Monthly Archives: August 2011

What can you tell about someone from what they borrow?

Borrowing receipts make excellent bookmarks, but I am always careful to remove them before handing the book back to the library. Other people are less worried about revealing their taste in books to strangers. When Simon borrowed an Indiana Jones book from the City of Sydney library recently, he found this inside it (I have removed the borrower’s name by the manual photoshop method – folding the paper over before laying it on the scanner):

I can only imagine the borrower looking her best to confront a dangerous situation, which might result in a conversation with God, maybe about adventure stories?

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Greenwich Library (Treetops)

When I mapped out the libraries I’ve been to so far – for the mini zine I’m making for the zine pinata, for the Snapdragon zine fair – I decided it was time to visit a library in the north. Each of the compass points of Sydney has its own character. I know the north well, I grew up there and I work there, and have been up and down the North Shore train line thousands of times. At least six times I week currently, I pass through Wollstonecraft station. It’s a minor stop in between St Leonards and North Sydney. One of the curious things about the station is that the platform is curved, so as you approach it you can only see the end. The train line follows the shape of the land.

This part of Sydney is one where you notice topography, the steep and rocky land around the harbour. When Simon and I got off the train at Wollstonecraft, we followed the path down into Smoothey Park and towards the footbridge. Underneath the bridge was a creek, with tall tree ferns growing around it. I stopped to stare into the newly unfurling fronds of the ferns, marvelling that this gully was so close to the train line which I’d travelled along so many times.

This footbridge, for many, is a normal feature of their walk home from the station, but it seemed a bit magical to me, to be walking along a thin path through the treetops. Over the other side of the footbridge is the suburb of Greenwich. My only encounters with this suburb were visiting a friend who lived there back when I was still in high school, a girl who is the only person I have so far known to own a Great Dane. She loved this dog, but to outsiders the dog was a rather terrifying beast who would come up to the door barking and slavering, large as a pony.

It was late afternoon and the air tasted clear and sweet. The thick grey rainclouds on the horizon that had looked threatening stayed put, and the sunset was beginning. As we toiled up a steep street, we stopped at the strange sight of what looked to be a buried ship, turned to stone:

We were in the kind of place where fences have prows. At the top of the hill there was a vast, cottage garden with big vines of jasmine buds, and tiny yellow climbing roses trained over the fence, the kind of garden where every tree and bush has a particular character. I noticed a man among all the plants, crouched down, weeding. The garden rambled around the house, an old 20s bungalow, white with peeling paint. Turning the corner, we spied the sign for the library. A car was parked in front of it and a woman and her daughter, stood deliberating. Her daughter, in the kind of many layered uniform that suggested a school of prestige, was holding a dirty slice of apple. “Throw it in the gutter,” her mother was saying, “the rats will eat it”.

I’d decided to come here after talking about Biblioburbia to Tom, who suggested I visit Greenwich branch library as it is a curious shape: a hexagonal gazebo kind of structure, accessed by a bridge. This called up all sorts of strange imaginations, but in fact the reality was not too different from what I pictured.

In the late afternoon gloom, the interior of the library glowed golden. We walked across the bridge and stepped inside. There was harpsichord music playing softly, and the librarian was busy restocking the shelves. The library was small and very neat, and I felt as if I’d walked into large, warm cupboard. We greeted the librarian – as it was such a compact space it felt more like a shop, where one’s entrance and exit should be announced – and I went to look at the non fiction section. Parked in this area was a bar heater, leaking warmth, and I stood near it while I looked over the books. Each side of the hexagon housed a different section, a neat arrangement.

Greenwich library is small, so the Dewey numbers skip forward rapidly, in some cases advancing by the hundreds in one shelf. I have taken to looking at the books at the beginning of the section, as it is here where you find books about libraries. There were none, but there was The Rough Guide to Blogging. Something about the idea of using this guide amused me, so I picked it out to examine it. I turned to the page with tips for writing, wondering if I could learn anything.

My favourite piece of advice was: “Be brave, honest and sexy. Revealing embarrassing incidents and exposing insecurities, emotions and inappropriate reactions can endear you to your readership.” While there is something to this advice, I can’t help but imagine how it could fail when the reader of The Rough Guide to Blogging tried to follow this advice. While it’s true that this is a technique that people writing on the internet, or writing memoirs, use to connect with the reader, it does make me wonder at a world where honesty is not inherent. I have  been thinking about this in relation to zines and the way people write in them, compared to the way people write in personal stories intended for the mass media. In the latter there is often a voice of contrived honesty, that uses tricks such as the one above to make the reader feel close to the writer. While there is nothing wrong with this, I think it’s good to consider what honesty in writing means, how it might be possible, and to think critically about it.

The harpsichord music stopped and was replaced by something more operatic, and between them was the soothing voice of what could only be a 2MBSfm presenter. Sometimes Simon and I listen to 2MBS at home, and my favourite part of the shows are the announcements. The presenters’ voices are so calm, sometimes to the point of being soporific. On weekend mornings the station favours rousing symphonies, the kind that make us groan when we’re blearily staggering around the kitchen, cleaning up while the kettle boils.

As the music continued, I realised that this was the first library I had visited that has had music playing, and it is actually an unusual thing. This library did have an air of difference, with its unusual shape, in among the trees, and walking across to it was like passing into a different kind of world, a hexagonal island of bookish calm.

