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 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.