Monthly Archives: January 2012

Leichhardt Library (dusting)

Leichhardt library is located in the Italian Forum, one of Sydney’s most bemusing tourist destinations. Every time I cross the Forum – which is an Italian-style square with restaurants all around it and apartments above – there are groups of tourists, standing, unsure what to do with themselves. Some take photos, others just stare, and probably wonder why on earth this place was listed in their guidebook.

At night time the Forum picks up a bit, but it is ghostly in the daytime, and has been so consistently the many times I’ve passed through it. Leichhardt library was my local library for years, a five minute walk from my house. I’d go there often, and every day in summer, to work away on things.

I used to visit the previous Leichhardt library too, which was off Marion st, a somewhat damp and dingy building with the atmosphere of a dark, book-lined maze. It moved from there when the Forum was built, and despite the large sign (shown here with some bored tourists), the library itself is poked into a corner, next to a ramp to the Norton St level, and on the way to the toilets.

As unpleasant as this sounds, the library itself is a haven of refreshingly cold air conditioning and, as it runs down one side of the Forum, is lined by windows and full of light. The windows must be double glazed, as you can see the planes flying low overhead but not hear them. This was another reason I would leave my house and come here, to escape the regular planes that shook my house as they screamed in to land.

As with any place one visits regularly, I got to recognise all of the staff and develop favourites. When walking there I’d wonder if I’d get the guy with the beard, or the pink haired girl, the serious man with the shifty look, or the woman who always wears the white cotton gloves. Would I get the woman who once detained me for fifteen minutes, blaming me for a cataloguing error for some Werner Herzog documentaries? I hoped not.

I returned the books I’d read over Christmas, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño and Reading by Moonlight by Brenda Walker. I had intended to read Great Expectations but then got caught up in the Bolaño, which was long enough to take me a good month to read. At first I wasn’t sure about it, did I really want to read the story of a young, male poet’s sexual awakening? But the book quickly diverged from that tack, and I felt pleasantly lost in it. I’d invested a lot of time in the Bolaño, I was a bit sad to return it. It was immediately claimed by the serious man, who was on the other side of the return chutes.

Closest to the front desk is the magazines and newspapers, and a long, red seat on which people were sitting reading. A girl in a black dress and cloven-hoof shoes sat reading an issue of Wallpaper, while I stared at the cover of TIME magazine, which had a cover with “2012 User’s Guide – Everything You Need to Know about the Year Ahead” on it. I felt like I should pick it up, but I didn’t. I will go blindly into this year.

The busiest part of Leichhardt library is around the centre, where the DVDs are. The library has an excellent collection of DVDs, with lots of horror films that are hard to find, so Simon tells me. There are always a few people browsing in this section, no matter how quiet the library is. Today a man with a scar on his cheek clasped a copy of Vincent, while he looked through the racks for more movies. Vincent van Gogh looked sadly out at me above the man’s hand.

While the DVD section is good, I usually only glance over the DVDs on display. I will more often flip through the CDs though, which, while not being quite as comprehensive as the DVDs, can sometimes have something interesting. My attention was drawn towards this explosive bear cover art:

I’ve not heard of the band, and it was hard to imagine what a CD with this on the front would sound like, beyond explosive.

The CDs are near the information desk, where you are sent when your card expires, when you have a complex enquiry, or when you’re in trouble. On the other side of this desk is the screen where you book a computer to use the internet, and there is usually someone standing there frowning at it. The computers are in a glass-walled room which has the miserable atmosphere of any public internet terminal. Sometimes there are classes for seniors and I like to look in at them learning how to use Word, or to send an email.

I was on my way to visit my own book, which is part of the library’s collection. When I was younger, and long before I had a book published I would imagine the book I might write on the shelf and the books it would be next to. I assumed I’d write a novel, so I imagined myself in the B’s, rather than the 920s, in between a book about Johnny Cash and Twentieth Century Women of Courage. I could tell that the most read story in my book was the one about the Olympia Milk Bar, as the book opened to it straight away and there were stains on the page, tea stains perhaps. I stopped examining my own book and put it back on the shelf. I perhaps could have been worried someone I know was going to come along and catch me at it, but in the years I’ve been visiting Leichhardt library I have never once see anyone I know in there.

When I emerged at the other end of the shelves, near the windows, I noticed two people working on the indoor plants. They were dressed in identical jeans and blue shirts and were briskly watering, trimming and dusting the indoor palms. This caught my fancy and I sat and watched them work. The man was the faster of the two, flicking a feather duster over the leaves of one plant while the woman watered another and checked some kind of monitor poked into the soil. She smiled at me when she saw me looking. Perhaps she had seen the book I was holding. I’d picked it up just before I sat down. Grow Your Own Drugs is of course not what you would first suspect, it is how to grow and use medicinal plants, how to make hair rinse out of nettles and cholesterol lowering concoctions using hawthorn berries. Of course I will make none of these, but I like the idea that I might.

As I sat there, a tough little girl stomped past. She would have been about 4 years old, and had short cropped hair and a gold Christmas bauble on a green string around her neck. Rather than look cute, it looked tough, like she was daring you to say she looked ridiculous. She stomped down to the kid’s section at the back of the library and started to boss around a giant teddy bear that was slumped against the wall.

