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.



Filed under Inner Western Sydney, Sydney Public Libraries

2 responses to “Burwood Library (Fingernails)

  1. The best thing about Judy Blume’s website is the opening “welcome to my website” title that appears twice, and the “judy blume on the web” header on the browser window. I am touched by people who put their websites together when it was a novelty and a bit risky or different or odd to do so. “Better get onto this web net thing, then.” You never see authors write “welcome to my book” or journalists write “welcome to my newspaper article!” do you? But you DO see people write “welcome to my zine” in their zines… hm. That’s not to be too disparaging – it looks like a great, friendly, informative and helpful site.

    Apropos of nothing, Sandra Boynton’s website is also great: http://www.sandraboynton.com/sboynton/Introduction.html

  2. Megan

    A most interesting read. I was a former librarian at Burwood Library and I came across this article when I went in search of a photo of the library. I worked there for over 20 years. Although I had already left the library by the time you published your article, your writings brought back fond memories. Although the building was old and there was never enough space for the collections, the librarians would take great pleasure in making sure it served the community. The Fiction, Reference and Local History area of the library were later additions to the building, completed when I first started working there in 1986. I loved the wooden stairs and bannisters that surrounded the upper level and like you, whenever I was up there, I would look down and admire the library. Yes there were very strange members of the public who would use the library, but they were always welcome. Thank you for capturing a moment in time.

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