Woollahra Library, Double Bay

This is not a stately home where I’ve climbed the fence to snoop in the garden and take photos, this is Woollahra library. One wouldn’t expect the local library of posh Double Bay to be a 70s brick block of a building. It’s in a 19th century building which was once a private residence called St Brigid’s, situated above the Blackburn Gardens and the Redleaf pool, looking out over the harbour.

The Redleaf Pool is a place that is quite familiar to me, as I often come here to go swimming. It is another world in the Eastern suburbs, a wealthy, easy world, which is very removed from my everyday life. But anyone, no matter whether they are an impoverished artist or a sweet sweeper or a princess can swim in the pool and lounge in the gardens.

Whenever I visit the pool I walk down through the library. The internal stairs on the side of the building lead down to the gardens, and lead to the entrance to both the main library and the little downstairs children’s library.

The library had been renovated since last I was there, which I noticed with suspicion. I couldn’t remember what it was like beforehand, though, and after a few moments I realised that apart from the chairs and tables it was still the same, with old wooden bookshelves and the row of coveted windowside seats at the back of the building.

The big windows look out into the treetops, over the gardens, and through to the harbour and yachts bobbing gently with the tide. It is probably the most inspiring, and definitely the most peaceful, view from a public library in Sydney. Years before I first came here I remember one of my zine correspondents telling me about this library, and how, when he was visiting Sydney, he’d spend all day at one of these windowside seats, looking out over the harbour. I filed his description away in my memory but not the location. Years later, coming to Redleaf pool for the first time and venturing into the library, his description came back to me; I had found this magical place he had described to me.

The long desks that used to line the windows have been replaced by lounge chairs, sets of two facing onto small white tables. There was still one long desk, at which a couple of girls worked on maths problems and a woman sat with a pile of books about shares and superannuation, taking notes in a Moleskine exercise book with a brown paper cover.

The lounge chairs were mostly taken up by people with laptops, but there was one space free, which was across from another empty chair. On the table, though, was a pile of books and a laptop, and beside it a backpack, so someone obviously had claimed that space. On the top of the pile of books was a book called “Randomness”, and on the bottom of the pile was a notebook bulging with papers. I tried to imagine what kind of person would appear to take their seat across from me. Everyone who passed by was a momentary candidate, however many of those who passed by were librarians, on errands to and from the shelves.

The library is a series of interconnected rooms, which can lead to some confusion in the innermost rooms. Just keep moving, however, and you will get your bearings again. Among the pamphlets in racks near the entrance is a map with colour coded areas that correspond to the different collections. Fiction is divided up into two categories, “Stories” and “Large Print”. I was sitting near the Stories section, looking in towards the Cooking, Health, Art and Music books, which took up three rooms of the library. On my way to sit down I’d gathered a few books, and, once the person who had claimed the other side of the table showed no signs of appearing, I settled down to read them.

First I investigated the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Workbook. When I was a child I was curious about Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which we had a copy of at home. My unsophisticated reading of it at the time was that those who were left handed were more creative, and thus I ardently wished that I was left handed, rather than right handed like most of the population. I had the same kind of crisis when I found out my blood type was O positive, the most common. Had I actually read the text rather than focussing on this diagram

I would have know that my conclusions were incorrect. Most left handed people have the same brain configuration as right handed people, with the verbal functions in the practical left hemisphere.

This book, being a workbook, had different exercises for the reader to complete, and blank pages to draw on. At the back of the book was a special clear plastic viewfinder, a rectangle with a frame printed on it, which was to help you with composition. I flipped through the book and the most appealing exercise was drawing a horse upside down. I thought about doing it – on my own paper, of course, the workbook blank pages were untouched and I wasn’t going to be the first to defile them – but I was distracted by the man who appeared and sat down across from me, finally claiming his laptop and books. He gave me a suspicious look and opened up his computer. It was an old computer with a loud fan that kicked in almost immediately. They’re like old cars, those old notebooks, loud and clunky. But his computer is his business. I looked back at the upside down horse and imagined myself becoming impatient with my drawing after a minute.

The next book I investigated was The Australian Ugliness by Robin Boyd, which I knew to be a oft-cited classic, but have never read. It was first published in 1960s and critiques the architectural styles, and town planning, in Australia. In particular it focuses on what Boyd, an architect, called “Featurism”, which is “subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features”. I thought immediately of those big, brick houses that have been popular since the 80s, which have huge white columns out the front. The columns are the feature and they distract from the ugly big box house behind it. I looked up the sections of the book that were about Sydney. Boyd divides Sydney suburbs into three zones: Villawood Zone (west), Tom Ugly Zone (south – after Tom Ugly’s bridge, which leads into the Sutherland shire) and the “North Shore Executive Zone”. If he thought Sydney was ugly in 1960, he would find it hideous now, with its Meriton apartment buildings clogging the train lines – is there a reason why they need to be so ugly?