I sat at the study table, which had the day’s newspaper laid neatly out down one side, the sections separated out, and looked at the other books I’d picked from the shelves. Simon handed me Real Wild Child – An Insider’s Tales from the Rage Couch by Narelle Gee. For my non-Australian readers, Rage is a late night music video program that had different bands and artists guest programming it every week. Rage was an integral part of my life as a teenager. I stayed up late to watch it,  and when I couldn’t stay up any later I taped it and spent the weekend watching through the rest. Particular guest programmers stuck in my memory, such as Frank Black brushing his teeth with laundry detergent, TISM programming the ABC news and Four Corners themes, and the Reid brothers arguing whether Morrissey is “shite” or not. I would get sick of seeing particular videos that everyone seemed to program, particularly Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles”, for some reason. I figured this was the only Dead Kennedys video that Rage must have had, because they never played any other, and this wasn’t a constructed music video, it was from a live performance. I couldn’t really imagine the Dead Kennedy’s making a wacky video where the band members are set up in some kind of ironic sitauation (like Pavement in the video for “Cut Your Hair”, for example – I use this example as I have been hearing Pavement everywhere at the moment, like I’ve been placed back in 1996).
I could write thousands of words on Rage, but I will not do so here. 90s nostalgia is a vigorous thing at the moment. On the weekend Simon and I paused outside the Enmore Theatre to eat a gelato and listen to the Wonder Stuff, who were playing inside. I never expected to be listening to them in 2011, and even less to Jesus Jones, who were the headlining band. We didn’t stay to listen to them though, by that time we were already riding home singing “Right Here, Right Now” sardonically. Jesus Jones are a band I can’t imagine anyone loving.

Going through the book, I read through the list of guest programmers, which is also on the Rage site. I enjoyed picking out the ones that were most of-their-time: Gary Clail, Diesel, EMF (I had to google to remember their most famous song, “Unbelievable”, but then it came back into my head with great force). I am wary of engaging too much with 90s nostalgia, though I still like some of the music from that time. My engagement with music for the first half of the 90s was completely through listening to the radio and reading the NME and other music magazines, so even at the time I had felt removed from it. My teenage years were mostly spent thinking how things were happening elsewhere.

While I was reading the Rage book and musing about 90s-ness, the librarian continued to put things away. She was chipping away at a huge pile of DVDs, more than I could ever imagine having been borrowed. Apart from me and Simon, the library had only one other visitor, a woman returning books.

“What are you looking at?” I asked Simon, who was sitting beside me but facing in the opposite direction.

“Errr, Keith Richards,” he said, quickly closing the thick biography of Keith in which he was examining the photograph section and putting it back on the shelf. He then muttered something about the librarian’s fussing driving him crazy. Indeed the whole time we had been in the library, the clop-clop of books going back on the shelf kept up a regular rhythm. It was such a peaceful world in the library, I thought that if I worked there I’d want to sit with a cup of tea reading the whole time, although I suppose librarians aren’t allowed to do that. I expected any minute for the librarian to bring out a vacuum cleaner and get us to lift up our feet so she could vacuum underneath, so intent she was on making the DVDs neat.

Although it bothered Simon, I didn’t feel very worried about it, and as he went off to look at books in another section of the hexagon I opened The Moon: A Biography by David Whitehouse. In particular I read the part about the Great Moon Hoax, which came about through a series of articles published in the early 19th century in the New York Sun. The articles described the environment of the moon, the mountains, forests, crystal pyramids, lunar palm trees, horned bears, living pebbles and Vespertilio-homo, humans with retractable bat wings.While obviously entirely fictitious, I felt a wish to inhabit this peaceful moon-land, which was no doubt why the readership of the paper grew greatly after the publication of the series of articles. The book made the point that there is still much speculation about what’s on the moon, and there is a whole school of thought that believes the 1969 moon landing to be a hoax too. The next time I consider the moon, I will imagine it with crystals and man-bats rather than craters and dust.

It was now properly dark outside, and I decided it was time to head home. I put my books back on the shelf and went to examine the plaque near the desk, which told me that the library had been opened in 1964, by Marjorie Propsting, who gave her fabulous name to the library. A librarian, she was also the mayor of Lane Cove for many years. A portrait of Marjorie hung on the wall above the plaque, which gave the library even more of a home/parlour atmosphere, as if this was the portrait of the matriarch.

“Thank you!” Simon called out to the librarian, who was still tidying the DVDs, as we left. Outside it had turned cold and I jammed my hands in my pockets as we walked back across the footbridge, the space below us now a dark mystery, as we fixed our gaze on the bright train station just visible through the trees.

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Filed under Northern Sydney, Sydney Public Libraries

Burwood Library (Fingernails)

Although I have been to Burwood plenty of times, I didn’t know there was a library there. Partly this is because it is tucked away in a side street beside the train line, and partly because my journeys there are usually focussed on other things, like the Vinnies. Burwood Vinnies used to be one of my favourites but then was cleaned up and became much less interesting. Imagine my joy to discover that it had cluttered up again! This sometimes happens a few years after an op shop gets tidied.

In order to browse, you need a certain amount of clutter. This applies to op shops and libraries equally. “Clutter” doesn’t have to mean mess, although in an op shop I’m not averse to a bit of mess. Libraries are by nature ordered places, but the ones I like best have lots of books of different types and from different times, where if you look, you will find something unexpected.

In the Vinnies I found a different kind of book altogether:

From the ‘drunk against the lamppost’ era of bar kitsch (70s and before), I wonder if this ceramic book was ever actually filled with whiskey. It would fit about half a bottle but I struggled to imagine someone pouring a drink from it. This made me resolve to use it next time I have people over for dinner, to pull it out from the shelf after dessert and collect the laughs. I paid $1 for “Bright Spirit” and watched the old lady, who to my surprise had long fingernails painted black, wrap it carefully in pages of the Good Weekend with Rove’s face on them.

The street that leads to the library runs alongside the train line on the other side of the station to the op shop. I passed the Police Citizens Youth Club, a building which looked deserted.