I decided I’d borrow Grow Your Own Drugs. I liked the idea of perusing herbal potions at home. I’ve been to so many libraries for Biblioburbia that I haven’t been a member of I almost forgot I could borrow items from Leichhardt. On my way out I looked over the new books, as I always do, hoping to find something interesting. I don’t have much luck with this section, though:

The self check machine that has been out of order for years had finally been removed, and replaced with a stack of local papers. I don’t like going up to the counter, for fear of fines. Even if you owe 50c you are seriously informed of your debt here, with the suggestion of payment hovering like a cloud. The serious man checked my card and I had a feeling of nervousness, like I was at the doctors awaiting results of a test. I’m usually pretty good with library fines but I resent paying them. This time I was in the clear, and was allowed to borrow my book.

I went out the back way, rather than through the Forum, which is down the alleyway that runs behind Parramatta Rd. There is an old sign above a carport here for the Riviera Coffee Lounge, a secret message I always look for.

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Waterloo Library

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:

“Sort of.”

“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.

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Blacktown Library (sunlight)

I stepped off the train at Blacktown station into a summer day of the type that has yet to make it to the area of Sydney I live in: humid and sunny in a way that it is hard to escape. I went in search of the library where I was to conduct a zine workshop, passing by old arcades and stopping off at the hidden Vinnies, which has its sign on the street but its entrance in the lane behind.

Blacktown is one of those suburbs which has a large shopping centre, Westpoint, the kind of place you go into for the air conditioning and to forget the world outside. It also has the older shopping streets, with little arcades branching off, housing mysterious businesses. The library is in between these two sides of Blacktown, a serious block of a building with large ENTRY signs on the automatic doors. I thought about it for a moment and realised it was one of those kinds of buildings where it might be hard to determine the entrance otherwise.

In the foyer was a glass display case full of zines, which I encountered in the way one encounters old friends. In among the zines were items of stationery, my favourite being two paperclips resting one on top of the other. I liked to think of them being arranged lovingly in this way. Paperclips don’t get much attention, have you ever thought about the fact that someone invented them?

I next looked through the book sale trolleys at the entrance to the library. A man was browsing them too, he had a big stack picked out to buy. My looking was fairly distracted as I was thinking about my impending workshop. I was a bit early, as usual, and so set off through the library to see what I could find. In the non fiction section I started looking through a book called Famous Last Lines.

I have no particular interest in railways but I was curious about the idea of endangered railways. My concentration on the trains was broken by the man sitting on a chair nearby, who had a book open on his lap and was underlining in it with a pen. Was it a library book? I looked closely and it appeared to be so. Here was one of these people I had previously only discovered traces of, when I am reading a book and distracted by their underlining and I think “what kind of a person does that?”. It was a chemistry book, and he underlined the words “carbon disulfide” as I watched. At the point the librarian who had organised the workshops found me and I thought for a moment about drawing the underlining to her attention. But then I was following her upstairs in a lift and into the secret realm of library offices, which like in many libraries is tucked away so you wouldn’t even notice it.

I wrote at length about my zine workshop at Mosman library, so I won’t go into detail about this one. The workshop was held in the young adult section downstairs. It was for teenagers and the highlight for me was the girl who described her bedroom to me in great detail, while drawing a little diagram on a piece of scrap paper. She had spent a lot of time decorating her room, it had walls of different colours, fibre optic lights she’d bought when they were on clearance after Christmas, and two mirrors so she could see the front and the back of her hair. I told her she should send a photo of it to Teenage Bedrooms.

When the workshop was over I retrieved my bags from the secret office room and went to say hello to Tim, my friend who works at the library in another, smaller, secret office area. He had promised to show me “the robot”, which is connected to the book return chute downstairs. I know that a robot doesn’t need to be humanoid but I had pictured a contraption rather like Metal Mickey (the robot from a particularly bad 80s tv show for kids).

We went down the stairs and into another secret room behind the front desk. The robot was series of panels which, when a book was returned through the chute, moved the book along until it was in the correct position for the panel to flip up and deposit the book into a container. A number of people were working in this room with the robot, and they seemed happy to have some visitors. They showed me the robot’s tricks for a minute or so and explained its back-saving oh&s advantages. We left them to their work and went out, pausing to chat by the portrait of Max Webber, not the social theorist but the Blacktown Town Clerk for whom the library was named. The portrait had been faded by the sun, and we imagined it fading more and more, until all you could see was his eyes. We stared at the portrait for a moment in silence, then Tim retreated to his secret office and I went out into the sun, which beamed down strongly and threatened to fade me, too.

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Chatswood Library (Coins)

The distance between Chatswood station and Archer street has shrunk in the years since I was a teenager. While there have been many changes since the 1990s, the Chatswood I knew has not disappeared so much as become renewed, and this is the case with the library.

I would sometimes visit the old Chatswood library, a rather dark and dank building situated behind the civic hall on Victoria Street. To get there you walked past a row of small shops selling things like surfwear and beads. To the right of the library entrance was a set of stairs that led through to an alleyway and then Chatswood Chase shopping Centre, and at the top of these stairs was a community noticeboard festooned with layers of ads for cars, lounges and babysitting services. I would always stop to look over these messages, even though I would never reply to any of them.

There is still a stairway in the same position, although the civic square has been completely redone. The hall was demolished and replaced by the square, with a new hall on one side of it. The library entrance is at the back of the square, underneath a giant television screen but in roughly the same place it had been before.

The old Civic Hall, demolished to make way for...

