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.

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2 Comments

Filed under Independent Libraries, Not Sydney

2 responses to “The Melbourne Athenaeum Library

  1. amy

    The “Ath” sounds amazing! I’ll be in Melb in a few weeks and will be sure to visit.

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