Monthly Archives: November 2011

Penshurst Library (Doubles)

I’d walked for some time, along streets of 50s and 60s houses interspersed with the newer, bigger homes that are gradually replacing them. It was very quiet, the occasional car passing by, highways of ants crawling over driveways, an occasional empty fibro house with an overgrown garden and its days numbered.

I was walking along back streets from Mortdale station, as I’d detoured to go to the op shop. There I had waited for quite some time, behind a woman buying a phenomenal amount of Christmas decorations, to buy a $3 plastic brooch of a squirrel. The woman working behind the counter was forgetful and overwhelmed, a bad combination. Eventually me and the squirrel were out of there and on our way to the library.

The library is at the edge of a park, on Forest Road. As I waited to cross the road I watched the flag out the front whipping around in the wind. This was the first library where I’d noticed an Australian flag. When I was a child one of my many wonderings was why more people didn’t have flagpoles out the front of their houses. My next door neighbours had a flagpole, on which they displayed the Canadian flag. I liked the idea of raising and lowering the flag each day, and putting it at half mast to commemorate tragedies. But I was young then, and unaware of the implications of flag hoisting.

Out the front of the library, a man sorted out his library books on the bench, while staring at me suspiciously as I took a photo. When I’d taken the photo of the fibro house a few streets away, I’d felt invisible eyes upon me. Surely my appearance would suggest artist/blogger, rather than private investigator/debt collector/developer, but I was self conscious all the same. It’s in my upbringing to be suspicious of white vans parked in the street, people talking outside one’s house, and people with cameras.

In the foyer of the library was a table with books for sale and a wall of noticeboards. There were the usual community notices for knitting groups and yoga classes, and there was also a section of the board for things for sale. This is my favourite kind of noticeboard.  People sell all sorts of stuff, and these are the kind of people who probably don’t use the internet, who instead glue photos to handwritten ads. Usually they are fairly standard sales of sofa beds, bikes, maybe a car, but sometimes there is something that contains a whole story within it:

Inside the library, I noticed that there were Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling, big shiny baubles. There was also music playing softly, music which sounded suspiciously like Christmas music but could have been oldies radio. Christmas, of course, is the time in which libraries are shut, but just before Christmas must be a busy time for libraries, as people stock up with books to read over the holidays. There is nothing worse than embarking upon Christmas time without something substantial to read, and relying on Christmas gifts can be dangerous.

There were plenty of people browsing the shelves in the library, and I sat down in one of the two lounge chairs that were on either side of a small coffee table to observe them. A mother and her teenage daughter were looking over the DVDs, their posture mirroring each other, standing straight with their heads bent at an angle to read the spines. They had come in and returned some and were picking out more, I noticed a Kylie Kwong DVD on the top of the pile in the mother’s hand. Although I find cooking shows very boring, I liked thinking of the two of them watching Kylie Kwong together.

A lot of people were coming in and returning books, perhaps because it was Monday morning. The librarian greeted each one with “good morning” – Penshurst must be a happy place where people read a lot. I had never been to Penshurst before, though I’d sent letters here, as one of my correspondents back in the 90s zine days lived here. I enjoyed writing the postcode: 2222.

A woman came in with some DVDs and began to apologise for breaking one of the cases. She told the full story of how her and her husband didn’t realise that the case was still “locked” and they opened one but then her husband tried to open the other and it started to break. She felt terrible when she heard the case crack. The librarian listened sympathetically. The woman looked fairly young, and I decided she had only recently got married, as she mentioned her husband a lot more than was necessary. Every time the word “husband” left her lips I could feel that she was still settling into using that word, she said it with a mixture of pride and self consciousness. The librarian asked if she’ d like to re-borrow the one that they couldn’t get out of the case, and she said yes. “Are you going to borrow anything else?” the librarian asked.

“I’ll have a quick look,” the woman said, “My husband and I are really into history and everything else like that.”

She went off to browse in the non-fiction shelves, the history section perhaps. I tried to imagine the kinds of things she and her history-loving husband might do besides watch history DVDs. What does “I’m into history” really even mean?

I was distracted from this train of thought by another woman coming into the library. She had the same brown handbag as the history woman, the kind that might be a designer bag, or might not be. Handbags have, like a lot of the objects women are told they should be interested in, little appeal to me. Recently I’d been waiting for something at the cafe at my work and looked over the shoulder of one of my students, who was browsing handbags on the internet. It was the busy mid-morning time of day so I watched her looking up handbags for quite some time. It was interesting, trying to guess what the particular aesthetic strengths of one bag were over another, when they all looked much the same to me.