The new Civic Hall

There is a square of grass with one small shade-giving tree (yet to have been planted in the above image), underneath which a girl in a Body Shop t-shirt sat eating her lunch, looking miserable. Across from this is a restaurant called Shanghai 1938. My grandparents lived in Shanghai in the 1930s and had to flee Shanghai in 1937 when the Japanese army invaded. They had to leave all their possessions behind and sometimes my grandmother would lament particular items that had been in their house, and my grandfather particularly lamented not being able to bring Polly, their African Grey Parrot who swore in Spanish, to England. But one doesn’t name a restaurant without doing research, so I’m sure they had a good reason to pick that date. Maybe chefs from the Japanese restaurant around the corner come in and take over Shanghai 1938 half way through your meal.

Chatswood library is below ground level, and at the entrance is the out of hours book return chute, with its surprisingly complex mechanism exposed. I would have thought all was needed was a chute, not all those electronics and an emergency stop button.

Before I entered the library I had sat on the side of the patch of grass, watching people entering and leaving the library. There was a lot of traffic in and out of the doors, the people entering walking briskly and purposefully, those leaving squinting against the light bouncing off the pale stones of the civic square. The square has only been open for a few months so perhaps over time something might be done about the glare. While the previous civic square was architecturally drab, at least there were trees and surfaces that absorbed light.

To escape the glare I joined those heading down the steps to the library. At the bottom of the steps was a row of lockers, one of which still had the key in it and was therefore available. This is the first library other than the state library where I’ve noticed lockers. I went up and investigated the locker, but didn’t have the $2 coin that I would have needed to lock it. I had a lot of silver coins and a New Zealand $2, which had somehow made its way into my wallet.

The library is a large underground space with a light well in the centre. Enclosed by the glass walls of the light well is a pool with a boat-shaped aluminium structure on it. Around this are study tables and lounges, most of which were occupied by people studying and reading. The brochure I’d picked up at the entrance told me that this was one of the biggest public libraries in NSW. I looked up from the brochure and realised that yes, the library was quite vast, and appeared to stretch in all directions.

How do you navigate such a space when you have no particular aim? I made my way to the far back corner. On the way I passed through the non fiction shelves, past another desk with many computers dwarfing the one small librarian behind them, and an exhibition of “Hats in History”. My favourites were the collapsible top hat and the hat box from David Jones accompanying a purely decorative pink hat with large flower on the brim.

Beyond the hat display was the local history section, where I settled down to look at the collection of Dawson’s Pink Pages from the 1980s. I picked out one of the Dawson’s Community Information Guides for Willoughby and took it over to one of the lounges in the centre of the library. As I found a place to sit an announcement came over the public address system: “Paging Georgia Pick. Could you please come to the Welcome Desk?” The term “welcome desk” is uncomfortably close to “people greeter” for my liking. I wondered what Georgia Pick looked like, and being too far away to see, I have only a vision of her as a grumpy teenager in slightly too tight shorts – “Pick” is not a surname with pleasant connotations.

I sat down on one of the black lounges and looked at the Community Guide.

            

I love looking at these kinds of publications and could do so endlessly. My favourite part of them is the ads. It is here you really get a sense of the times. Ads for wine bars, for macrame supplies, for new cars that would now be so old you would never even see one on the street anymore, for boutiques with names like “Boogie street clothing company”. As I read through I imagined a different Chatswood to the one that existed above me. After my library visit I could perhaps visit Prevue’s Georgian Room, “for the truly discriminating” and enjoy an open sandwich and glass of champagne.

            

As well as the ads there was a ten page feature on Royal North Shore Hospital, a place I have had reason to visit often over the past six months. The main hospital building is a dark brick hulk of rather Soviet appearance, whose days are numbered as construction of a new hospital reaches completion beside it. The current hospital building sits incongruously in its present surroundings, but I think in 1980 it would have seemed solid, rather than gloomy. Like the old 60s and 70s libraries, the hospital is to be renewed with a bright, 21st century design. The new buildings are vastly superior to the old, of course, but I always feel a bit sad for old civic buildings when they are being demolished. They give such service over the years but once replaced they are soon forgotten. I like to think that nothing is ever forgotten. For this reason I record as many details as possible.

I noticed that there were silver discs on the bottom of the pool, and I put down Dawsons and my reveries and leaned over to get a closer look at them. The discs were coins which must have been thrown down by people walking by above. There were a lot of 20c coins in particular, this must be the amount which people feel is equivalent to a wish.

One of my many favourite book as a child was From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. In it a girl and her brother run away from home and hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The story engages with the common childhood fantasy of hiding out in a shop, or museum, or indeed a library overnight. About halfway through the book they decide to have a bath in the fountain and discover that the bottom of the fountain is covered with coins. The miserly brother is delighted by this and whispers to his sister, “Income, Claudia, income!”.

The coins in the library pool were safely encased behind glass and inaccessible. I don’t know that people are superstitious enough these days to resist picking coins out of fountains. The pool is an artwork by Wendy Mills, a sculptor who has done a lot of public artworks. A plaque explained that the artwork refers to a Sumerian story in which the queen of heaven visits Enki, the god of wisdom, and is given “divine decrees about civilisation and culture”. He then regrets his gift and orders sea monsters to chase her, but she gets away and uses the decrees to benefit the city where she lives.

I returned the pink pages to the Local History section and found myself examining the Quarto section which was also near the back of the library. The Quartos stretched from here along the side wall, and I spent a lot of time here investigating the fashion and folklore and architecture books. I could see straight away that the library has a good collection of such books, and plenty of old and interesting books from the 70s. I particularly like 70s books as it must have been a time when printing became cheaper and so plenty of hardback studies of specific topics were released, in volumes with plenty of photographs and illustrations. My favourite book of this kind was Ephemeral Folk Figures: Scarecrows, Harvest Figures and Snowmen by Avon Heal and Ann Parker, published in 1969.