The two big terracotta pots growing weeds on the awning, the holes in the plaster where a sign had once been, all suggested that the building was no longer in use. On closer inspection it was still functioning, with signs for various martial arts out the front.

I could see the library up ahead, on the corner of Marmaduke St. As someone who takes particular interest in street names, I approved of Marmaduke St. I’d also read, in one of those useless pieces of trivia that stick no matter how much you’d rather forget them and replace them with something more erudite, that Bear Grylls has a son named Marmaduke. Marmaduke Grylls. I imagine him growing up to be the opposite of his father, a terrible cad and lush.

Burwood library is a 1950s brick building with a garden out the front, and a noticeboard like primary schools and churches often have. Unfortunately on the day I was there it was blank. I would have liked it to have had messages about reading, like churches have about Jesus. Before I went into the library I sat in the garden on one of the benches, enjoying being in a different corner of a familiar suburb. As I sat there a black cat with white paws padded up to me, stopped, and regarded me with curiousity. “Hello,” I said, and half expected it to answer me. It stayed quiet, and sat beside me licking a paw. Was this the library cat? I hoped so.

At the entrance was the sad sight of the closed after hours returns chute:

Further signs greeted me at the entrance: bags can be brought into the library as long as they’re presented for inspection, there are limited powerpoints for laptops and only ones in the study area can be used, you can only use the blue payphone mounted on the wall for 3 minutes. Libraries are thoroughly mapped out with signs. Some are stern, some encouraging. These made me wonder about the vandalising and thieving citizens of Burwood, who want to make long telephone calls.

The first person I noticed in the library was a librarian wearing an amazing pair of spectacles, huge 80s frames with decorative wings on the sides. I didn’t think anyone still wore glasses like this unless going to a fancy dress party (or maybe is a hipster taking things too far). The librarian was talking to a man who she had just come back from searching the shelves with and said “the magic eyes don’t always see everything”. Assisted by such glasses, what eyes wouldn’t be magic?

Burwood library is the central and only library in this council area, although looking at the labels in old books I saw that it once had branches at Drummoyne and Five Dock. Various plaques were embedded in the walls, commemorating where the library had been added to over the years. I have noted the plaques at every library I have visited, and I like how here they showed how the library has changed over time.

The building was old, but not in an oppressive way. The books were over two levels, the upper level with books around the edge of the room, accessed by a wood panel lined balcony. This design gives the room height; I have realised that high ceilings are good for libraries, they combat the claustrophobia that can result from row upon row of bookshelves.

I sat at one of the desks near the librarians, observing the people reading newspapers. There was of course a newspaper man, reading through the Sydney Morning Herald, wearing slippers, as if he were in his own living room. A number of other people were reading the Chinese newspapers, including a man sitting at the other side of the table I was using. I watched him reading the lines of characters which to me are unintelligible, trying to imagine what it would be like to understand them.

Another popular area of the library was the kids section, which had little green bucket chairs to sit on. It wasn’t being used by kids, though, at every one of the low tables an adult was sitting, appearing slightly stunted from the lower than usual seat. At a few of the desks were teenagers studying, but older people were sitting at them too, among the kids books and chirpy posters encouraging reading.

Of all campaigns I have noticed to encourage children to use libraries, this is my favourite. Having a job where I teach groups of students who sometimes amaze me with their lack of curiousity, I often reflect upon how there is a strong link between curiousity and creativity. Get excited! Be Curious! The internet is curiousity’s best friend and worst enemy. You can look up anything you want, yet the very fact of its accessibility makes you less likely to engage with it, a kind of easy come, easy go sort of phenomena, where you only engage with things on a surface level.

Behind me was a folding partition with book reviews from newspapers pinned onto it. These articles had been cut out and glued to red cardboard. I like evidence of craft in the workplace. I remember once going into a branch of the Commonwealth Bank to find it had been decorated with glittery homemade cardboard signs advertising some kind of home loan deal. I liked imagining the staff in some office out the back, with scissors and cardboard, making signs for something so financially significant as home loans.

On the other side of the partition were shelves of non-fiction books, books in languages other than English, and magazines. I looked around these shelves for a while, searching for nothing in particular. Sitting beside one of the rows of books was a book called Growing up in the 50s. This library didn’t seem to have a librarian whose job it was to maintain shelf order (usually with a kind of obsessive dedication, based on my observations at other libraries – or maybe it’s the job you do when there’s nothing else to do?) so there were quite a few books sitting out abandoned like this. I hoped there was a whole series of “Growing up in the…” books, Growing up in the 90s, for example, but there didn’t seem to be.

I was happy to notice that Burwood library has quite a lot of old books, sometimes surprisingly old, like these collections of plays:

I went upstairs to look at the rest of the non-fiction books, which are arranged around the perimeter of the room. From up here I could look down on the library below me:

As I investigated a section of books about technology and the future, a girl squeezed past me with a whispered “sorry”. I thought about her whisper, and how, in recent articles about libraries, much has been made of their atmosphere, and whether the “shhh it’s the library” idea is something that attracts or repels people. For a while the Librarian Action Figure (based on a real librarian!) was much-mentioned in these articles, a kind of light relief to the more serious issues being discussed. Don’t people come to libraries because it’s quiet, though? This is a part of the argument that confuses me: surely libraries are primarily places to do quiet activities? I don’t come to libraries to talk. In fact I think it’s good to have places where people don’t blabber their life stories into their phones and have the kinds of conversations you want to send in to the paper because they’re so stupid.

To the side of the non-fiction section is a study area, full of students at desks, surrounded by books. Even though it was Tuesday morning there were a lot of students there, perhaps because the HSC trial exams are soon – I know this only because of the “collar bomb” story. The desks were arranged around the centre of the room, which was open to the level below it, the fiction section. On a thin panel above the desks was a strip of wall that had many pen scribbles on it, the kinds of things students write on desks, obscenities, pictures of genitals and “for a good time call…”. It has been a long time since I wrote anything on a desk. I remember going through a phase of drawing a round face with a big nose (self portrait?) on every desk I used in Year 7 to see how many I used in a term; I’m not sure if I saw the experiment through.