Here in Double Bay I felt shielded from ugliness. It was very comfortable sitting at the window, I could stay there all day long. People often do, I gather, as they seemed very established in their positions. This was the first time I’d come to the library when there had been space free to sit at the windows. Looking out you can almost forget you are in the library, and pretend it is your own exclusive home. While these days I have no particular fantasies about being ridiculously wealthy, when I was younger I had plenty of them. My family were always so worried about money that my ideal adult life became something from a 1970s home decorating book. When I grew up, I decided, I would live in a harbourside mansion with my Afghan Hounds, wear long flowing gowns, drink martinis, and receive gentlemen callers when I was in the mood for company.

As I was browsing the books I noticed the maths girls getting up and leaving all their equipment behind, including their MacBook Air, a very portable object for anyone who felt like stealing it. There were no “do not leave valuables” signs in this library, so I guessed that theft wasn’t much of a problem. I decided to leave my things at the table and go on my own search. If the expensive laptop was safe my Spirax notebook would be also, unless anyone was particularly interested in my notes on Sydney libraries.

I went to find the section that had books about Sydney. I was trying to find out about sea caves, particularly around Avalon, which I hadn’t had much luck searching for online. Whenever I can’t find information online at first I feel cranky, but then I feel pleased that not everything is on the internet. There are still secrets in the world – for now.

I saw on my map that the Travel section was over the other side of the library. At first I couldn’t find the 900s, and then I realised that they were in a compactus!

I checked that no one was inside and I turned the wheels to open up the shelf I was after. I felt nervous doing it, as if someone would come and tell me off, but perhaps it was because of the novelty of the experience. Inside the compactus I felt very (deceptively?) safe and enclosed as I browsed books about Sydney. I have never read a travel guide to my own city and it was a strange experience opening up a Lonely Planet and reading about the places that are everyday to me. The most interesting parts of Sydney, the suburbs, don’t get that much of a mention, and I didn’t find the answers about the sea caves. What I most want to know is if they actually exist and if so, can you explore them? I might have to visit Avalon library and find out.

When I returned to my books I noticed that the Maths girls were packing up and so I moved to take their place. The man with the loud laptop kept giving me odd looks, which I were probably warranted. I wasn’t settled like the usual library user, I kept getting up and returning with books about widely different topics, which I would glance through, then write a few things in a notebook, then look out the window, then scrutinise the room and people in it.

The desk looked out over the tennis court of the big house next door. The net was saggy and the long “monkey tails” from the Norfolk Island pine had fallen across the grass, although the court still seemed impossibly tidy, like you could run over it with a vacuum cleaner. I looked back down at my books. On the way back from the compactus I’d examined the Folio section. Woollahra Library has a large collection of art books, and a lot of these were in the Folio section. They were huge tomes, some which looked too big to even get off the shelf without significant effort. There were lots of monographs and also coffee table books of a weight that would probably collapse a flimsy IKEA table.  As well as art books there were cookbooks many times longer than the Bible that must have every recipe known to man in them. The book I picked out for further investigation was tall but not very thick, a book about Faberge eggs. Each page had a photograph of a particular egg on it, much large than the actual egg was in real life.

I’d never paid much attention to Faberge eggs before, but here, confronted with images of the Rabbit Egg (with gold rabbit inside), the Hoof Egg (with cloven feet),  the Cuckoo egg and the Steel Military egg, I realised they were actually quite ingenious, though fantastically ugly.  Each egg was loaded up with strange and unnecessary adornments. Despite their preciousness, they make me think of Franklin Mint reproductions, the kind that used to, and may still be, advertised in the television guide.

Behind the desk was the magazine section, which had a steady amount of visitors. I heard a hissing kind of giggle from someone in this section, and I turned slightly to observe them. It was a man in a Beatles shirt and a Weird Al Yankovic cap, who was accompanied by two stylish women with dark curly hair. Despite his casual appearance – he was also wearing baggy jeans – the women were wearing a lot of jewellery, expensive dresses, and heels. From their ages I decided that one was his wife, and one his daughter. They were looking at the fiction section, ignoring his laughter over the magazine, which was a copy of Wired with Muppets on the front.