This was an example of finding the thing I didn’t know I was looking for, a feeling I often experience in op shops. These pictures of long since disintegrated scarecrows gave me a great feeling of discovery. I was so enraptured by this book I went in search of the photocopier. There were two photocopy rooms, one at the back of the library and another at the front, where I could buy a “casual ticket” in order to copy without having a library card. I applaud this system, it is much better than needing to have a library card, or having to buy a prepaid card for a determined amount. I went into the photocopy room and figured out the ticket dispensing machine. I tried to feed the machine my New Zealand coin but it couldn’t be fooled.

I copied ten or so of my favourite figures from the book, and I now present to you my favourite three, one from each category:

I returned to the treasureland of the Quarto section and spent a good hour looking at books about cravats throughout history: A Guide to Civilian Men’s Neckpieces 1655-1900, books of 1950s ads, The Rocking Horse Maker, guides to forgotten crafts from the 19th century, books of Persian mythology and other such fascinating knowledge I didn’t know I had an interest in.

On display above the shelves were some of the featured books from the collection.

Naturally Lost Buildings held great appeal for me, and I took it over to one of the small black seats that were positioned at the end of every row of shelves, for further inspection. The first item of interest from Lost Buildings was not a building, it was the Frost Fairs which were held on the Thames in London between the 15th and 19th centuries. The Frost Fairs were in the book as the demolition of the old London Bridge occurred some years after the last frost fair in 1814 and the new bridge combined with weather change to make further fairs impossible. I love images of markets from past times, and particularly like the idea of a Frost Fair. In the days when they were held England had much colder winters, so the Thames would freeze, something which it would be difficult to imagine these days.

            

Many of the lost buildings were English, as it was a book by an English writer. The Nonsuch Palace caught my attention, firstly because of the XTC album Nonsuch – the power of popular music to educate its fans is underrated. Built by Henry the 8th in the early 16th century and demolished in 1682, this palace got its name by virtue of the fact that “none such” palace was equal to its splendour. The splendid palace was demolished and the building materials sold to pay for the gambling debts of the countess who owned the property in the 17th century.

Many years ago there was an exhibition of demolished houses of Sydney. In some cases it was quite shocking to think of grand homes being demolished to make way for expressways and red  brick apartment blocks. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, for of course things must change, the priorities at different points in history are what is interesting to me. By imagining these priorities you get closer to understanding what it would have been to live in those times.

At the risk of never leaving the Quarto section, I forced myself out into the general non-fiction area. There was  a family browsing this section, parents and their teenage daughter, who held a teetering pile of books in one hand while attempting to take still more books off the shelf to look at. They had come to my attention as the girl’s mother had asked a nearby librarian what the maximum number of books one could borrow is. The librarian told them it was twenty. I tried to see what books there were on the pile but nothing stuck out. It was a mix of cookbooks, YA fiction, and audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry.

The first section I happened upon in non-fiction was health, and in particular longevity. I would not have known there was a section on longevity, but it makes sense in conjunction with ageing, for which there were also many books. I was ashamed to be interested, but I picked up Ageless, which had the question “What’s your longevity quotient?” on the front. I was curious as to what my quotient was, but as is always the case with such books, this is not reached by a simple calculation. I would be better off wasting my time with online life expectancy calculators (….hmmm I am really supposed to live to 97?). The advice in these books is exactly what you would expect, and the same as the advice in books about dieting: eat sensibly and exercise. There are whole shelves of these books with different ways to do these two things. I think a big part of reading these books is programming this simple message into your brain, so you can resist the world coming at you with its cream cakes and spit roasts and bottles of whiskey.

In the health section was a boy lying on a couch, reading the start of a thick book which I tried to glimpse the title of on the way past. All I could see was that, judging by the cover art, it was a fantasy book. He was so engrossed in reading it and I liked how he had taken his shoes off and left them beside him on the carpet in mid step.

I’d spent a lot of time in non-fiction so I took a walk around the other side of the library, where the kid’s section and the Chinese books are. I passed through the newspaper and magazine zone, where all the red lounge chairs were taken with people doing a variety of activities including reading, sleeping, making notes in a small Spirax notebook and sorting out one’s wallet. I could see over into the kid’s section where there was a reading area with a seat at the base of a sculpture of a tree with flames coming off its branches. What a lucky kid that gets to sit there, I thought, before getting close enough to see that a Chinese grandma was sitting in there instead.

            

I passed many desks where people were studying, in poses that ranged from alert to despairing. In the young adult section three teenage girls lay side by side on a bean bag, holding hands and giggling about the people they could see walking past outside. The library is below ground level but the open area with the pool in the centre enables you to see the people who are walking by up top. Everyone seemed to amuse these girls, no matter how normal or boring they looked.

I sat at a desk nearby for a little while, across from a miserable looking girl wearing a t-shirt with kittens on it. She had a pencilcase in the shape of a lion. The grubby lion sagged on the top of the desk, paws splayed out and its innards of pens exposed. When I sat down the girl gave me a mournful look before going back to her maths textbook.

I’d picked up Simple Etiquette in Russia (1990) from the reference section on my way through, and read a little of it as I sat at the desk. There was a section about eating: “An interesting common sight in the main streets are vending machines dispensing fizzy drinks for a few kopecks”. What this fails to mention about these vending machines is that they used a communal glass rather than vending individually bottled drinks. The glass rested on the grille underneath the dispenser, sometimes chained there to avoid theft. A water spout was provided for rinsing the glass before you used it.

