There are ten libraries in the City of Sydney area, and originally I’d planned to visit the Surry Hills branch. Surry Hills library gets a lot of publicity, however, and so instead I decided to visit one of the lesser known City of Sydney libraries. Simon suggested Waterloo as “it looks like the Addams Family House”. I rode my bike down Elizabeth st, past fenced off apartment blocks awaiting demolition and the shops with shutters down, and right past the library, as I was looking for it on the wrong side of the street. When I stopped to work out where I was, I looked back up the street and saw a looming Victorian building that had to be it.
The building was once the Waterloo town hall, but has housed the library since 1972. Today the front door had notices announcing the library’s closure on Australia Day, in English and Russian.
I know from going on the Tour of Beauty that there is a Russian community in Waterloo, many of whom live in public housing. More than a third of the citizens of Waterloo live in public housing, and it’s one of those suburbs where the very poor live alongside the privileged, who move into new apartments as gentrification sweeps through the area. It was a surprise to see a sign in Russian, though, in otherworldly Cyrillic script. Deciphering the first word, “Biblioteka”, I felt I had deciphered a code.
The hallway is hung with honour rolls, the names of notable citizens and war dead listed in neat golden letters. The hall also had many boards and tables with pamphlets, calendars and announcements. All libraries have a lot of pamphlets and I usually cast an eye over them quickly, but here I became quite involved in the pamphlet table, collecting pamphlets for upcoming events and local history information. Something about collecting pamphlets makes me feel like I am an involved, organised person. There was a pamphlet for the Past in Print ephemera collection, requesting donations of ephemera. “Today’s junk mail is tomorrow’s historical detail.”
On a chair next to the pamphlet table was a box for donations of ephemera. I peeked into it and saw various pamphlets inside (but different pamphlets to the ones on the table). I would like the job of ephemera sorter, although you would get sick of ads for plumbers with free fridge magnet attached, and real estate ads. All this junk would make it all the more satisfying when you found something interesting. I have dozens of tins of paper ephemera at home, various personal bits of paper that I’ve picked up along the way. My favourite item of ephemera from the last few years is stuck on the wall in my kitchen:
Simon and I were ready for Pretty in Punk, excited about the fruit tingles and seeing the old men. But when we got to Erskineville that day there was just the usual people with their kids and dogs, and not a punk in sight. We had been tricked! I’d picked up the flyer from Revolve records on Erskineville Rd, and when we made further enquiries there, the man working there said he’d been fooled by it too. I’ve spent hours staring at this flyer as I sit in the kitchen. There is always more to notice on it.
The library entrance is at the end of the hall, and I walked through into a lofty space with a high ceiling made of pressed metal, patterned like snowflakes. The high ceiling and the whirring ceiling fans made it seem very airy inside, like I could lift off above the shelves and float up to the ceiling like I was a balloon. I stuck to the front desk at first, like it was a life raft. At the back of it was a section which had recent newspapers and recommended books next to a sign that said “The Reader’s Bucket List”. These included:
How many have you read? I’ve read only three. My bucket is still heavy. I don’t like the term “bucket list”, whenever I hear it I feel depressed. I picture it literally, a big plastic bucket, and can’t connect it visually to the concept of listing the things you want to achieve before you die. While I like making lists, I don’t like the idea that life can be reduced to one big list.
As for the books I loved the Ali Smith novel Hotel World, but have struggled to read her other books. I had a look through There but for the but the title puts me off. While it isn’t as bad as “The Delicate Nature of the Hibernating Woodlouse” or something like that, it makes me nervous that the book is going to be a theme park of literary pretensions.
Next to the bucket books was a laminated ring bound booklet, with a popular fiction guess who theme.
Near the desk there were two aisles of Russian fiction, dvds, kids’ books, and magazines. At the end of one of the rows were containers of well-read Russian fashion magazines and Russian versions of Good Housekeeping. While I was in the library the Russian section was consistently busy. The first person I noticed looking through the books was a woman who was dressed with extreme colour coordination: everything she wore was either red or blue, down to her glasses frame or the thin, red trim on the hem of her blue skirt. She had red hair too, the kind of brassy auburn that gets called “red” and is proudly from a bottle. She had collected a pile of Russian children’s books and was examining them seriously.