The woman who had just entered the library was peering in at the display case, which had photographs of old local Rugby League teams. I’d glanced at it quickly when I came in too. Photographs of sports teams, like class photos, look dated to me no matter how old the photo is. She was really staring into the photos, as if she was looking for someone in particular. I liked to think it was a lost love, whom she had no photos of. Do such circumstances exist in these Facebook times? The lost love would perhaps need to have died before people started to live their lives on the internet.

Sometimes I feel as if I am in a story of someone else’s creation myself. The next people who came into the library were a couple in matching hats. They were broad brimmed straw hats, with coloured bands around them. The man’s had a red band, and his wife’s a yellow band, but both were from the “Outback Australia Experience”. Whether this was something that actually took place in the outback I don’t know, as “experience” suggests to me that it could be some kind of simulation arrangement.

They returned some books at the counter then went their separate ways. The man had eyes only for the newspaper, which was on the table in front of me. He sat down in the other lounge chair and pulled the paper out from under my notepad and the book I’d picked out from the book sale “A Far Cry from Kensington” by Muriel Spark. I leaned forward to move them off but he already had the paper by this stage and was scanning the headlines on the front page. I sat reading the headlines over his shoulder; the paper always seems more interesting this way. One particular headline caught my attention: “Soy Lattes are one thing, dirty lavatories are another”. Later, once the man had finished the paper I came back to look at what this was about: workers in Starbucks in New York have protested having to clean the toilets, which are used as public toilets rather than cafe toilets. There were some quotes that would make be quite satisfying to see in print, had they been yours: “I have personally cleaned up almost every human fluid and plenty that didn’t seem human”, for example.

I went to look at the bookshelves, all of which were yellow. This had quite a positive effect on me. The bookends were yellow as well, and I found that I had picked out a few yellow books for further investigation, one about the carbon footprint of “everything” and another about the “midnight confessions” of rock, rap and pop stars. Yellow is not a particularly popular colour for book spines, there would only be a few every shelf. I noted some of them to see if there was any pattern: Joan Miro, Aboriginality, Tennis Superstars, Shakespeare, The Women’s Joke Book, Henry Lawson, Facebook Marketing for Dummies.

I sat down at the study desk, a pleasingly smooth fake wood table with six chairs at it, to investigate my books. The top one on the pile was Love, Life Goethe: How to be Happy in an Imperfect World, by John Armstrong. This was in the self help section, and is a kind of How Proust Can Change Your Life type of book, although less immediately engaging. The book is divided up into various sections of different ideals, and in the “Peace” section I found myself reading the incident of “Beethoven’s Hat”.

What implications this has for the reader, however, were not clear. Should we keep our hats on, like Beethoven? Would you be a Beethoven or a Goethe in this situation?

Having failed to discover the secret to happiness in Goethe I moved on to the next book in the pile, How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee (a different Berners-Lee to the one who invented the world wide web). As I opened it I heard the voice of the man who had been reading the paper, calling out to his wife. “There’s one here, Mary! Got one!” I wondered what he had managed to find, and did something that I have seen others do but never done myself, which is leave all my books and notepad and pens on the desk. I left them there and went to investigate. As far as I could tell, the book he had found was a Nora Roberts book, perhaps one from a particular series. Having read the paper he had picked up some books, a John Grisham was on the top of his pile. Both he and his wife wore grim expressions, which I wonder if they had the whole time they were on the Outback Experience.

My curiousity sated, I returned to the desk. No one had tampered with my papers – and why would they have – and I opened the book about carbon footprint, expecting to close it again soon after, as often such books are boring, or make you feel bad for using electricity. This one was actually rather good, especially if you are the kind of person to enjoy bar graphs and comparisons such as “A bowl of traditional Scottish porridge is equivalent to a 90 second mobile to mobile phone call.” I was particularly interested in the page about tea and coffee, and how you reduce the carbon footprint if you only boil as much water as you need. Now I never boil only enough water for one cup of tea, does anyone? Other suggestions in the tea and coffee realm are to forego milk, which has a big footprint, and to buy sturdy mugs that you need only wash once a day. As you can see by the graph below, lattes are by far the worst, which is perhaps why they are often used as scapegoats in news headlines.

The book is structured from least to most carbon footprint, with the greatest footprint being created by having children: “Unless you will ever contemplate lighting a bushfire, the decision to reproduce is probably the biggest carbon choice you will ever make,” he writes. A high impact offspring is responsible for 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, while a “carbon conscious” child is responsible for 100 tonnes. That’s 4651 lattes worth for a high impact child (which most in our society are, I would imagine) – or buying a latte every day for 12 years and 8 months. There is something seductive about comparing everything to everything else.

