Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Melbourne Athenaeum Library

I was in Melbourne over the weekend, for the launch of the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. Whenever I am in town I make sure I visit my favourite Melbourne bookstore, Fully Booked, on High St in Thornbury. This is my favourite store as I find books there that I never would find anywhere else, the books are cheap, and I always have a good conversation with the lovely people who run the shop. It was they who told me about the Athenaeum library on Collins St, Melbourne’s oldest library.

The Melbourne Athenaeum library started in 1839 as the Mechanics Institute – there is also a mechanics institute in Sydney, the library of which I am soon to visit. I’ve tried to visit Sydney’s Mechanics School of Arts library on Pitt St a number of times, but haven’t had much luck; it has been closed every time. This is more my fault than the library’s – 9pm on a Monday night, what, not open?

In the 19th century,  the term “mechanic” was a much more general term than it is today. It was used to describe tradespeople, manual workers and artisans. Mechanics Institutes were established in the early 19th century in Britain, with the aim of providing places for working class citizens to study and gain an education.

I like entering into the world of 19th century terminology. “Athenaeum” is a word which is derived from the Greek goddess Athena. It reminds me most of Janet Frame’s “To the Is-Land”, the first volume of her autobiography, where she wins a subscription to the Oamaru Athenaeum and borrows books for her whole family to read. I have been to Oamaru (I wrote about it in my zine Kingdom by the Sea), and while there passed by today’s version of the Athenaeum, which was a public library of 70s design.

The library is through the windows under the John Denver banner

Entering the Melbourne Athenaeum building is to step back into the past, to skip over the 20th century entirely and retreat into the 19th. (Steampunks take note.) At street level is the Athenaeum theatre, and I passed the photographs of past productions hung on the walls and ascended the burgundy carpeted stairs, following the signs for the library.  It is a nice feeling to ascend stairs, wondering what is to be at the top of them.

I pushed through the doors of the library and stood for a moment, looking. There were long, high windows which let in the sun from the perfect spring afternoon outside. I read the script on the window, which faced out to the street. YRARBIL CIROTSIH RUO YB DETBAHCNA EB. “Enchanted” was the right word, as it was a magical space of wooden cabinets, lounge chairs and bookshelves.

A woman stood up from the desk at which she had been sitting typing and came over to ask me my business. I explained how I was writing a blog about libraries and this library had been recommended to me. This was the first time I’d spoken to someone in a library about what am doing, usually I prefer the stealth approach. This was a different kind of library, however, not the public kind where you can do pretty much anything as long as it’s not bothering anyone else, more of a secret club.

“Are you a librarian?” she asked.

“No, a writer.” I explained about the blog, feeling the ugliness of the word in such elegant surroundings.

She went over to the desk and looked in the drawers, giving me pamphlets and then a book about the Athenaeum, which collected stories from its history: “It would not be fair to try to tell the story or history of the Ath without including at least some of the stories of the colourful and distinguished people whose lives are bound up with it”, read a quote at the start of the book. I thought about those people who call it the “Ath”, and who they might be. You can join the library for an annual fee, “the price of a couple of hardbacks”.

I thanked the woman for the her help and went to examine the book collection. She went back to her computer and soon the sound of her typing resumed. This was combined with the ticking of the urn in the tea and coffee nook, the opera CD playing quietly, and the faint sounds of a protest in support of Palestine going by in the street below.

One of the good things about a private library is that the collection is more likely to retain its old books. There were a lot of interesting history and travel books in the section I was looking in, and Dandies by James Laver caught my eye in particular:

On the flap the description of the book began: “What was it that distinguished the dandy from other peacocks?” I also liked the endpapers with pictures of different dandies on them. The due date slip showed the first borrowing as 24 May 1969, and the most recent as 10 October 2006. I was surprised that it hadn’t been borrowed more recently, aren’t there lots of dandies in Melbourne? Maybe the new breed of dandy doesn’t visit places like the Athenaeum. The word Dandy is derived from a nickname for Andrew, though whether Andrews are more likely to be dandies, I don’t know. I enjoyed thinking of the dandified – or soon to become dandified – men reading this book through the last forty years.

As I sat looking through the illustrations of dandies the library doors opened and a woman entered. The librarian again paused in her typing and came out to answer the visitor’s questions. The woman had heard about the Athenaeum and finally was coming to have a look. I listened to the librarian’s explanation of it, how it acts “like a club”, and members can use it as a place to rest while they are out in the city. Sometimes members leave their bags there while they are off on errands or having meetings. This genteel idea pleased me very much; it would be a lovely place to retreat to if you needed a rest from the city.