I’d noticed quite a few very well dressed people already, and it made me ponder how people dress when they visit the library. Of course no one puts on a particular library outfit, but seeing women in pearls, little black dresses and ugly but expensive shoes browsing the shelves made me realise that usually the library is not usually a very fashionable place. Before I started Biblioburbia, I rarely noticed other people in the library, unless they were directly irritating me by being loud or obstructive. It is a place where people go about their own business, and to notice anyone else’s business too much is an invasion of privacy. This is why the man across from me had been glaring at me, I think, because I was doing too much looking around at other people. At least I wasn’t doing so from behind a book, like others I have encountered.

I could hear the jangling of the girl’s bracelets as she exclaimed to her dad that there were actually some quite good books in this library. I could tell this was the first time they’d come here, and were looking around. She looked to be about twenty, and it seemed impossibly nice to me that they could be on a family trip to check out the library. They moved off to the music and movies section in the next room.

While I’d been sitting at the desk, the woman beside me continued to work her way seriously through the pile of books about superannuation. Her grey dress matched the library decor, so much so that she seemed to be made from the same stuff. Further along the window others worked on laptops. One girl had a tattoo of a gemstone on her chest, as big as a fist, with trails of stars leading out from it, following the curve of her collarbones. She typed into her tiny laptop, which had a cover with a Mark Ryden picture on it. I liked to think she was writing a short story. She didn’t seem to be on the internet like everyone else, her screen stayed fixed on the document she was working on.

The last book I had on my pile was Haunted and Mysterious Australia, by “Tim the Yowie Man”. Should I know who he is? I’d picked up this book when I was looking for a book that might mention sea caves. I scanned down the index looking for an interesting chapter, and decided on “Australia’s Most Haunted Town”.

Now I started this blog with the support of the CAL Western Sydney Writers’ Fellowship, and part of this fellowship is to teach some workshops. In a few days I was to go and do my first in the series of workshops at a school right on the furthest edges of the south west, Picton High School. I’d never been to Picton before and knew little about it, although this was about to change:

Of all the towns in Australia, I was to travel to the most haunted, a place of sudden drops in temperature, beanie-clad phantoms, ghost trains and graveyard apparitions. In particular the Redbank Range Tunnel, a disused rail tunnel, is the site of a lot of paranormal activity. Ghosts are also prevalent in people’s homes: “the young girl’s mother told me that ever since she was a toddler her daughter had seen all their dead relatives sitting around the house” is a common Picton story. In two days time, I would be on my way to this very town.

The library had taught me all I needed to know for now. I closed the book and gathered up my things, to go for a purifying swim in the harbour. I like swimming in the harbour, rather than the ocean. For one thing, the pool has a shark-proof cage around it, so I feel very safe. I have no particular fear of sharks, and my chances of being taken by one are very slim, however once you start thinking about them it is hard to confidently swim out into the ocean.

Redleaf pool was built in 1940, and opened in 1941, although it was used as a swimming spot for decades before that time. It makes me think of an earlier era, around 1910 or so, when people went “bathing” rather than “swimming”. I shivered my way into the water. Today there were few people swimming, the water was a bit cold and the tide was high. The storms of the previous week had eroded the sand so after only a few steps I could no longer touch the bottom. This pleased me greatly. I thought of all the things that must be hiding on the bottom of Sydney harbour as I swum my way to the edge of the pool, to peer out through the bars of the cage.

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4 Comments

Filed under Eastern Sydney

4 responses to “Woollahra Library, Double Bay

  1. Brian Yatman

    I worked here for a few months in 1996. Of special interest to me was that Amanda Brown, the Go-Between’s violinist and, let’s face it, vision-of-loveliness, also worked here part-time. Unfortunately (for me, mainly), our paths never crossed. Such a beautiful place to work (if cramped). Some of the staff were extremely eccentric.

  2. Rdd

    Oh gosh, I really should be reading this blog before I apply for library jobs [and before I withdraw applications]. Very informative with a nice personal opinion slant.

    The idea of eccentric staff, and of Redleaf Pool nearby, might compensate for all those expensively dressed customers [who I’m afraid to admit did put me right off attending a job interview there! coward!]

  3. Thank you for your post. I never visited this library, which has now been relocated to Double Bay. It sounds like it had a certain magic about it. I love the way you put this piece together, and feel sad that I’ll never get to experience the way it was.

    • Vanessa Berry

      Thanks Penny, I’m glad I could record what the old library was like, it was quite a unique place. I’ll have to make a proper visit to the new one to see what it’s like, too.

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