Walking through a door has a zero carbon footprint. But walking through an automatic door, like the ones in the library, is a different story.

A typical year of email is the equivalent of a 200 mile drive in a car. A bag of carrots has the same as a 2 mile train ride. What if you take the train ride to buy a bag of carrots?

Clearly, this book should have been taken away from me before complete insanity could set in.

With a great effort I shut the book with its bar graphs and tantalising equivalents, and looked around me. A girl was sitting at one of the desks, reading fashion magazines. An elderly woman passed me, holding a Nora Roberts book. Another woman with a Nora Roberts book: up until today I had not known of Nora’s existence, but now she seemed to be everywhere. I went over to the large print section to have a look at her novels. The first one I pulled out from the shelf had an intriguing “seal” on the front cover:

Is a guarantee of this sort really needed? Nora Roberts has written hundreds of books, so perhaps they start to blend into each other in the readers’ mind. It’s not a seal of authenticity, which would be more expected. The Nora Roberts books in the library had no information about her in them, so I looked her up on Wikipedia when I got home. There were a number of interesting facts mentioned:

* she met her husband when he came to install bookshelves in her home.

* she writes eight hours a day, even when on holidays.

* another romance writer repeatedly plagiarised her work in the 90s. Roberts described this as “mind rape” and sued the writer. Perhaps this is the reason for the seal.

Having explored the Nora Roberts book, I went back to my place at the table to look at the final book, Yackety Yack, the Midnight Confessions  and Revelations of 36 Rock Stars and Legends, by Scott Cohen. I’d picked this book up not expecting much but, like its fellow yellow-spined book about carbon footprints, it was surprisingly interesting. I like the idea of “Midnight confessions” but there was no information in the book about how the interviews had taken place. I’d hoped they all really did take place at midnight. I think I’d answer questions differently at midnight than in the day, if anyone wanted to ask me how to cure the Blahs. But no one has, so you will just have to read Iggy Pop’s response:

Can you imagine Iggy Pop vacuuming? At first I couldn’t, but then an image started to form, and then it seemed quite natural. He would do it with his shirt off, of course, but then it’s hard to imagine Iggy Pop with his shirt on at any time.

I like interviews with music celebrities where they talk about doing domestic chores. I would read a whole book about music celebrities and their favourite household chores. I am sure some are so famous that they don’t actually do them, but don’t worry about that, think: Keith Richards, changing a lightbulb. PJ Harvey, removing mouldy leftovers from the fridge. Patti Smith, dusting. Ice-T, feeding his fish:

This book, too, made my thoughts spiral; it was time to leave. My last act before leaving was to admire the footstool that was pushed into the corner in between the desk and the photocopier, under the notice not to put your own transparency paper through the copier, or else the copier will require expensive repairs. While I am not one to covet expensive handbags, I would rather like a library footstool.

Upon examining this one closely, I saw it was made in Germany. I like how they move along, on wheels not visible, and the noise the wheels make. Library footstools rather remind me of Daleks, if Daleks were peaceful and friendly.

Yes, I believe there is a similarity...

I did one last circuit of the library, noting the plaque above the staff only desk, telling me the library had been here since 1972. It was a cosy library and I’d enjoyed my time there. I bought my Muriel Spark book for $2 from one of the librarians and set out again, into the heat and sun, reading the first paragraph of the book as I waited for the lights to change:

So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence. Eventually, I fell asleep contented, filled with soundlessness, but while I was awake I enjoyed the experience of darkness, though, memory, sweet anticipations. I heard the silence. It was in those days of the early fifties of this century that I formed the habit of insomnia. Insomnia is not bad in itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? – Yes you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time. 





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Ashfield Library (Storytime)

This is the third incarnation of Ashfield library I have visited. The first was the old library, a long rectangular space which was always busy with people reading. Then this one was closed for renovations, and the library was moved to a temporary site in the basement of the same building. This was an uninspiring little cave, which was no less popular, and thus always unpleasantly crowded. After some time down here the library moved back to its previous, expanded and renovated, position.

It is still accessed by the same dingy walkway, which a man was cleaning with a broom, pushing the pools of rainwater into the drain. I’d just come from the shopping centre, in which I was in search of the post office, and thus was in a high state of irritation. Post offices, like other important places like libraries, are more and more often being incorporated into shopping centres. As a person who will avoid shopping centres unless I absolutely have to go into one, this development dismays me, although it makes sense to put things people need where people congregate.