As the librarian went back to her desk she looked in my direction and gave a tiny smile of satisfaction at seeing me reading. I imagined myself as I would have been fifty or seventy years ago, like a woman from one of the photographs in the book, wearing a woollen suit and a pillbox hat. Would I have felt much different? The world of 2011 outside was impossible to erase from my consciousness. I could feel it there, buzzing, all the things that were yet to take place that afternoon, phone calls, the airport, the architecture of getting back to Sydney.

I returned Dandies to the shelf and looked around further, at the new books and the graphic novels section. I’d browsed through London Walks by Badaude in a bookshop a few weeks earlier, and was pleased to see it here on display. It has an appealing dense style of illustration, with as much information crammed into the pages as possible without being claustrophobic. The first page posed the question “Why Walk Cities?” and then some suggestions for “urban fun”. “Picnic in a park…or on a traffic island.” In my memory is a murky story about a traffic island picnic, tea in a whiskey bottle, but who told me this, or whether it might have even been something I did, I am not sure.

The book comes with a reminder that London “reinvents itself”, and that the places and observations in her drawings are subject to change. I thought about this in the context of Melbourne, a city I know well without having ever lived there. I have been there 25 – 30 times, each visit different, so the city for me is a mesh of interconnecting maps and memories of each particular visit. Walking along one of the long, straight northern suburbs roads the day before, I experienced a weird sensation of melting time as I passed the cottages with their flowery gardens.

It was simultaneously all the different times I’d been in Melbourne in one. All of my loves and friendships from each of the different times were active, and I was every version of myself that had ever visited Melbourne. Everything all at once. It was a confusing and nauseous feeling, which thankfully flooded away when I reached the train station and faced the ticket machine.

This visit to Melbourne the Athenaeum became another layer in my personal map of the city. I put London Walks back and went to look around the room at the different displays of historical equipment listed in one of the pamphlets: the “popular AWA Rotary bakelite telephone”, the book press, the bronze subscription sign, the photographs of the 1991 unearthing of time capsules from 1872 and 1924.

Another notable feature of the library is the lift, which is the old kind that has a door like the door of a room. with an ornate doorframe. I went to thank the librarian again for the information she had given me, and asked if I could go back down in the lift. “Yes,” she said. “it’s the second oldest lift in Melbourne. It’s fine, it just jars a little bit.”

I pressed the button and waited for the lift to arrive. I pulled open the outer then the inner door and stepped into its wood-panelled interior, which conveyed me down to street level. The librarian was right. It was jarring. I was suddenly on Collins street among a stream of grannies leaving a matinee performance of Love Never Dies. Kids were having tantrums about not being able to touch the fountain that’s the sheet of water coursing down a textured wall. A girl stopped dead in front of me to take out her iPhone and photograph a slice of the busy, afternoon city that we were both a part of.



Filed under Independent Libraries, Not Sydney

Sydney University Book Fair

This morning I visited the book fair, or “Bookfest 2011“, as it is referred to on the university website. It was a sunny spring morning, and peaceful apart from our mounting nerves as Simon and I rode our bikes closer to the Great Hall. We passed people walking fast, wheeling their empty trolleys towards the book sale. I locked up our bikes as Simon ran into the hall. When I entered a few moments later, he had already been swallowed up by the crowd.

This is the kind of scene that can easily make you want to reverse back out into the sunny day and go and lie on the lawn and eat some strawberries and daydream. Did I really want to join hundreds of book mad people squeezing past one another holding big piles of books in their arms? I consulted the map at the entrance and headed for the history section, fearing a little for my safety.

If you attend a library book sale after the initial rush it can be quite a relaxing experience. It is exciting, however, to get there at the start and be part of the book frenzy. I took my place among the browsers and made my way down the aisles, as people squeezed past behind me and their bags poked me in the back. Most people were courteous, although at one point I went to look at the books underneath the table, which were piled up in boxes ready to go out over the duration of the sale, when an old lady barked “no you don’t!” at me. It wasn’t that I was not allowed to look at these books, as we had been instructed by the man making announcements over the PA not to forget to look under the tables, it was more that I was impeding her path towards the fiction section (or possibly the exit). This encounter bruised my spirits a bit, but I kept looking.

In general, though, the mood was jolly. People balanced twenty books in a pile in their arms as they looked over the tables, cheerily moving when required, and every so often a jaunty announcement came over the hall.

“We’ve got some talking books piled up on the side of the steps, so if you’re planning a trip to Canberra or some other kind of long drive, they might come in useful.”

“Make sure you have a look at our boutique book section, with highlights such as an erotic novel by Frank Moorhouse – I might be killed in the rush for that one!”

“If you’re after a souvenir of the day, at the entrance there is a stall selling university merchandise for reduced prices – in its infinite wisdom, the university has decided to change its coat of arms.”

“There are no parking patrols today, so you can park anywhere that is a legal parking space – apart from spaces that say University Only, of course, you wouldn’t dare park in one of those.”