I headed back downstairs to the kids area with the little green chairs. They were indeed comfortable despite their size, and I set myself up at a table with the books I’d picked out from the shelves. Near me, a teenage boy and girl were studying, although they kept getting up and going outside, leaving all their books spread out on the desks and their bags underneath it. They must be very trusting or hoping someone would steal their homework.

As I sat reading through An Optimists Tour of the Future, trying to find out if indeed our brains will become one with the internet (my greatest fear for the future after reading science fiction books in which this happens), I noticed a woman enter the library. She was wearing a tartan jacket, tiny denim shorts over black tights, black pvc sneakers with 4 inch platforms, a diamante tiara and matching diamante choker, and what was obviously a wig of curly brown hair. The wig-hair looked stiff and plasticky, and I noticed that the choker did indeed seem to be cutting into her neck. She tottered around on her high shoes, looking for a place to set up. She was carrying two large bags, one black pvc like her shoes, the other tartan like her jacket. Although she was dressed so meticulously, the overall effect was very odd. I was pleased when she sat in the same area as me, and I kept casting looks back to see what she was doing.

The book about the future didn’t seem too optimistic to me, as I read about “Grey Goo” and how the world could be “overtaken, eaten up by trillions of tiny mechanical robots” that replicate at too fast a rate to be stopped. I glanced back to the strange woman as I heard a lot of jingling coming from behind me. She had a set of keys on a keyring with a toy in the shape of a piece of toast. I too have a toast keyring, although mine is of the replica food variety and hers was squishy like one that Simon has:

Simon's Toast, with face. Vanessa's toast, with butter.

When I next glanced back, as the jangling continued, I saw that she had a large number of these toast keyrings, as well as donut keyrings of the same type. She was working on the part of them that has the keychain attached to it with an unpicker, with complete concentration. Was she modifying them for personal use? Was she adapting them? Simon suggested later that she was making them into a necklace, but there was no clear result from her task. She spent a fair while on the donuts and the toasts, before finally settling down to read a book from the Chinese language section.

I had to admit I was finding this person more interesting than the book so put it down. I’d had so much hope that it was going to turn me into an optimist. It’s impossible, I’ll never be an optimist. I also had a book about archetypes, Who Am I? An Archetypal Quest, in which you cast an “archetype map” from the archetypes given in the book. You are made up of a combination of these archetypes, all of which have positive and negative characteristics, or light and shadow, as the book names them. I had hoped the process of casting my map would be simple, but I would have had to read the entire book in order to choose what archetypes most spoke to me and I didn’t have time to delve into the complexities of my identity. I did, however, notice a coincidence:

I was sitting right next to the Enid Blyton section in the children’s books. I was never much of a Blyton reader, though I had read the Magic Faraway Tree at some point. To the left of the Blytons were some Judy Blume novels, of which I had read many, and still remember details of to this day. This isn’t to say that I loved Judy Blume books, they made me feel kind of uncomfortable. I couldn’t relate to the families in the books, something about them seemed too American to me, or at least that was what I attributed the strangeness to at the time. A lot were about physical changes to the body, which was something I had an aversion to knowing too much about. My favourite Judy Blume book was “Deenie”, about the teenage girl who had to be put in a full-body brace in order to straighten her spine. The horror of it thrilled me, what if I needed something like that! The book goes through the process of Deenie, who had once been a popular, everyday girl, being cast for the brace, and having to catch the special bus to school with the other children who had disabilities as well as suffering all the other painful social consequences of being different to the other kids.

When I was a bit older, I borrowed a book from the Turramurra library called Letters to Judy, a collection of some of the letters she had received from readers over the years. These were more interesting to me than her books, I liked the idea of this secret world of correspondence and the idea that a writer could become your friend and advisor.

Although I have mixed reactions to Judy’s books, I do have a poster of her, which I think of as my motivational poster. I look upon her smiling, 80s visage and think about the power of being able to write and make people feel less alone. I found the poster in a Canberra op shop when I was in town to run a zine workshop and felt like it was a kind of sign from the universe telling me I was doing the right thing. For me, Judy Blume seems permanently fixed in the 80s, but she is still working. Check out Judy Blume’s website! It’s worth it for the animation, possibly one of the strangest features of an author’s website I’ve ever seen.

Deenie wasn’t on the shelf here, which was perhaps a good thing as I would have become engrossed in reading it again. I got up to have a look at the children’s books section and found a whole area devoted to books about myths and fairytales:

I like how this series of books comprehensively covers the many different types of mythological creatures, wizards, ogres, changelings, witches. Nearby was a book called the Olive Fairy Book, which I picked out as it reminded me of the kinds of books I used to borrow from Dural library as a child. Opening it, I was perplexed by this message in the back:

I did, indeed, slide my fingernails across the plastic, somewhat nervous as to what might happen (a potplant over the other side of the room might explode, or something). But all that happened was a kind of grating noise.

Also nearby was the Complete Idiot’s Guide to the World of Harry Potter. “Covers all seven books”. Don’t have time to read the books but want to know what people are talking about when they are going on about muggles? This is the book for you. My rather ambivalent opinions about the world of Harry Potter I will save for another time.

Some new people had appeared at the desks, a girl in drab study clothes, her hair piled up messily on her head, glasses on. I noticed the waistband of her beige track suit pants had slipped down to reveal the bright red g-string she was wearing underneath. This was her secret identity. She sat at the desk leaning on her maths books, sending a text message. Other girls were sitting on chairs nearby, reading copies of Dolly and Vogue.