The Ashfield library isn’t in the shopping centre, but it is adjacent to it in the Civic Centre, as this rather unimpressive photo reveals. It was a rainy day so any urban environment immediately turns drab and white-skied when captured in a photo.

The library is on the middle level, with the black frame.

I was excited to enter the new library, the entrance to which has a kind of nightclub feel to it. At a glowing red wall you can return and check out books, or visit the solitary indoor plant. I paused, a bit disoriented by the dim, red light, not knowing which way to turn. I noticed that I’d come at storytime, and a lot of noise came from the kids area in front of me, including a raucous “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”. I was not clapping my hands.

The current thinking in library architecture is to have an open plan, with lots of natural light and low shelves. Ashfield library follows this design, and is an improvement, space-wise at least, on the previous one. There are two rooms, one a meeting room and one a reference room, and apart from this the rest of the library space is open, with nooks here and there for different sections of books, science fiction, Australian fiction, graphic novels, and my favourite, “The Digital Life”.

Had I the power to redesign the library, I would have put a door on the kid’s section, because it was almost unbearably noisy in there. Kids want to make noise, and why wouldn’t you if you could get away with screaming your lungs out? The combined sound of singing, screaming, and babbling filled the library, which was unfortunately coupled with the sounds of construction, drilling and hammering, from the building next door. I thought longingly of my quiet house, and sadly of my drowned iPod (although I don’t think you should have to rely on such things to drown out other noise) but decided to make the best of it, and went to look at the classics section.

I have decided to read some Dickens over the summer. Most summers I choose a classic author to investigate, and this year Dickens has come up often enough for me to feel guided towards him. I haven’t read any Dickens before, though I’ve read a lot of classic literature. When I was in high school I was happy that I was in the class that didn’t have to read David Copperfield. To my relief we studied Jane Eyre instead. I looked at the huge doorstop of a book that my friends in the other class carried around and feel glad I didn’t have to make my way through it. Contrary to what one might think, with me being a writer now and all, I didn’t particularly enjoy English in high school, and I had no particularly inspiring teachers who fostered my love of words, apart from the one teacher who put me on to Sylvia Plath. My early investigations into literature were sparked by references in pop songs, so I read whatever Robert Smith was reading, and I learnt to write by making zines.

Dickens novels are the kind of texts I imagine one reads on one’s e-reader, but I am still at the Penguin Classics edition level of technology. Approaching the Classics section, I appreciated the sombre colours of book spines, nothing like the lurid rainbow of the general fiction. It is particularly satisfying to read a Classic edition, rather than a brightly coloured book with embossed title and splashy quotes all over it. It is the equivalent of eating a small, simple salad while the person across from you slavers over a burger. One feels very pure reading a classic book; I am always impressed when I see someone reading one on the train, for example.

I picked out David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby, and sat down on the purple couch nearby. The classic books are next to the Australian fiction, which, like all of the shelves in Ashfield Library, has a display shelf along the top for the more enticing titles. I stared briefly at one called “88 Lines about 44 Women”, which was not an enticing title, at least to me. I imagined the author meeting a woman and telling her the title of his book, and the many ways the conversation could progress.

Back to Dickens. I picked up David Copperfield and closed my eyes for a moment, concentrating. The sound of someone running in high heels disturbed my focus and I looked up to see a woman run past me, through a door into the secret librarian room, and then emerge a few seconds later with a UHU glue stick. Adhesive Emergency!

Dickens again. I would choose which book I would read based on what it said on the page I opened it at. I fluttered the pages for a while, until I felt like it was the right moment, then opened the book:

Paragon of the perpetual measles and teaspoon stealing!

I went through the same process with Nicholas Nickleby:
Confidential intercourse about coin-eating!

It was hard to choose but I had a better feeling about Nicholas Nickleby. I wasn’t going to borrow it from the library, though, it would take too long to read and there is a satisfaction in taking a new classic book from its pristine state to a somewhat battered one, after it has been your companion for months. I looked back on the shelf and saw that the most read of the Dickens’ was Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities. My next competition, once I had got through Nicholas Nickleby, would be between these. Decision made, I put the books back on the shelf and went to stroll around the library.

At every library I’ve been to since Rockdale, I’ve seen the same Rolling Stone with Lady Gaga on the front, prominently placed in the magazine section. In the Rockdale post I compared this cover to the Courtney Love cover from the 90s that I’d bought from an op shop, and now a surprising number of people find my blog searching “courtney love rolling stone” (surely even more will find it now). Sometimes I wonder who these people are and what they are after. Are they reminiscing? Are they Courtney fans? Are they doing a school project on the 90s?