The book also mentioned the new ice cream cafes where you could buy a glass of champagne to have with your ice cream,  “an intriguing mix”.

I put this book back on the shelf and did a final circuit of the library. I was briefly distracted in the needlework and craft section for a little while, looking at a book of Soviet textiles while a woman behind me reminisced to the librarian about the many years she’d been coming to the library to read books about embroidery. The Soviet textiles had a lot of prints of locomotives, skaters, cogs and factories, broken down into wild constructivist patterns.

            

When I ascended the stairs and walked out into the square I was now the one blinking against the strong light. My eyes had got used to the comfortable ambience of the library, and the glare of Civic Square sent me on a mad scramble through my bag for sunglasses. Thus protected, I made sure to walk out past the edge of the light well and the pool, so the girls on the beanbag could see me and laugh.

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Auburn Library (Upstairs)

I knew to find Auburn library in the conglomerate of civic buildings behind Auburn Road, as I’d conducted a zine workshop there last year. This workshop was mostly teenagers whose families had come to Australia as refugees, in some cases as recently as a few weeks before. One boy who was a little older than the rest, who also stood out as he was wearing a collared shirt and waistcoat, picked up a pencil and drew a detailed and skilful portrait of a woman’s face. He showed me it with the universal student expression of “is this right?”. I thought how strange it must have been to suddenly be in another country, in a room with people from so many other places, being encouraged to fill the 8 pages of an A6 booklet. At the end of the workshop, the shy Vietnamese girls who hadn’t wanted to show me their drawings lined up to hug me, one by one.

Auburn has a beautiful mosque, the white domes and gold minarets of which appear as the train approaches the station. What I like best about Auburn though, are the clues to its past that appear when you look above street level. It pays to look up, as old signs are often left on awnings and you can get a sense of how places have changed.

This was a particular favourite, which at first I noticed just for the Socrates sign, but then noticed the top floor was burnt out while business continued below.

By looking for the old signs you notice how businesses have a way of persisting, in new incarnations:

From Ronald Lane Hair Shoppe to Hasan Barber You Well Come is a lineage of idiosyncratic letter-doubling as well as hair cutting.

The library’s facade is much less interesting. It has a kind of carpark aesthetic to it, which thankfully is not carried over to the interior. This was the first library where I’d noticed a sign that the library was under video surveillance, which immediately made me wonder what kinds of things had happened there to warrant it. Often libraries will have signs warning you to watch your belongings, although at these libraries I have noticed that people love setting up at a desk, then leaving all their things there while they go off wandering.

Auburn library has a similar design to Merrylands library. The wall on the right hand side is made of glass, which fills the library with light. Downstairs, past the desk at the front is the children’s section and fiction, and upstairs is the non fiction and study area. I had been thinking about getting a coffee from the coffee machine: I’d had a bad night’s sleep the night before and thought a coffee, even one from a machine, might help. Almost all libraries have a coffee machine, so I thought this was my chance to use it. The machine was near the entrance, against the glass wall, next to a vending machine. Reading through what was available, I changed my mind about the coffee when I read that one of the available drinks was “Beverage with the taste of soup”.  I was worried what my coffee might taste like.

I sat down on one of the lounge chairs near the newspapers, next to the children’s’ section. A woman was taking a photo of her daughter reading a book sitting next to a white teddy bear. She had obviously staged the photograph, as the little girl didn’t do as she was instructed, and wouldn’t sit still. The bear however was very obedient.

The front page of the Sydney Morning Herald had an article about the proposed removal of the monorail. Although this comes as no surprise, I felt sad for the monorail, which has been maligned since its construction in 1988. I go on it sometimes. I like the view of the city from it, completely different from any other view you can get of the streets. It is at that height about street level which is just a little bit hidden and interesting, and on the journey you get to see some of the old signs on Pitt St for 70s and 80s businesses. Now is the time to go on the monorail while you still can. You can just ride it round and round – for hours if you so desire, meeting new tourists as you go. Besides weirdos like me and people who live in Ultimo, the only people who catch it are tourists.

While I was reading this article I was distracted by a smooth female voice informing me of road safety rules. Next to the coffee machine was something I would call a “Road Safety Information Station”. There was a range of pamphlets about road rules and a screen showing slides of information like “1 in 4 crashes in Auburn is from rear end”. The woman’s voice would come in every now and again and reiterate the facts displayed on the screen. The volume was quite soft, so perhaps it was an attempt at subliminal influence.

I looked at the stands of new books that was beside the newspaper area. I always approach this area hopefully, but this time I was too irritated by my pet book titling hate: fiction books with non-fiction titles. This has been going for years, surely all the names of instruction manuals for quirky things have almost been taken by now? The names that triggered my ire were Unusual Uses for Olive Oil and The Nature of Ice. The former is an article in a Woman’s Day, the latter is a scientists presentation for the Royal Society. Neither makes me want to read the book. Sometimes I’m fooled and I pick up the book hoping it is about the nature of ice, say, only to find it’s about the struggle of a character with a quirky name as life swirls around them.

Upstairs I wouldn’t have this trouble, as that is where the non fiction and reference collections are kept. I went up the stairs and sat at one of the study desks, looking down over the library and the people in it. A girl with an I heart Rio bag, browsing the Chinese novels; a boy doing find-a-words in one of those cheap booklets of them you buy at the newsagent, listening to an iPod touch. A woman photocopying worksheets for drawing numbers.