In the fiction section, a room to the side of the kid’s area, I browsed around and pick out a novel about a woman who works in a library, The Stopping Place by Helen Slavin. The excessive number of quotes from reviews printed at the start of the book led me to believe it would be compelling, impressively offbeat, racy, captivating, highly evolved, quietly moving, and hilarious. I can’t remember ever having read a novel that was about a librarian, although I feel like I must have some time in my life. Are there great librarians of literature? Who are they?

I was intending to sit down and flip through this book, but when I was having a final browse in the art and craft section I decided that I would borrow it, as I was going to join the library in order to borrow:

I will be going into detail about this book in a separate post, as it is exactly the kind of book that I imagine is – but shouldn’t be – weeded from library collections. Published in 1975, it features the wildest masks you could ever or never imagine making at home.

Its survival here was perhaps due to the fact it had been borrowed many times, if the due date slip was anything to go by:

I went up to the desk and asked to become a member of the library. I felt nervous doing this for some reason, perhaps because I don’t live in Burwood. You don’t have to live in Burwood to be a member, but I felt a bit like an imposter. I filled in the form for a card and the librarian entered my details into the computer. I watched her long fingernails tap the letters of my name and address across the keys. My reward was a green and orange library card (the same colour scheme as my Leichhardt library card, coincidentally).

I went round to the other side of the desk to check out my books from another one of the librarians. She scanned my card, then the library novel, then opened the back of the masks book to find the barcode. She looked at the due date slip I had just been admiring then ripped it right off the page, crumpled it in her hand and threw it in the bin! I gaped at her, shocked, and she pushed the books, with the receipt tucked into one of them, across the counter towards me.

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Filed under Inner Western Sydney, Sydney Public Libraries

Merrylands and Greystanes (Street Directory)

The library in Merrylands is located on Miller St beyond the tempting Merrylanda Cakes, with line of frog cakes and meringue mice under the counter, and the tiny community op shop where the old ladies were discussing their hatred of capsicum “and when you order a pizza they put it all over it, even if you ask them not to”.

It’s the central library for the Holroyd district, known officially as the “Merrylands Central Library”. When I reached the corner of Miller and Newman streets I ascended the stairs and entered the library, which is a modern building with a lofty ceiling and big windows spilling sunlight onto the purple lounges where people were sitting reading newspapers. Although it’s not a new library, (the plaque at the entrance – all libraries have these plaques – said it was opened in 1999, back when I was searching fruitlessly for the Vinnies), it is the newest I have been to so far for Biblioburbia. Although I have a nostalgic attachment to 60s-era libraries, it was a relief to be in a big, light space.

As I walked in two little girls came spilling out of the kids’ area. “Library!” one yelled. “Library!” yelled the other in return, as if calling to a missing friend. They continued running in and out of the Vietnamese books section, yelling. It was kind of funny, although would have been annoying if I was trying to concentrate on something.

During the week I read another Sydney Morning Herald article about the future of libraries, this one about the State library and plans for its refurbishment. I’ve never found the State Library an easy place to work, so I’m curious about the plans. I like the idea that the deeper into the library you go, the quieter it gets, but I did laugh at this:

“…the renovation’s biggest aim is to fundamentally change the library’s public image, to show that a place of learning can also be a fun palace.”

I hope it is not a typo.

For the little girls, the library certainly was a fun palace. I watched them run amok before being stopped by a librarian on the stairs that lead up to the non fiction section. They paused and stared up at the figure of authority, and turned back from pink frilly monkeys into little girls.

I have started to notice that there are many details that all libraries have in common. They are the types of things you don’t notice straight away and are beyond the obvious: red plastic baskets “for your convenience” and indoor plants, for example. The more attention you give to something, the more you notice. Then there are the people who are always in libraries, such as the men reading newspapers. All libraries seem to have at least one of these men, deeply settled into their papers and reading every word.

Merrylands library had a number of newspaper readers. Two old men were sitting on seats against the back wall, reading Chinese newspapers and occasionally commenting to each other on the stories. A couple were sitting side by side at a table, both reading newspapers. And a man was slowly going through the Sydney Morning Herald as he sat on the lounges, his daughter beside him. At first I thought she was asleep, but then I saw she was playing on a Nintendo, which she was holding inside an open book. Upstairs, in the study area, a man was reading an Arabic newspaper, his feet up on a chair. Happy Ramadan! I read on the front of the paper, a broadsheet that hid his face so all I could see of him was the paper, his hands gripping it, and his legs.

With all this newspaper reading going on I thought about the library as a vast loungeroom. Seeing each person in their own space, reading in the sun. The couple reading the newspaper together, the old lady reading a large print novel, the father and daughter. All that was needed was cups of tea and coffee, the steam curling up in the sunlight.

I fought the temptation to make my own loungeroom away from home downstairs and looked over the non-fiction collection. One of the questions that Simon asks me when I get home from exploring a library is “do they have old books?” His hope is to detect libraries that don’t have aggressive weeding policies and so there is more hope of finding unusual old books in them. I was happy to report to him that yes, Merrylands library does have old books. I was looking in the Japanese History section, for information about the Floating World for the zine I am writing. I picked out “The Concise History of Japan” by Noel E Busch, published in 1972.