Next to Gaga and the magazines was the photocopier, and I remembered that I had in fact brought something to photocopy with me. This copier still has the coin machine attached to it, so I didn’t have to fiddle around buying a copy card, something I resent doing (it is NOT easier). I inserted my coins and pressed the green button. My copy, though, came out very light at the edges, too light to be useful. I stood looking at it, wondering if I should bring it to the librarian’s attention. I’m not usually the kind of person to make complaints, but it was not a complaint, exactly, more an enquiry. I should have asked the librarian which Dickens to read, that would have been more interesting. But no, I trotted over to the desk with my too light copy and waited for someone to serve me. There were three librarians there, one on the phone, another doing something in a drawer with great urgency, and another staring into a computer screen with unbreakable attention. Was this one of those occasions where a small cough might help? The woman on the phone held up her finger in a “one moment” gesture.

After a few minutes her call ended and I explained my light photocopy. After we established I knew how to use a photocopier, yet might not have pressed down on the lid while the machine scanned the book, she got the magic key out of the drawer and said she would give me another copy for free. To someone who spends a lot of time photocopying, the magic key is the stuff of dreams. We repeated the photocopy, this time applying some pressure to the photocopier lid, and it worked better. I had my photocopy, she had the pleasure of having her suspicions confirmed. She took the magic key away and I thought about how, to a zine maker, you don’t dream about the key to the city, you dream about they key to the photocopier.

Most of the bookshelves are in the centre of the library, and couches and desks are in nooks that face onto the street. I wandered past these, hoping to find somewhere to sit down, but each was occupied. In one area was a man reading the Coles catalogue, and another man who had a book open but was asleep. In the next area a woman had spread her notes all across the table. She had the book Commonsense Vegetarian alongside her notebooks and highlighters, but I don’t think that was what she was studying. I imagined the Commonsense Vegetarian a little like the business “Realistic Real Estate”, which I often travel past. Commonsense Vegetarian would give you down to earth advice as well as recipes:
Now a lot of people are going to give you shit for being a vegetarian. They will offer you steak, they will brag about eating monkey brains, they will interrogate you as to your reasons. The important thing here is not to lose your cool, even though you have heard this many times before. You might like to ask them why it means so much to them, or just fix them with a withering glance and go onto another topic of conversation. Do not give them the satisfaction of argument.

In the next alcove, the most secluded one, was a couple tickling each other. Although there were spare seats at that desk, as there had been at the Commonsense Vegetarian’s table, both areas seemed fully occupied. In the next seating area was a man who had taken off his shoes and was sitting with his laptop on his lap and his arm draped across the seat next to him. Someone must have done a study about how many seats a person takes up with their presence. In Ashfield library it was about 3 -6. Apart from having to encroach on someone’s space, it was so noisy with kids and drills that it would be impossible to concentrate on much anyway.

I decided to visit the Reference room, which was closed off from the rest of the library by a door. I could see individuals working silently at the two long tables, and this seemed like the place for the noise-sensitive library user. It was quiet in there, the only space with the traditional library hush of air conditioners, the shuffle of papers, the zip of a pencilcase, the tap of fingers on a keyboard. I got out my papers and investigated them for a while, sneaking glances at the people across from me. One girl was set up for studying with endless notebooks, a packet of dark chocolate Tim Tams, and milky tea in a 500ml bottle. She was studying something that involved a lot of graphs. I wanted to wait until she ate a Tim Tam before I left, but she was annoyed that I kept looking up to see if she was reaching for the packet, poor thing. As well as her there were plenty of people on laptops, silently tapping away, and a woman with her shopping bags around her, reading a romance novel.

After a little while I went out into the noisy main section of the library again, to browse the non-fiction books. There were a lot of big books about Dickens, one even bigger than any of Dickens’ novels. This was getting ahead of myself, though. I moved on to the science section, books about sand, books about taxidermy…

Then, in the fashion section, I picked up the book version of the blog My Mom the Style Icon by Piper Weiss. A collection of photographs of people’s groovy moms, my favourite was this wedding portrait:

In the event of me having a wedding, an occasion which even the thought of has me reaching for the Rescue Remedy, I would like to have photos like this. Although I could just re-enact it at home without the need for all the rest of it.

Looking through this book I pondered this particular style of authorship. The author, in a curatorial role, sets up a blog based on an idea, people submit their own stories, photographs, and ephemera and it gets published as a book. In this case the blog is a way to collect information and images of a time before the internet. We’re in an age of archiving and digitising, and this will one day pass. I’m curious about what life will be like when all this archiving and digitising slows down; when all the mom photos, for example, have been scanned. Already we can visit our past through the pasts of others. Although I knew none of the women pictured in the book, the photos were familiar to me. My family has the same kinds of photographs in its history. I have photos of my mother looking stylish in the 60s, but I’m not sure I’d submit any to My Mom the Style Icon, having read the legal rights this gives the blog author: they can do whatever they want with the image of my mum, in any medium including ones yet to be invented, forever. This is probably a standard agreement, but it gives me the creeps.