The newspaper reading area of the library was a long table with a laminate top, patterned like a kitchen floor. I picked up the Sydney Morning Herald from the rack at the end of the table. To allow them to be hung on the rack, the papers had been clipped into long metal spines, which made the usually pliable newspapers cumbersome to read. I sat at the table, across from a Chinese man wearing a cap. Caps are a common look for newspaper reading men. He had his trousers pulled up high, secured with a belt with a statement enamel buckle of a big star and two guns underneath. He was reading a Chinese newspaper.
Next to me sat a couple who muttered to each other in low tones, like they were at home conversing in front of the tv. The man was doing the sudoku in the Australian, filling in the squares with a blue biro. His wife was flipping through Vogue while keeping an eye on everyone in the library. She had a censorious expression for everyone, no matter their age or appearance. Old men were as suspicious as children through her eyes. They slipped into an argument about whether the woman was laughing at someone. “You were laughing at her”/”I wasn’t laughing at her”/”You were laughing at her”… as if they were stuck in that one moment.
I looked down at the newspaper and read a bit of an article about how people were renting furniture rather than buying it, in order to “refresh” their homes. There’s an interesting story about furniture and Waterloo. It occurred during the Queen’s visit in the 1970s, when she came to Waterloo to open some of the public housing towers. On the day of the queen’s visit trucks full of furniture came and replaced all of the furniture in the 4 flats the queen was going to visit, taking the inhabitants furniture away, only to return it all later that afternoon once the queen had departed. There’s a video excerpt from the 1981 film about Waterloo by Tom Zubrycki showing the Queen inspecting the units, which tells this story.
A man wearing a felt cap shuffled up to the table with a couple of Daily Telegraphs. He sat down, checked the dates on the papers and opened one from last Friday. He had a piece of paper with a name written on it in capital letters, Albert and a surname I couldn’t decipher. At first I thought he was looking for the name in the racing results, but then he turned the page and started to look through the Death Notices.
I was as bad as the woman flipping through Vogue, watching everyone who came in intently. A skinny girl in tight, high-waisted jeans was being escorted to the photocopier by one of the librarians. The girl was wearing a tight black singlet with her iPhone poked into her bra, and wore her hair plaited into a crown on the top of her head. She was photocopying her birth certificate.
As I was looking in that direction I noticed that the computer area at the back of the library was full of people. They were so quiet that I hadn’t noticed they up until now. Many of them were kids, playing games, and after the librarian set up the photocopier for the girl she went into the computer area and stood looking over the shoulders of everyone there, checking for inappropriate internet use no doubt.
I looked back down to the Sydney Morning Herald and read an opinion piece about caffeine poisoning from energy drinks, before closing it and returning it to the rack. It was then I noticed there was a whole other floor to the library, accessed by a grand double staircase near the library entrance. I had noted it before but thought it wasn’t part of the library. I passed through the Russian collection, then past a cabinet with a display of graphic novels and the CD racks where a woman was kneeling down examining Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, and set foot on the stairs. No one stopped me.
From the top of the stairs I could see over the library. It looked neat, like a model, and I could have stayed there and enjoyed observing people browsing the shelves and reading newspapers in the same way it’s nice to watch people walking past when you’re sitting in a restaurant. Except that you look like a creep if you stare too much at others in the library.
The room upstairs was similarly lofty and contained the non fiction collection and a big desk where a few people were sitting. One woman had a pile of books about soup cookery and was typing on an iPad. A few others sat on a table off to the side and worked on laptops. My favourite area was the reading nook at the front of the building, and it was here I retired to once I’d collected some books to read.
Browsing the shelves I discovered the first book about zinemaking I’d browsed my way upon so far in Biblioburbia.
I got a jolt seeing it there, like my other life had been discovered.
The section I was most interested in today was the 800s and 900s. I picked out Bread and Wine, a book of prose by Kenneth Slessor (known best for the poem “Five Bells” and its evocation of Sydney Harbour). I read little poetry but I enjoy prose written by poets. The first story in the book was “A Portrait of Sydney”. It was first published in 1950 and as much as I enjoy reading it, it is a voice from another world:
When I wished to sleep at night, I found it necessary to cover the window of my bedroom with a canopy of shirts, or with a dressing-robe, to shut out the viridian green moonlight streaming from the largest and most illuminated bottle of beer in the world. This was fastened to the wall of the building, and although, when at home, I could not see it, its reflections gave the human face, particularly my own, the perpetual aspect of a Demon King.