This book had served many school assignments well, judging by its condition. A few pictures had been cut out of it, rather specifically in some cases:

Artwork had been added – perhaps a comment on the pleasure of the tea ceremony pictured here:

From the captions under the cut-out pictures, I ascertained the vandal had been doing a project about Kabuki, or as they refer to it:

The word is right there in front of them and they still spell it wrong! Although I’d been attracted to the appearance of the book and its cool collage graphics, I found it was engagingly written. Some of these kind of history books, made as general introductions for school students or amateur historians, can be very dry, but Noel Busch had a sense of humour, writing about “small, dumpy, owl-eyed Hirohito” and using attention grabbing introductions: “The reason that Japanese babies do not cry is by no means an occult one.” The fact about Japanese babies not crying is mentioned throughout, which makes me wonder if Mr Busch was a new father when he wrote it, and obsessed with the idea of a country of quiet babies.

Opening The Concise History of Japan I noticed 4 sheets of Due Date slips, stuck one on top of one another and full of stamps until the early 2000s, when barcodes must have taken over. The older books have these Due Date histories, which I like to browse for significant dates such as birthdays, or try and imagine dates like 11th May 1987. I was alive on that day, but what on earth was I doing? It was a Monday, I was probably at school:

Here is a link to calendars from 1887 – 2087 to further your musings about particular days in history.

The non-fiction section of the library was upstairs, a row of study desks beside it. I walked slowly past, spying on what people were doing. As well as the guy reading the newspaper there were numerous people set up with books around them, writing in notebooks. One boy, with the distracted look of the student who wishes he was anywhere else, slowly filled in a form, a squat bottle of white out beside him. This object caught my attention, it seemed touchingly outdated. It wasn’t even a white out pen, which I remember being a luxury item when I was in primary school in the 80s.

Beyond the study area were the computers, all of which had signs taped over their screens, announcing the impending upgrade. The photocopiers, too, were out of order. This meant this section of the library was rather ghostly, and as I stood there a librarian was suddenly at my side, asking if she could help me. “Just looking,” I said.

“Well go ahead,” she said in a not totally friendly manner, gesturing towards the local history section.

Within this section I found a large collection of Sydney street directories. I had already been thinking about street directories, as I had brought one with me to help me find the library. I felt old fashioned getting it out and consulting it, embarrassed not to be peering into an iPhone. Or maybe not embarrassed, exactly, more conscious of the fact that I was using an outmoded object.

I like street directories, being able to hold the whole city in my hand. My street directory is a compact version from 2009, with once corner chewed by my rabbit and stickers over the faces of two people on the front, whose tanned faces of glowing backpacker health I found offensive. Sometimes I browse through this street directory, opening pages at random and seeing where I end up. This is a game I have played since I was a child. Between this and my Due Date game, I am revealing to all who read this the kind of private, tiny amusements I take for granted other people share. Writing them down, however, I’m certain they do not.

One particular old street directory caught my attention.

You could follow the book’s life, from it’s original owner in Hurstville, then to Ashwoods on Pitt St (Ashwoods, a place I have fond dusty record search memories of, relocated a number of times before closing down for good in the last year – it opened in 1932! I was sad when it disappeared), then Berkelouw books, before being acquired by the library in 2003. I couldn’t see a date on it, and know that it is probably not quite as old as I imagine it to be. My guess is that it is from the 1950s, judging by the density of the streets in what is now the middle ring of suburbia. Facing many of the pages of  maps are ads:

These, more than the maps themselves, give us clues to the time in which it was printed. A time of foot parlours and permanent waves, and insistent, but polite, copy. In the absence of images, the text has the full responsibility of the message.

A handwritten note marked one of the pages:

K.G.R is King Georges Road, I can work out that part of the mystery at least. I thought of L. Tumpane driving to Beresford Ave, the same fingers that produced the cursive script on the note resting on the steering wheel.

For the roots of my street directory obsession, you would have to look way back into my childhood…but we won’t, this time. Instead, if you are interested, I wrote about street directories in my first zine, Psychobabble.

I took some more books downstairs to one of the tables for further investigation. The man reading the SMH was now onto the business section, another thorough paper reader, like the man from Sans Souci library. At times in my life I have tried to read every word in the newspaper, even just in the news section, but I never get very far. I read first paragraphs, get distracted, then go to just the headlines…although it’s not my fault, blame the inverted pyramid style of news writing, news is meant to be read that way.

I’d picked out a few other Sydney books to look at, “Sydney” by Jan Morris, from 1992, which describes the city as “the most hyperbolic, the youngest in heart, the shiniest” of all cities of the British empire. (Jan Morris is British.) Although prone to flights of rhapsodizing, it looked to be fairly interesting, if a bit dated.

My concentration was broken by the sound of a librarian telling off another child for playing on the steps. I got the feeling this was a regular occurrence. Steps, like roads, are irresistible to children. Once the children were back on the floor again the library settled back into its usual ambience. Newspaper pages turning with a crackle, kids voices from the children’s section, the occasional cough, the bleeps of barcodes from the desk.

The other book I had about Sydney was “Untourist Sydney” by Jacqueline Huie. There was no entry for Merrylands, but, in the inner west section, there was a picture of Maurice.

Maurice’s shop has closed and been replaced by a coffee school and cafe. I would go to Maurices to buy Lebanese bread, coffee, nuts and tahini, things like that. A number of times he asked me where I was from, and upon tracing my family back to a great grandmother born in Iraq, he would envelop my hand in his and say “we are neighbours”. A stretch, perhaps, but it was nice to feel some kind of ethnic bond. Then came a time when I didn’t go to Maurice’s so much, and then I went past and it was gone. I still feel guilty for the times I bought supermarket coffee instead, and I still miss Maurice when I go past the poxy coffee school, guilty for the gentrification I am implicit in.

I got up to return some of my books to the reshelving trolleys. I felt self conscious doing this, although I’m sure this is what they are there for. It feels wrong to put a pile of random books beside a neat series of books with all their call numbers in order. I put them down and scuttled away to look over the fiction collection on the ground floor. I wandered into the young adult section, startling a girl looking at the graphic novels. She looked up, guilty, caught looking at books off topic – the book on the top of the pile she was holding was called Bible Lands. I moved away; she needed the graphic novels more than me and I didn’t want to put her off.