With all the heavy thinking out of the way, I could now relax and browse through the photos of everyone’s groovy mid-century mothers. I was sitting facing out onto Liverpool Rd, and could see two people with clipboards trying to entice passers-by without success on the street below. I watched this for a while, the book open on my lap. Storytime had finished and now it was now well and truly Screamingtime. Kids were having a fabulous time racing around the open spaces of the library, and I wished I was five years old so I could enjoy it too. But my days of this are back in an era when my mum would have qualified as a style icon. I put the book back on the shelf and decided to go back to the peace and quiet of my house.

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Turramurra Library (Subgenres)

Of all the libraries in Sydney, the Turramurra library is the one with which I have had the most consistent relationship. From the time I came here as a child to now, as I sit here beside the 20 volume set of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, with the sounds of the snoring schoolgirl asleep on her laptop rupturing my concentration, the library has remained pretty much the same.

I have always liked the way that the OPEN sign gets hung out when the library is open and taken in when it is closed.

I have been spending a lot of time in Turramurra lately, staying with my mother. She lives in a valley with poor phone reception, without the internet at home, so I’ve been coming to the library to catch up on emails. It’s remarkable how, after not using the internet very much for a few weeks, when I do go back online I forget what I can sometimes spend so much time doing on it. The patchy wireless service, which has an on-again, off-again relationship with Gmail, does nothing to endear me to working online today.

The library is busy but peaceful, apart from the two boys who are here every afternoon around this time, playing tug of war with a copy of the 2011 Guinness Book of Records before replacing it on the shelf. It has been a long time since I’ve looked in a Guinness Book of records. I can see the cover from where I’m sitting, the name on a black circle hurtling out of flames, “Exploding with thousands of new records”. The Guinness is one of the world’s best selling books, even though I’ve never seen it on the bookshelf at anyone’s house.

I have picked it up off the shelf now, thus exposing myself to a dose of boy germs, and opened it up at a random page. “World’s Heaviest Avocado”, 2. 19kg, 2009, Venezuela. World’s Longest Rabbit, “Darius”, 129cm long, …. World’s most pierced people! Help! They are going to turn up in my nightmares tonight.

About ten years ago Miss Helen took me on a tour of Penrith, including Joachin World, a $2 store run by a man who was a multiple Guinness Record holder. This is my description of the store from the October 2002 issue of Laughter and the Sound of Teacups:

 The proprietor, Joachin, holds about 17 Guinness world records for various feats of endurance such as walking in a circle with a milk bottle on his head for 133km, the world’s longest escalator ride, longest stint in a movie theatre, longest catwalk, and longest distance walked carrying a brick, among other amazing feats. In the window of his store he has arranged newspaper articles about his achievements. From a distance ‘Joachin World’ doesn’t look like anything special, just a variety store, the type of which there are many around Penrith. The front of the store is hung with a selection of different bags he has for sale, and the awning boasts ‘Best shopping in town’ and ‘Best Value in Penrith.’ It is when you are close that you notice the newspaper articles.

We were reading them when Joachin himself came out of the store to rearrange his bag display. Upon noticing our interest he was eager to discuss his achievements. He ushered us into the shop to show off his latest article, a two page spread in Take 5 magazine. He had a folder at the ready behind the counter in which he kept all his press clippings, and proudly showed us through them. He told us of his intention to open other Joachin Worlds. He pointed towards the Plaza, telling us he hoped to open another store in there. I thought of the Joachin World logo, a globe over which an elaborate ‘J’ is positioned, and imagined it becoming an internationally recognised symbol. I am sure this is one of Joachin’s dreams. We asked him what his next attempt will be, and Joachin told us he was going to India to try for a continuous walking record.

Although I couldn’t see Joachin (also known as Joachim) in the book, he is still out there breaking records, as his Wikipedia page outlines. The man traveled 126.675 km around the Hornsby Westfield holding a 4.5kg brick! He is to be commended: I travelled about 12.6 metres into Hornsby Westfield recently and felt a strong need to escape. Though I guess if you need an audience, a shopping mall is a good place to find one.

The boys fighting over the Guinness are now back in their favourite place, at the computer, playing a game called Zombie Island. Over the past few weeks I have worked out their names are Winston and Sebastian, ridiculously aristocratic names for primary school boys. Winston has a cap of dark hair and knees too big for his legs, and Sebastian has a long, freckled face and an air of superior knowledge about him.