(The man with the microphone had a strangely adversarial relationship with the university as an institution, it seemed.)

“If you want to leave your books on the steps, labelled with your name, and continue to browse, then you can do so provided they’re not in anyone’s way, else we can’t say they won’t be tampered with.”

The steps area is where people retreated to look through the books they had madly collected in their trip around the hall. The best policy is of course to pick up any book that looks vaguely interesting, and then go through and weed out the bad ones, honing your books down to the essentials.

The steps is also the place to go if you’re feeling a bit overcome by it all. After about 45 minutes of looking my arms ached, I was sweating, and I started to have uncharitable thoughts towards the people browsing around me. One man was employing a torch to look in the boxes underneath the “Media” section, another was stubbornly blocking the cookery section like a huge cork. I sat on the cool stone steps and looked above people’s heads to the portraits of the Vice Chancellors that line the walls. I’ve been in the Great Hall a few times for graduations, and my favourite Vice Chancellor is the one pictured with a cigarette.

It was good to see people so excited by a book sale, and there were all sorts of people, men prepared for combat with canvas bags and torches, women filling up trolleys, pale young couples browsing together, people with browsing strategies and others moving in a more desultory fashion throughout the hall. I had wondered how many books would be from the libraries collection, and about 1/3 seemed to be; the rest must have been donations.

When I was browsing the Architecture section, I noticed a book about Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” there, among the big heavy books about buildings and city planning! Although I think this was placed there intentionally, after a while at a book sale the books start to migrate around, as people abandon the books in their piles they decide aren’t quite so good. You could stay in there all day and browse the different tides of books, as they are discarded, as more come out from the boxes under the tables…

But it was also a lovely day, and the announcement of the fast lane for those with few books and exact money appealed to us. The regular line to pay was 20 people with full trolleys long on either side of the exit. We swapped until we both had $20 worth, and escaped out the back door, each with a small pile of books.

Vanessa’s books – the thin one is “Complaints and Disorders: the Sexual Politics of Sickness”.

Most of Simon’s books – there are a few others that have already been absorbed into our house. The Marc Bolan book has what Marc Bolan did every day for the last 5 years of his life, which was fascinating in its comprehensiveness.

When we got home we lay about reading our books and eating strawberries. The book sale continues until Wednesday 21st.


Filed under Books, Library Book Sale

Ex-Library Copy

From Empty Mirror:

Ex-library books are generally undesirable, due to the fact that they have usually have been stamped, taped, glued, and subjected to other indignities, such as the application of a card pocket. In addition, it may have been damaged by careless library patrons. Occasionally one may come by an ex-library book which is minimally marked, these are lucky finds.

I have always rather fancied ex-library copies, partly because of the “indignities” mentioned above. Although underlining (especially in pen, which I regard as desecration) and missing pages are taking it too far, I like the signs of wear and age on library books, and wondering how many people must have read them before.

My library explorations this week have been thwarted by a prickly cold that has left me hoarse and weak. I can only lie in bed dreaming of libraries, and feeling a little guilty that I am not out exploring to report back to you all, my dear readers.

Instead I thought I’d show you a few of the ex-library books that I discovered while browsing in Goulds Books in Newtown. Goulds Book is a Sydney institution, and is probably best described by a peek in the door:

Narrow aisles, and books everywhere. You could spend days in Goulds, getting deeper and deeper into the piles. You leave with grimy fingers, sneezing from the dust, perhaps with an obscure treasure you found at the bottom of a box. I generally prefer to look through the boxes of books, rather than the ones on the shelves, as I like rummaging.

Goulds is very similar to a library, you can stay in there for as long as you like, and, although it is a shop, it feels like a place for the public, a kind of book graveyard where you could find anything and anything if you looked for long enough. The last time I was there I looked for ex-library books in particular, as there are many in Goulds, often so old and obscure and outdated I can’t imagine anyone buying them. Many I looked at were from the John Fairfax library, which Goulds must have bought the entire collection of at some point. Would anyone have really consulted “The Total Look” to decorate their house, I wonder?

Other ex-library books were from seminary libraries, and I liked imaging pious students reading about psychology in Toongabbie:

Others were cast offs from the public library system, the kind it is easy to pick up at library book sales:

There is something in particular about ex-library books that makes me consider them as objects more than I would generally consider a secondhand book. Unless there is something in particular that makes me consider a book’s previous owner (a loving dedication in the front, a relic from a relationship that must have soured, for example), I don’t tend to do it. But with ex-library books, I imagine the librarian covered it in plastic, or rebinding it, in the case of the Psychology book above, to make it more durable. I think of all the places the book must have been, now to end up in the labyrinth of Goulds, with the hope of rising to the surface, and interesting someone enough for them to buy it.


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