My place at the table had already been claimed by a boy who had quickly scattered his study materials all around him. I went to one of the couches and looked through a 1962 copy of The Schauer Australian Cookery Book.

As the testimonials attest to, this is a kind of bible for housewives. There’s one section in such books of interest to me, the cakes. The savoury dishes are too meaty for me, sometimes stomach churningly so (calf’s head soup?). The cakes, however, show a breadth and appreciation of the form not seen in today’ss. Out of the fifty or so pages of cake recipes, three caught my attention. Watermelon cake (not flavoured with watermelon, but made to look like watermelon! I am actually going to make this), Mushroom cake (similar concept) and Rainbow Sandwich cake, which has a well in the top filled with hundreds and thousands. Other recipes had good names: Rainbow jam tart! Fairy baskets! Sweet little boats!

All the cake recipes were making me feel overcome. I shut the book and looked up, noticing two librarians conferring on the top level, looking down in what could be my direction. Immediately I put my head down again. In the absence of the photocopier, I had taken a photo of some of the recipes of interest – after transcribing the Watermelon Cake recipe took what felt like forever. Was this illegal? One of the librarians came downstairs and walked over to the lounge area. I was ready to apologise for everything I had done wrong when he walked straight past me to the woman in the corner, using her laptop in a rather unusual way. Instead of having it flat on the table in front of her, she had it angled up at 45 degrees, so the screen was facing down. I guessed this was to deflect the sun from the screen, although I wondered why she just didn’t move tables. The librarian asked her to move her lounge chair, as she was blocking the emergency exit. “Patrons keep pushing the chair back,” he said, and I supposed this was rather like the kids playing on the stairs. Any job has its repeated situations and phrases. Perhaps the emergency exit scenario is like my scenario with asking students if they know the correct way to use a semi-colon.

I closed the cake book, thinking of Merrylanda Cakes only a few hundred metres down the street. Distracted now, it was time to leave the library. I put my remaining books back and passed the desk where a librarian was explaining yet again how to log in to the online system to an elderly patron. I endured the slight nervousness that always comes upon me when walking through the electronic gates and walked out of the building and back onto the street.

When I was looking in my street directory the night before at the suburbs surrounding Merrylands, one in particular stood out to me. Greystanes. Possessing Sydney’s most unappealing suburb name, other than perhaps The Spit, my desire to go there was for the very opposite reason to me going to Merrylands or Sans Souci. Grey Stains! (To be adult about this, “Stanes” is derived from the Scottish for “stones”.)

After a lingering perusal of the Merrylanda Cakes’ window, I went to catch the bus to Greystanes. In this part of Sydney there are only private buses, which form a confusing and patchy network for the uninitiated. I was lucky to arrive at the stop only a few minutes before the 806 bus arrived. It was to take me, and a dozen or so old ladies, along Merrylands Road. The bus passed the shops and then rows of houses, either mid 20th century fibro or brick bungalows or their replacements, half size McMansions (Junior Burgers?). Behind me, a conversation started up between a couple who were discussing a friend or a family member who routinely “gets sectioned and pumped full of meds for 48 hours, then goes back home, it’s like a holiday for her”. The consensus about this individual was not sympathetic.

Typical Greystanes house, with, indeed, some grey stanes out the front

The bus passed a park with emus and kangaroos, the kangaroos streetched out lazily in the sun. Across the street from here was a house with a faded ‘canaries for sale’ sign on the front lawn. I thought of all the dogs and cats and birds and guinea pigs that must be hidden in backyards and inside the houses we were passing. The houses gave nothing away, doors shut, curtains drawn, and there were remarkably few people around.

Greystanes is the type of suburb that is dominated by cars. I got off the bus and walked along the road with the exposed feeling of being the only pedestrian. Cars sped by, my footsteps felt tiny. I passed a childcare centre painted bright yellow and then came upon the Greystanes Community Centre, a supremely uninviting building that includes the library on its basement level.

Inside there was only one person there, a man sitting at the only desk, flipping through a folder of maps of the local area. I browsed the history books at the same time as looking around. Near me, a librarian was in the craft section, pulling out books about crochet. The whole time I was in the library she was busy, fanatically re-ordering the shelves.

As the desk was taken up by the man with the maps, I sat down in the fiction section at a low table with newspapers on it, and started reading the Parramatta Advertiser. I like local papers and the micro-level of their stories, and always read the ones that appear like magic on my lawn every Wednesday night (in two years I’ve never managed to see the moment of delivery). My favourite story from the Advertiser was “Driven Insane by Bad Sanitation”, in which truck drivers are accused of filthy behaviour in the Smithfield industrial estate. “They leave rubbish, dirty underpants – they wipe themselves with an old t-shirt, fast food packets, you name it,” one man is (memorably) quoted.

As I read the local paper, the profile of a record store in Parramatta, a description of the hordes of people at the opening of Auburn Costco, an elderly woman came up to the desk to return some books. This spun out into a conversation with the librarian, which covered quite a lot of detail about this woman’s life. I found out:

1. She is 87.

2. She has always been an active person. Walking keeps her young.

3. She has to tell her husband to get up and move as he just sits there.

4. This husband was 89 yesterday.

5. She used to be bowling club president.

6. She had a heart operation and a.) the doctor is surprised by her recovery b.) some details about being “cut open” I tried not to listen to c.) she was treated very well at Westmead Private Hospital

7. “I’ve never seen anything look so changed.” This was in reference to the library’s recent renovations.