By the time I get to the library all the best and quietest study tables are taken, the ones over in the non-fiction section of the library. I usually end up at the one in between the reference shelves and the computers, listening to Sebastian give Winston advice about how to best navigate Zombie Island. Listening to people playing computer games would have to be one of the most boring conversations it is possible to eavesdrop on, but it’s hard to get too annoyed at Winston and Sebastian. Sometimes their games of Zombie Island are interrupted when someone has booked the computer to use the internet, and when this happens and the computer shuts down and comes up with the “Reserved” screen, they sit there startled for a moment, then go and find books to look at. It was in one of these moments they were fighting over the Guinness. Another time I noticed Winston reading a large hardback copy of The Da Vinci Code, a book so large his hands looked like tiny and frog-like grasping it.

When I was a teenager I borrowed a lot of books about women poets from Turramurra Library. The shelves were different then, they were much higher and I had to climb up on a metal footstool to reach the top where the books of Anne Sexton’s letters, and biographies of Sylvia Plath were kept, their slightly inaccessible location only adding to their allure. Although I understand the reasons for lower shelves – a feeling of space, accessibility – I do like to be in a library with high shelves. I feel as if I am hidden in a forest of books. This is the kind of romantic bibliophile attitude that has become the conservative position in the debate on the future of libraries.

Are the books about Sylvia Plath still there? The non-fiction books are now shelved at the other side of the library. The building has two wings, with the desk and a lounge area in the centre, as well as the shelves of new books. On my way to Sylvia I browse these books and discover a rather curious detective series:

Cats + Libraries + Crime! It makes sense, even just for the pun opportunities, a number of which can be found on the back cover, “cat and mouse game”, “curiousity kills…”.

There are a lot of murder mystery stories set in libraries, as I discovered when I was searching for a list of library related novels. What is it that makes libraries such an appealing setting for crime writers? There is even a term for them, “Bibliomysteries” (one of the great things about genres is subgenres). Such a book would naturally be set in an old fashioned, high-shelves type of library, so there could be a scene where the body is discovered, slumped up against the books.

Over in the 800s the only Sylvia Plath book to be seen is a paperback, The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. I was sad not to be reacquainted with the big old hardcover books, covered in soft plastic, I had read while lying in bed as a teenager. I spent a lot of time sick as a teenager, and library books were important to me. About the only things I could manage to do at the time were read and listen to the radio, and I learnt a lot about music and a lot about literature during that time. I read every book on Sylvia Plath that was published at the time, though since then there have been a lot more, she is a popular subject for biographies.

On the shelf underneath I pick out a book of Susan Sontag’s diaries, Reborn: Diaries 1947 – 1964. While I am a committed diarist myself, I rarely read published diaries. I open up the book at a few random pages:

In Turramurra library in 2011, I am now thinking about Susan Sontag drinking a glass of cold milk in 1957. I like being taken into that moment, but this is why I can’t read too much of such diaries. The power of all the individual moments is too much for me to be able to process. I start to think about all the times people have drunk glasses of cold milk in their lives, and the nature of moments, and moments captured…my thoughts go into a death spiral from there.

The girl in a school uniform pushing a trolley of books for reshelving notices, but tries not to notice, me photographing a page of the Susan Sontag book. There are often school students working in the library, no doubt as part of some extracurricular scheme teaching kids to be good citizens. The librarians themselves mostly hang out in the room out the back, unless summoned by the silver bell on the counter, the kind you press the button on the top to ring. I always feel rude using these, uncomfortable with summoning people via a bell.

Thinking more about diaries and dates I decide to look at an “On This Day” book to see what else had happened today, the 8th December.

While  a lot of important things happened on this day, the one that catches my attention is the end of the “Cod War” between Britain and Iceland. I pictured cods being fired out of cannons, but in fact it was a dispute about the right to fish a particular area of ocean, as I discover when I go back to the desk and get my computer out again.

One of the changes in information seeking behaviour that is often brought up in discussions about libraries of the future is how people now go to Google for their first line of enquiry. One of the things I am interested in is the relationship between book information and internet information. If you spend enough time online, encyclopedias of random knowledge will float by you, in the same way I feel like if I sat on King St for long enough, everyone I have ever known will walk past. But a lot of this information comes from the archiving of past things and transferring them to the internet. This is happening in particular at the moment with images shared on Tumblr. The pleasure of discovery is similar when you find something unexpected in a book as when you find something unexpected on the internet – this is the idea of serendipitous browsing that defenders of library collections use as a defence for keeping books accessible on the shelves.

