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.