviour. He steps inside, looks around and goes over to the computer area where the man had been doing the facebook stalking. He stares intently at the computers for about ten seconds. Then he turns around and walks back outside. I watched him get into a red Barina and reverse out of the parking spot, and then drive away. I know how he feels – sometimes you really don’t feel like asking how something works.
I can hear blasts of the whistle from the gym next door, adjudicating a basketball game. It cuts through the ever present hum of the air conditioning. The librarians are straightening the cookbooks, a display of which they have set up on a tiered shelf near the DVD section. Perhaps rather than cookery they should do an Ancient Egypt display. I get up and fiddle with the computer catalogue, trying to decide what to look up. It’s a clunky catalogue with overly big square icons on the screen for each menu item. You have to press the F buttons to access the different types of searches. I’ve always been a bit wary of the F buttons, they do things I don’t quite understand.
The last time I came here there was a card catalogue and books were checked out at the desk, the date due stamped on the slip on the back page. I wonder if any of the books that were in the library then are still on the shelf – no by the looks of things. These days you check out books at a tall grey machine, although many people still choose to go to the desk. I can hear the barcode scanning blips every now and again, a noise that’s now so commonplace that it’s barely noticeable. But, have you ever stood in the supermarket and just listened?
The afternoon turns sunny and I decide it is time to leave the library. I leave as unnoticed as I had arrived. The librarian at the desk fiddles with a small guillotine, and doesn’t look up as I pass. Outside I pause and look around. A few hundred metres from where I stand, on the other side of a fence, a new McMansion is being constructed. Workmen swarm all over the construction, putting in the windows.
I start back along the path to the bus stop on Old Northern Road. I am early and sit waiting as the schoolgirl beside me spritzes her neck with vanilla perfume and reapplies black eyeliner. A bank of dark clouds moves across the sky. Although it is still sunny, fat raindrops fall and explode against the surface of the road. I watch them, in love with the feeling of being deep within the suburbs, in the kind of place that no one would call special, unless you are there in that moment, with the sun and the rain and the sickly smell of vanilla, living both in the memory of it and how it is now.
I read this story at Surry Hills library for a live version of All the Best back at the start of May. I like the story but reading it made me feel vulnerable, I guess because it’s about being a shy, bookish child. The shy bookish child in me would have been horrified to stand up in front of a room of people and read a story confessing my unpopularity. I felt like my story was the most shy and bookish one out of all of them. For stories about libraries, there was more sexual content than I expected among the stories that were read that night.
Before I going back to Dural Library I thought it would be good to reflect upon my memories of that time, and this is the story that appeared:
There are some people who obviously should have been born in another time, and I felt like one of them. But as much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, the reality of it was that I was a kid in the 1980s. Later, as a teenager, while stuffing my Cabbage Patch Kid in a bag to take to the op shop I thought of the oath I had recited upon “adopting” it back in 1985:
I promise to love my Cabbage Patch Kid with all my heart. I promise to be a good and kind parent. I will always remember how special my Cabbage Patch Kid is to me.
I didn’t feel guilty. I’d never been very fond of the doll, with its piggy eyes and chubby cheeks which resembled a face after a wisdom teeth extraction. I’d convinced my parents to buy me one for Christmas for no reason other than succumbing to peer pressure. It watched over me in my room, occasionally whispering: You Must Conform.
The world I would have rather been living in was about a hundred years earlier and my main way of accessing this was through the Dural Public Library. Here I gravitated to the hardback classics, like the Water Babies or the Secret Garden. I liked the smell of the books, which had soft pages like blotting paper, and colour plates for the illustrations, which I examined with great attention. I’d take them up to the counter and watch as the librarian crunched the stamp down on the due date page. What I would have given for a go of that stamp! Once stamped, the books were mine and I had an armful of different worlds to disappear into.
The Dural library was my favourite, although of all the places at my school it was the library where I felt most comfortable: that and the gates when I was leaving through them at the end of the day. The librarian, who saw in me the kind of gentle, easily trampled soul who takes refuge in books, eventually entrusted me with the job of checking books out at the desk. The small plastic stamp was no match for the public library one, but I used it proudly.
One day in the school library I spied some of the mean girls who usually held court in the playground grouped into a corner, examining something. Seeing these bullies on my turf I felt nervous, but was too scared to go over and investigate. I lurked behind the shelves nearby for a while, listening to them giggle. Then I thought of something: the check out desk was located on a level above the library itself, with a good view over it. So I climbed the stairs and peered down. Directly below me, in between the bowed heads of the girls, I could see what they were looking at: a copy of Where did I come from?
I knew very well where they came from, big North Shore houses with pools and tennis courts, the kind of places with confidence pumping out through the air conditioning.
Where I came from, I was less sure. I’d read my children’s classics from the library and imagine myself as an orphan, a gypsy or a girl detective. Although they were library books, and I knew they had been read by others (traces of whom, in the crumbs and finger marks on the pages, were still apparent) I knew that I was the true recipient of this knowledge. I had many secret identities.
Visiting the library on Saturday was the highlight of my week. In Dural Mall, as I trailed around after my mum in the Franklins, I tried my best not to become impatient. There were some distractions: my sister and I were obsessed with the plastic egg machines at the entrance to the supermarket. One of these dispensed bouncy balls and we had a growing collection of these at home, stored in Itty Bitty bins.
The shopping done, I felt great anticipation as my mum’s car pulled into the library carpark. The library was surrounded by gum trees like a magic house in a wood. It was a 1970s building with an angled roof and expose brick interior, a style of architecture I found comforting.
Once Monday rolled around again I was back at school. Despite my loner in the library tendencies, I did have a few friends. Although I felt like we were from different planets, I was grateful to them for putting up with me. Then things started changing. There was increasing pressure to be interested in boys. It was an all girls school and up until this point boys, apart from brothers, had no particular importance. Now Debbie, the leader of our group, had a crush on a boy and expected us to follow suit. If we didn’t have a real boy, a crush on a movie star was permissible. Everyone but me eventually came up with someone, and I knew that my excuses wouldn’t hold up much longer.
My kind of boys rode horses, wore waistcoats and could converse with animals and the only pictures I had of them were in the colour plates of hardcover books. How I wished I could bring one to life!
That weekend I again visited the library. It was such a holy place for me that I imagined that any problem I had could be solved within its doors. In the children’s section was an area with beanbags, for kids to sit reading. I’d never paid much attention to this area before but today I noticed the magazine rack. If I ever read a magazine it was selected from the newsagency when my parents bought the weekend papers. They were about horses or the were kinds of magazines where kids would send in their art and fiction to be published. I’d managed to live my life as free from engagement with popular culture as possible up to this point, but I knew that the time had come.
At the magazine rack I picked out a Smash Hits and flipped through it. A dastardly plan bloomed as I noted the posters of pop stars and movie stars inside. I looked over to the desk and saw that the librarians were busy stamping. I chose one of the full page posters and ripped it out slowly, so the noise wouldn’t be heard. I stuffed it in my pocket and went to borrow the Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, in which a pair of girls escape their evil governess with the help of a boy who lived in a cave in the nearby woods.
The poster was of Charlie Sheen. I thought he looked rather weasely, but he became my alibi. I could profess how cute I thought he was, and how my perfect man would be just like him. Little was I to know the monster he would become! Yet now when I read about his latest ravings I think about that poster. If my friends came to visit I’d stick up on my wall, right above the spot where the Cabbage Patch Kid sat, the evidence that I was a normal girl, just like everyone else.