I turned my attention to the desk. At first it looked unblemished but if you look at any library desk closely enough you will find something written or scratched into it.

A crude rendering of one of English’s most desperate and most joyous words. What would motivate you to scratch that into a library desk? I looked around at the people studying. There were a few, even though in early January I wasn’t sure what they’d be studying for. One girl had PDHPE textbooks open in front of her, and behind me two men were discussing something that sounded financial. They had looked at me suspiciously when I sat down nearby.

There were a number of different study areas upstairs, as well as the book shelves. I spent some time in the reference section, looking at books about literature. One particular series caught my eye:

Masterplots II is a collection of book reviews of commonwealth literature. If, for example, you need to know the plot of Caliban’s Filibuster by Paul West, this book gives it to you, as well as an analysis of the characters, plot and themes. On the same shelf was a small book in the “Rough Guides” series, The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction. I took it to one of the nearby desks to examine it. The chair at this desk, like the first one I’d sat on, was threadbare at the edges, like a cat had used it to sharpen its nails. I looked around: all the chairs were like this. I’m not someone who worries about such things. When I’m sitting on it, it doesn’t matter.

“Cult” makes me think of the 1990s and bookshops like Polyester on Brunswick St in Melbourne, where you would go, and still can go, to buy Kathy Acker books and catch up on Beat literature. This guide was the kind of book I like to take to bed with me and read before going to sleep. It’s the kind of information that is almost certainly on the internet but I like better as a book, being able to hold the list of cult authors in my hand. Imagine the distraction as you followed links, found yourself tied up in google books an amazon, all because you wanted to find out a little bit more about Walter Abish. I had not heard of him before reading of him here. His first novel, Alphabetical Africa has an alphabetical structure in which the first chapter includes words only starting with “a”, the second a and b, the third a, b and c and so on, and then once having used all letters decreases again so the last chapter is written only in a words again. This reminded me of course of Georges Perec, who wrote the novel A Void without using e, and of the Oulipo group and their various literay experiments. Did I want to read Alphabetical Africa? I’m not sure, but I would have my eye out for it. I like, too, that Walter Abish’s signature look was the wearing of a triangular eyepatch.

What makes an author “cult”? The book listed some obscure writers but most were well known, Italo Calvino, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Bukowski. In the opening chapter the main criteria for cultness seemed to be having one’s books out of print, and being dead, or write “one seminal novel, behave abominably in public and then die tragically young”. Apart from the latter I am perhaps on my way.

After putting the cult books book back I looked around the non fiction section. Hanging on the wall above the shelves was a Sydney 2000 Olympics flag. Often libraries will have Sydney 2000 memorabilia on display, and I wonder how long such things will remain before they become irrelevant. The Olympics, such an intrusion on Sydney at the time, are now retreating into memory, along with the incredible kitsch of the opening and closing ceremonies, the 120 stockmen riding in the formation of the Olympic rings, the huge Kewpie dolls, and this:

A representation of English invasion, this penny farthing contraption with a white rabbit in a cage hanging off the back and a bewigged goon with a telescope at the helm, is a symbolism nightmare.

At the back of the library was another study area and I sat down at one of the tables there. On it was the book 1001 Escapes to Make Before You Die. I doubt I will make any of those escapes, all of which require much money and planning. I opened the book at random to find which escape was my destiny, and landed on the Ice Hotel in Sweden, “the world’s largest hotel made of ice and snow”. My friend Lucas once built a wall at this hotel. The ice melts in springtime so the hotel needs to be rebuilt again come winter. This is probably the only place in the world you can sleep under reindeer skins, inside a 50s car made of ice.

Behind me two girls were sitting talking. I’d noticed two empty bottles of Coke on the table, so maybe it was the caffeine, or maybe just the excitement of being 14, but they kept up a non stop conversation about the kinds of things that are exciting for you at that age but terribly boring for anyone else. Boys, in particular one boy named Tommy, the deputy principal, detentions, girls who are “really pretty” and some who are not… On the wall behind them was a mural which made reference to the diversity of Auburn, with some strange sentences like “People talking in many shaped clumps along the meeting street”. Having worked as a writing teacher for many years this sentence started to annoy me, so I left the girls talking about whether Tommy was Japanese or not and made my way back downstairs. As I was looking at one of the noticeboards along the same glass wall as the road safety station and the coffee machine, I felt a gust of cold air up my skirt and I realised I was standing on the air conditioning vent. These vents ran along the length of the wall. Luckily I was wearing a skirt of sturdy fabric, so there was no Marilyn Monroe moment.

The fiction section was at the back of the library and I looked around here for a while. The whole back wall was of Turkish books.

There is a large Turkish community in Auburn, and I’d never seen so many Turkish books in one place before. I decided I would browse them for a little while, I like looking at books in languages I don’t understand. Picking up a book in Turkish I can comprehend none of it, as there are few cognates with English, but I like looking at the language anyway, the unfamiliar words and sounds. I could work out what some of the books were by the author (Dan Brown, for example), and others were more obvious:

When I moved on to the Arabic section nearby I found him again:

I imagined him making an appearance in every language, but he couldn’t find him in Persian, Chinese, or Hindi, although I did notice this book:

Not being able to read the words, to me they look like insects themselves.