Every time I have visited a library for Biblioburbia I have found some piece of information I didn’t know before. Already today I know about Cod Wars, I’ve thought about diaries and moments, remembered Joachin’s World, and had many other more fleeting thoughts, none of which I would have come up with otherwise. This leads to other pieces of information I’ve encountered online, remember when it was worked out that the most boring day of the 20th Century was 11 April, 1954, for example?

I am back at my desk, and the boys have vacated the computer for someone else, and gone off to search for books. The person who has reserved the computer hasn’t arrived yet, and I see that someone has stuck a sticker on the side of the computer desk, with a handwritten message on it.

There is a certain type of person who leaves inspiring messages in public places, the kind who defuses back-of-toilet-door arguments and smiles at you for no reason whatsoever when they pass you in the street, making curmudgeons like me look to see if there is anyone walking behind me who they are actually smiling at. I try to imagine the kind of person who might have left these, but find it difficult. Do they take the stickers around with them?

I slink back to my desk and look around the library. It is busy today, as it is a hot day and there are a lot of people escaping the humidity. This was a motivating factor in my own library visit this afternoon, much like people also visit shopping malls to soak up some air conditioning. My father, who lives in Queensland, tells me that everyone does this there, and on the hottest days the entire population of the area will be in the local shopping centre. I would always choose the library over the shopping centre, of course.

There are a lot of people sitting reading magazines, particularly home decorating magazines, and plenty of people wandering around picking books off the shelves. One of my theories about cities is that within it there are all times that the city has ever been, if you look hard enough. Turramurra is not operating within the current period. It is the 70s there, perhaps even before. A lot of the residents are elderly, as well as the families in Land Rovers, and this cluster of elderly folk determine in some ways the nature of the suburb. There are no pubs. There are many pharmacies. The French Patisserie is always well patronised. There is a copious Large Print section in the library. My grandmother used to borrow books from this section, medical romances, and sometimes as a child I’d read them in the hope of discovering racy descriptions. They were usually disappointingly tame, with kissing or some highly euphemised lovemaking.

I work on my computer for a while, before packing it up and going for one last look around. I go back to the new books section – the Cats in the Stacks book has gone already. I pick up “Melbourne” and “Brisbane” from the New South Books Australian capital cities series. I’ve read “Sydney” by Delia Falconer, which I enjoyed apart from the sometimes ludicrously sensory details. My favourite, or the silliest, was the section about how the scent of the harbour was “sexual, of course”. And that it has a “gamey underlayer”. I don’t agree with the “of course” (in the sense of declaring this ubiquitous, and the hectoring tone), as I don’t find the harbour sexual. But how lucky for those who pause when walking along the foreshore, in a state of erotic transfixion.

It’s a difficult thing to do though, to sum up a city’s spirit in a book, so all the writers in this series have my respect. From flipping through the two new ones I think about whether the only way you can write such a book is through your own personal story, as all of them draw heavily on memoir. The difficulty with doing this, though, is that it becomes tied to the author’s perception, and thus their particular social position. For this reason I think it would be a good idea for this series to be repeated every five years or so, and then maybe after five such books have been written, by different authors, then the real city might start to emerge.

I borrow these books with the self check machine that had so delighted my mother when we came to the library together the week before. I don’t think she’d been in a library for quite some time. The machines are pleasing, though, I particularly like the “knock” when the books are checked out. It is a pleasing, muffled bump, and I imagine that inside the machine, a bone, like an arm bone, is pushed against the book’s spine through the plastic of the machine. This transforms checking out a book into a voodoo experience.

On the way out of the library I notice a small collection of relics on the end of the shelf that borders the circulation desk. In particular I notice a pile of square, black and white photographs, all of which are of the same young man. My favourite one is of him in a car with his dog (despite the unfortunate numberplate). I suppose they must have been left in books, as there are also some bookmarks and other slips of paper on the shelf. I love things found in books and have my own collection of strangers’ photos – though sometimes I feel ghoulish keeping photos of other people, especially if it seems like they would no longer be alive.

This boy could be still alive, though, he could be one of the old men I see moving slowly along the Turramurra streets. I leave the photos and step outside. The weather has changed and the humidity had been chased away; a storm is coming soon. I tuck my books into my bag and walk through the carpark which surrounds the library. The library was built on sloping ground and at the back there are two levels. I always imagined that the Stack was down here. But now I am looking closely I don’t think so, it looks like offices. I’d enjoyed picturing the Stack as a private, basement room when I was younger, though, having always been interested in secret places.

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