I was surprised the library had recently been renovated. It was a very claustrophobic space, with a thick air conditioning duct running right through the middle of the room. I knew that somewhere outside there was a sunny day, but inside the library it was gloomy in the way of all basements. I started to wonder what it must have looked like before.

“We’re still settling in,” said the librarian, which could have been a way to express that she didn’t exactly love the renovations herself.

8. “Don’t tell me your gentleman boss has the day off.” As if on cue, the gentleman boss entered with his lunch in a bag and took over conversation duties with the woman, who he seemed to know well.

I gave up listening to their conversation and made a quick survey of the fiction section near where I was sitting. Particular large print books attracted me, such as Snake Vengeance, a western, and Empty Saddle by an author with the unbelievable name of Cherry Wilson. Pulp novels often have much better names than literary novels, the worst example of which I saw was The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners. Any book title that is “for beginners” that is not an instruction manual makes me grind my teeth.  Non-fiction titles for fiction drive me crazy, like the author assumes they have something important to tell you about being alive. They might, but like being told “you two are going to be great friends,” it is more likely to be the opposite.

Just before I leave a girl comes in with a laptop and big thick folders and sits down at the other end of the desk to the man. She gets out some practice exams and settles in to do them. Seeing this I felt a great surge of thankfulness that I am not a high school student. Occasionally I have dreams in which I’m back in high school, often having to do an exam on something I know nothing about. I wake up feeling relieved that it’s not real. The girl looked happy enough, with her folders and pencilcase and computer. She started her exam and I left the library, happy to have the sky for a ceiling again as I walked back to wait with the old ladies at the bus stop.

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Merrylands (Unfinished Business)

In a dream earlier in the week I was having a strange time in a hitherto undiscovered area of Sydney where all the suburb names began with M. Taking this as inspiration for my next library, I looked through my list of Sydney libraries and decided on Merrylands. It seemed to carry on from Sans Souci – places with hopeful names.

Also I had some unfinished business in Merrylands, outstanding from my Vinnies project. The Merrylands store was the only Vinnies I could not find back in 1999, and so before I went to the library I felt the urge to look for this store again. The only time I’d been to Merrylands was this unlucky trip to try and find the Vinnies. I remember walking up and down the main road looking forlornly at the place where the Vinnies was meant to be.

On the train to Merrylands I watched the shops and houses slip by outside. Not having a car or even a driver’s licence, my travels around Sydney involve a lot of looking out windows and a lot of waiting. I sit and let my thoughts float. The view was familiar to me until the train left Granville and turned onto the south line to Glenfield. Just before Clyde station the tracks go over a river. On the tall trees lining the river hung thousands of flying foxes, like big, black seedpods. It was beautiful and grotesque to see them hanging there asleep in the sunny morning.

At Merrylands I followed the crowd out of the station and stood at the street corner, near a group of loud, loitering teenagers. I got my street directory out of my bag and looked up Pitt st, the street on which Vinnies is located. I felt like a great anachronism, with my map book and 70s cardigan. This time I’d avoided wearing anything too outlandish, like the all green outfit that caused such a stir in the south west. Nevertheless I still looked as if I was from somewhere else in time, like it was the 1940s and I was going out to dig up potatoes at my allottment.

The Vinnies was at a different address to the one listed in 1999, and I spotted it as soon as I came to the next crossing, near the Centrelink. It was with great satisfaction I entered the store and started looking around. There was little of interest until I came to the videos. The VHS sections of op shops are currently rich with interesting films, as people jettison their VHS collections. To go with the cardigans and the street directory, I also still have a VCR, so VHS tapes are not dead media to me! I looked along the spines of the videos before stopping at a copy of SICK: The life and death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. “Oh yes!” I hissed, in an uncharacteristicly vocal outburst. I’d been looking for this film for years.

It is one of my favourite documentaries. Bob Flanagan was an artist and writer whose work was autobiographical, drawing on his illness, Cystic Fibrosis, and his sexuality, practising S&M, and the relationship between the two. The film was released in 1997, the year after Bob Flanagan’s death, and I saw it about five years later. It stuck in my head and I have continued to think of moments of it often. Bob Flanagan agreed to make the film – which is remarkably honest and personal for a biography, the filmmaker has no veneer of distance or authority – on the condition that it documented his death. It’s these scenes, rather than the ones of him nailing his penis to a board, which stayed with me. I found it impossible not to like Flanagan, with his catalogue of perversions and chirpy songs about masochism. Although throughout the film we know he is going to die, it seems impossible until it happens. This mirrors Flanagan’s relationship with death, as he spent his whole life struggling with Cystic Fibrosis, a disease with which an early death is inevitable.

My only problem was this: would I have the nerve to buy it from the op shop lady? I looked over to the counter. A little old lady with tight white curly hair and a serious expression tidied the jewellery section under the counter. There was nothing for it but to be brave. I put the hot pink, THE FILM THEY TRIED TO BAN cover down on the counter. “Just this please.” She quickly stuffed it into a plastic bag and asked for $2, in such a way that I knew she disapproved. It was like buying a S&M movie from my grandmother. I gave her the coins and made a quick retreat with my prize.

With the revival of any period in time, it is interesting to me what gets noticed and what gets left out. While some aspects of underground culture from the 90s are now well known, there is plenty that has not, and may never be rediscovered, despite the vast catalogue that is the internet. This is perhaps in some cases a good thing! But it is interesting to think of what information persists in culture, and what slips away. This is where libraries and op shops come in: they are full of cultural debris that you can’t assume is duplicated on the internet. I’m talking in general here: there is plenty of information about Bob Flanagan and the documentary online that I could have sought out if I wanted to. But I didn’t realise I wanted to see the film again until it was physically in front of me. A relic from a Bondi video store, washed up in a Merrylands op shop, and now my lucky charm for the rest of the day. I set out for the library with great optimism.

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