In this section I noticed a woman and her daughter sitting close together, sharing a desk. The girl was reading a young adult novel called Persistence of Memory and her mum was reading a magazine, commenting to her daughter about what she was reading so often that the girl put down the book and joined her to look at pictures of people’s teeth. They groaned over the most horrible examples. The magazine was in Japanese so I couldn’t tell what it was about, but I guess some kind of tooth restoration procedure, before and after shots. The girl and her mum had the same hair, long brown hair with lighter streaks and later, when they stood up to leave, I noticed they were the same height. The girl was wearing a red Snoopy t-shirt which matched her mum’s sun visor, which had a red lace band at the top and a see-through red plastic visor.

I moved towards the exit, noticing a boy at the photocopier copying ID cards. Every time I’d passed the photocopier it was in use, as was the one upstairs. The copier was positioned near the air conditioning vent, and one of the boy’s brothers was standing over it so the air filled up his shirt and it billowed out like he had been inflated. The boy paused in his photocopying and took a photo of his brother with his phone. This feature of the library must be popular with kids, although, sensibly, the children’s area was over the other side of the room. None of the children would read any books with the vent to play with.

Before I left I had a look at the young adult books, where I noticed a recent edition of Dangerous Love from the Sweet Valley High series – still in print! – and also a book about Zombies vs. Unicorns that I picked up because the cover had no title on it. This tends to make me curious about what’s inside, although like the 1001 escapes I have to make before I die, trying to work out which would win in a fight between a zombie and a unicorn makes me feel like my life is slipping out of my grasp. If I had to take sides, I would take the side of the unicorn.

Back out on the streets of Auburn the sun was strong and I got caught up in a crowd of people trying to gain entry to the Teks bargain store, which was closing down. Everything inside was 50% off and there was a huge queue of people buying crockery, art materials, bins and cheap toys. In a momentary lapse of judgement I went to enter this store myself, but was stopped by a man at the door, who told me that there were too many people inside and I had to wait. I did for a while, but as a woman got narky with me for standing in the wrong place I came to my senses and walked away with a great sense of freedom.

From Auburn station I could see my favourite old sign of all, which is an old neon sign on a green background, at the top of an old brick building. For you a Loan. Hidden in the middle of all the development around it, it does seem like a message just for me.

(If you can’t find the sign, click  the photo to see it larger)

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Mosman Library (Workshop)

Mosman library can be found behind Military Road with its endless boutiques, through an open air arcade that makes me strongly recall the 80s. This was when I was most familiar with Mosman, as it was where my mother’s preferred hairdresser worked. The salon was in one of the brick arcades, and my main memories of going there were my fascination with the hair sweepings and how every time the hairdresser suggested I cut my long hair short (note: it is still long).

Mosman is a different world from the one I inhabit. It starts as soon as the traffic is deflected north down Spit Road, leaving Military Road to Mosman traffic only. Looking for the library I passed many rich blonde haired women out shopping, a huge gourmet food shop with a cheese room, people taking lunch seated by a fountain, and a council noticeboard with an ad for the very event I had come to Mosman for, the zine workshop I was due to run that afternoon.

The entrance to Mosman Library is this rather unassuming walkway which makes it look like it is part of a maze of pathways in a “find the library” video game.

Inside, the library is divided int0 two sections, one is the children’s section, with pirate flag bunting hanging across the ceiling, and the other is the adult books, fiction and non-fiction. Right at the back of the library is the “Teen Zone”, which was where I was to conduct the workshop. I met the youth librarian who had organised the workshop at the front desk: out of all the staff I had a strong feeling she was the person I’d been emailing, and sidled up and introduced myself.

As I was working in the library, rather than my usual anonymous note-taking patron routine, this time I was privy to the behind the scenes areas. All libraries have these secret office areas somewhere, usually hidden away so you would not even know they were there. On my brief excursion to this section of the library I felt my usual nervousness at being in a private place, with people busy at their desks, a pinboard of postcards from holidaying colleagues, and whiteboards of schedules.

The librarian gathered together a trolley full of materials, containers of scissors, gluesticks and other zinemaking materials, and we went down to Teen Zone to set up. Unlike the rather brickbound front of the library, the back windows looked out on trees and the green expanse of an oval. Tables had been arranged to form one long table down the centre of the space, although I think there are usually beanbags there, as they were piled up against the side into one tall big beanbag mound. During the parts of the workshop where everyone was working away diligently I had to stop myself looking at the beanbags and thinking about curling up on top of them, like a cat.

I’ve conducted many zine workshops over the years and each has its own particular feeling to it, depending on the location and the age of the participants. This workshop was for under 18s, and so there were a couple of teenage girls making artist books, two younger girls making a zine of mythological creatures (they knew a lot about them, at one point I heard them seriously discussing the Kraken), a charmingly polite boy obsessed with Nerf guns who made a zine about them, and a brother and sister who had come from Belgium only a week earlier.

After I showed examples of zines and the tricks to making them, the librarian suggested someone pick a CD to put on. The Belgian boy went and picked out “Jungle Blues” by C.W Stoneking, which was not what I was expecting. “Is this the music young people like these days?” I asked. The teenage girls seemed particularly upset by the banjo blues and after a few songs C.W. was replaced by the Triple J Hottest 100.

My students were working away industriously on their zines and I went to explore the library a little. I have found that it is not good to be constantly hovering over a workshop group, especially when people are making zines. I wouldn’t like to have a constantly looming woman looking over my shoulder while I tried to draw a realistic picture of an owl, asking me how I was going every 5 minutes.