Another section explains how in Sussex street, carpet snakes were used to control the rat problem, “because an energetic young carpet-snake can and will devour more rats and mice than a cat”. The more conventional methods of rat control, cats, were also to be found in abundance in the city. The next book on my pile was about one particular famous cat from the early days of Sydney. There’s a statue of this cat on the side of the Mitchell Library, near the statue of Matthew Flinders, as it was Flinders’ cat Trim, known for being a “brave seafaring cat”. I’d been considering cats over the weekend, in particular how few men I know who own cats. When I was talking about it with Simon he mentioned Trim, and here I was reading the account of his life.
The last book in my pile was a big, heavy book on Russian architecture, the type of book I can’t imagine borrowing without having brought a trolley with me to carry it home in. I flipped through pictures of wooden churches constructed without nails, and nineteenth century wooden houses with elaborately carved windowframes. It was peaceful sitting in the nook with the sun coming in through the windows, looking at these beautiful, far away buildings. Apart from the woman looking at soup recipes and a librarian slowly putting books back on the shelf, it was pleasingly quiet, and the right environment for self-timer photography.
I left my books on a nearby trolley and noticed the librarian who had been putting books away had stopped and was now reading a book about sharks. I went downstairs again. At the desk a man was enquiring about lawn bowls books, and I waited behind him to ask about buying a photocopying card, as I wanted to copy the Kenneth Slessor Sydney essay.
The librarian asked if I was a member of the library and I said no, fearing that this would mean I wouldn’t be able to photocopy.
“Do you live in the area?” she asked, to which I gave a typical Vanessa answer:
“What do you mean, sort of?” she said, disliking my evasiveness. I told her where I lived and she was satisfied it was in a different council area. She pushed a piece of paper across the desk and asked me to write my name and postcode on it, but almost as soon as she’d done this, asked how many pages I wanted to copy. When I said 6 she said I could just use the library’s card and pay her the $1.20, rather than having to buy my own card for $1.
I was glad I wasn’t copying anything too weird, as the librarian came over to the photocopier with me and stood by while I copied the six pages. At the end she counted the pages to make sure I had done all of them. “There’s only five,” she said, before realising that two pages had stuck together. I appreciated how seriously she took my photocopying.
On the way back to return the book to the shelf I looked at the Koori section. In a book about song poetry from the Pilbara, published in the 1970s, I found this strange poem:
I also looked at a book about mapping and colonial conquest, in which I read about the vanished continent of Lemuria, which was discovered/invented by an English lawyer and amateur zoologist called Philip Sclater in the 19th century. He had named it Lemuria after the lemur, those odd looking, stripy tailed monkeys. Reading the story of Lemuria at first seemed magical but then became creepy, as the idea was taken up by various occult societies and Lemurians were figured into a scheme of racial order by the Theosophists. The book did have one beautiful looking map, even though it was about racial hierarchies:
Thoughts of Lemuria were making me feel strange so I went back up the stairs again to find the gap on the shelf where the Kenneth Slessor book had come from. The librarian had brought a chair over to the shelves and was now sitting, still looking at the shark book. I went into the next row along from her so I could spy on what she was looking at. What was so interesting about this shark book? All I could see from my spyhole on top of the books was a page with a big, bloody-mouthed shark head on it.
Peering through library shelves is a classic library scene. I have done it numerous times when there has been someone interesting in the next aisle. When the librarian looked up I pretending to be looking at the books, and took out one about Cuban voodoo, Palo. “Put simply, Palo is a craft of working with the dead to transform the fates of the living”, it said in the introduction. I didn’t understand so I kept reading, moving over to the table in the middle of the room.
The book, Society of the Dead by Todd Ramon Ochoa, is a first person account of learning Palo through two teachers of it in Havana. I skimmed through it and in the middle of the book read an account of finding human bones in order to make a spell. Bones, graveyard soil and coins were just a few of the necessary items. The word for dead people in the Palo religion is “nfumbe”, which means “dead one”. The more I read about the nfumbes, the more scared I felt. Things had taken a strange turn for me. Lemuria, Cuban voodoo – I decided to leave before something truly scary happened. I put the book back on the shelf and went downstairs and out of the library. Outside I took a deep breath. The nfumbe weren’t going to appear in front of my eyes. No 7 foot tall egg laying Lemurians were coming for me. I was standing next to a box hedge with an empty McDonalds chip container resting on the top. It was a perfectly normal afternoon.