The Non-Ficton collection is vast and includes sections I hadn’t noticed in any other library yet:

I liked imagining Mosman folk in their harbourside homes, reading books about world wars. At the end of each shelf were some books on display, and one in particular caught my eye:

Would reading about insomnia at night help you go back to sleep? I wondered. The cover made me feel instantly anxious, so probably not. I opened it and read a few paragraphs about sleeping pills, in particular one called Halcion. While I am no specialist in benzodiazepines, I knew of this drug because of the name’s allusions: to the mythical bird that calms the sea and also to one’s “halcyon days”. I have now and then thought about how pharmaceuticals are named, though have discovered little information about this. Rather than allusions to Greek Mythology, drugs these days are just heavy on the x’s and the vowels. Perhaps this is safer in case the drug, like Halcion, turns out to occasionally trigger psychosis.

Back at the workshop my students sent me on a few bookfinding errands. I found the section on France in the travel section for one of the teenage girls and gathered together a pile of books about fairies for the mythological creatures zine. The girls were discussing if fairies counted as mythological, and also explained to me the difference between a mermaid and a siren: mermaid good, siren bad, but they look the same. While I knew this already, I sensed they wanted to tell me, so acted like I didn’t know.

The well trodden path to the photocopier.

During the workshop I made many trips to the photocopier, which was at the front of the library, to copy images of cars for the boy who had chosen C.W. Stoneking. He had a big, heavy book about cars and chose the strangest examples to put in his zine, to write stories about. When I’d asked the group what they were going to make their zines about, he had put up his hand and said “Can you make an encyclopaedia of cars, with each car having a story?” Yes, I said, and showed him my shopping list zine, in which I wrote stories about the different shopping lists I’d collected.

The cars he chose were the strangest in the book, and this one in particular, the Tucker, caught my attention.

“Why does it look so strange?” I wondered aloud.

“It has three eyes!” the boy said.

Walking to and from the photocopier took up quite a bit of the afternoon. Every time I passed the magazine section in which, like Campsie Library, the magazines were housed in clear boxes.

The more libraries that I go to, the more I notice the particular styles and elements that I think are particular to the first library where I see them, until I start noticing them in others. The one that I have noticed the most is shopping baskets, which seem to be in most libraries, although I didn’t notice any in Mosman. One thing Mosman had that I hadn’t noticed in other libraries was reader’s reviews, which were pinned to a board near the new book display. My favourite was:

As those who notice details will have already realised, Mosman Library’s logo is a whale reading a book.

This is also the library stamp in each book and was on the photocopy card I was using to make copies for the workshop.

As well as strange cars, I also copied pictures of spiders for the car boy’s sister, who was making a zine about spiders. She seemed quite fascinated by the idea of Australia’s poisonous spiders, as in Belgium the spiders are small and innocuous. “People say don’t worry, the only place where spiders are poisonous is Australia. But then where do we move!” she said.

“Are you afraid of spiders?” I asked.

“No. I like them,” she said.

I wondered what the man waiting to use the copier thought as I made copy after copy of the wolf spider, trying to get it the right size and contrast. Would he even wonder at all? It’s not polite to pay too much attention to what people are copying, although it hard to resist peeking.

As I was on my way back with the spider pictures I noticed a woman browsing the cookery section wearing a Hard Rock Cafe shirt. It had been a long time since I had noticed a Hard Rock cafe t-shirt, although I remember years ago joking with friend Steph about how stupid their slogan “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons Allowed Inside” was. We devised a scenario in which we would enter Sydney’s Hard Rock Cafe strapped to a giant papier mache nuclear weapon, just to see what they would do.

The kids’ zines were progressing well and I went around and inspected everyone’s work before going to chat to the librarian in the manga section. I’d bought a t-shirt earlier in the week that said Ranma 1/2 on it, which is a manga series about a boy martial artist who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water. I hadn’t read it, but I liked the shirt, so I looked for a copy of a book from the series. I found one but got distracted talking with the librarian about the Mosman Library Manga club. They have lots of events for teenagers, one I noticed posters for was the zombie party which was being held to celebrate Friday 13th.

A woman came up enquiring about a particular book, which just happened to be on a display next to the workshop tables. I had been glimpsing it all afternoon. It was a guide to being a vegan as a teenager, called Generation V: The Complete Guide to Going, Being, and Staying Vegan as a Teenager. The other book the woman was looking for was the Veganomicon, which is the most popular vegan cookbook of the moment. I like a good vegan cookbook, but so far all I have got from the Veganomicon is the name, which sticks in my head. I imagined that this woman’s teenager had recently gone vegan. It was nice that their mum went out to find information about it. I hoped her teenager was kind vegan, rather than a bossy vegan.

Behind the shelf that had the teenage vegan book on it was another shelf of books on display, one of which was called Literary Hoaxes. I meant to pick it up and investigate it but then the workshop was wrapping up, parents were coming to collect their kids and the hoax book slipped my mind. People get a lot of pleasure out of literary hoaxes, perhaps because, at least in the case of fiction, it is an extension of the fiction beyond the pages of the book. My favourite hoax of recent times is J.T. Leroy, although I wouldn’t call that a hoax more a case of taking a pseudonym too far. I would be happy not to have to hear anything about Ern Malley ever again, however.

We collected the scrap paper, picked the little shreds of paper up off the floor, I packed up my zines and alphabet stamps and the workshop was over. I browsed the book sale trolley on my way out, which had a lot of travel guides and multiple copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, another book with a good name. I am neither travelling nor expecting, though, and none of the other books appealed to me either. I should have bought one just to have a copy of that whale stamp…

 

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