Monthly Archives: February 2012

Biblioburbia, Exhibition Version

This week I’ve been working hard on putting together a different version of Biblioburbia, which you will be able to see in its final form at First Draft Gallery, from March 14th to April 1st. Here are some photos of the process.

I cleared the hundreds of things that usually populate my desk off it in order to work on the various maps/zines/ posters that are going to be part of the exhibition. Souvenir rulers have an important role to play in my artistic process.

Here I plan for my takeover of Sydney. You might notice that there is a cupboard hiding behind the map. We cut holes for the handles and cut out the door so I can get at my frocks if need be.

There’s some more information about the exhibition on the First Draft website, and details of the opening. During the exhibition I’ll also have either a zine, or a poster, or both, for sale so you can take home your own piece of Biblioburbia.



Filed under Exhibition

Macquarie University Libraries

In 2011, Macquarie University’s new library opened. The old library, a stern Brutalist structure built in 1967, had been slowly emptied of books over the first half of 2011 and every visit I made there I found myself crossing through more areas of empty shelves.

It was a melancholy experience to be in a library empty of books. I had a great affection for the old library, like it was a severe older relative.  I first encountered it as a child when I came to the university with my grandfather, when he came to pick up watches to repair from the University newsagency. Many years later I got a job at Macquarie myself. As with all places one has experienced over many years, particular elements became important to me, and there were certain details I loved about the library. Some you couldn’t miss, like “Jack” the dinosaur skeleton in the foyer. Others were seasonal, such as the piles of umbrellas that would be abandoned in the entrance on rainy days.

At times when I felt like exploring I would go to the Russian section and look at the books. I don’t speak Russian and my interest in these books was purely aesthetic. If I’d had a bad class I’d visit the Russian section and feel assured of life, and a world, beyond my own. But I’m not able to do this any more, and most of these books I will never see again.

The most talked about feature of the new library is the Automated Storage and Retrieval System, or ASRS. This is the system in which 80% of the collection is now stored, while the remaining 20% is on open shelves in the library. Macquarie is currently the only library in Australia to use this method of book storage, although other libraries around the world use similar systems, and one is being built for the new UTS library.

In the years before the new Macquarie library opened there were many rumours about it, people talking about robots retrieving books and other such futuristic scenarios. I watched curiously the construction site where the new library was being constructed, but had little idea how the automatic retrieval system would work.

Just before the new library opened tours were conducted for university staff. The construction of the building was complete, most of the books had been moved, and soon the library would open. Me and a selection of other staff members from different departments assembled outside the library for the tour.

While it was interesting to find out about the architectural concepts and that the coloured panels on the exterior were meant to reflect the colours of the gum trees native to the area, the part everyone wanted to see was the automatic retrieval system.

The tour leader swiped us through a set of unassuming beige doors into huge silver mausoleum of a room. We stood on a platform looking out over a four storey high stretch of silver boxes, separated from us by a cage-like structure.

I hadn’t known what to expect, and it was a strange feeling looking at all these rows of steel boxes, knowing they were full of books.

A librarian was on hand to show us how the books are retrieved. When a request comes through the robotic crane glides swiftly to the particular box, pulls the box out and delivers it to us at the platform. Then the librarian finds the book inside the box, takes it out, and it goes onto a trolley then out to a collection shelf behind the desk on the other side of the doors.

The books are organised in height order within the boxes, which I didn’t expect. The idea of books of all different topics combined in one box was quite wild to me. Macquarie Uni uses the Library of Congress call numbers, rather than Dewey Decimal system, which is something that confused me the first time I used the library, but I have come to like it better than Dewey. Of course the call numbers are still fundamental to the new storage system. The book’s call number is registered when the book is returned to storage, along with its location: the book goes back where it will fit, rather than having a permanent location in one of the boxes.

There was a lot of technical detail to comprehend, but the thing I, and other people on the tour, wondered, was whether this was a good way to store the collection. While not exactly defensive, the tour leader was quick to fire off the advantages, saying “We’re not throwing away any books” (reference to the scandals at other Sydney universities where skip bins full of books on their way to landfill were discovered), this enables the collection to be kept in one place rather than offsite storage, and makes the library more sustainable, a term that was used a lot during the tour.

The one thing that the ASRS system doesn’t allow is “serendipitous browsing”, or finding unexpected things by physically looking, a process most library users would be familiar with, and I have done much of throughout Biblioburbia. I don’t count my former Russian section indulgences as true serendipitous browsing, however, they were more about inhabiting the same space as the books. I thought of my old and not-often borrowed Russian friends, somewhere in those steel boxes.

As the tour proceeded around the many study areas and configurations of different types of furniture in the new library, I felt glad I’d seen the Automatic Retrieval System. My ideal library is a labyrinth where every book is out on the shelves and one can serendipitously explore, but in the world we must inhabit, it seemed like a pretty good solution. I liked that it is hidden behind a set of double doors so bland that you would probably not even notice them, which open onto an entirely unexpected futuristic scenario.

At the end of the tour the guide asked if we had any questions and I asked what was going to happen to the old library. Looking annoyed, she said that nothing had been planned. It would stay empty until a plan was drawn up for what to do with it. It had been built to last 50 years, she said, as had this new library. In 2061 a group of people will be touring the next new library, whatever that might look like.


Filed under Northern Sydney, The future of libraries, University Libraries

Library Lovers Day

This year Valentine’s Day was also declared Library Lovers’ Day, with many libraries holding celebrations of the start of the National Year of Reading.

By the time I reached Hornsby library in the late afternoon, however, I had missed the celebrations. The mayor had left, the ukulele orchestra had tucked their instruments under their arms and left the library to its usual quiet. In fact the library seemed quieter than usual with the knowledge there had been celebrations earlier in the day.

Many of the celebrations at Sydney libraries were held in the daytime, for Library Lovers who don’t have other obligations on Tuesdays. Sadly I was not one of those people. I did, however, receive a report from my spy in Campsie, Simon, via text message:


Campsie library is having a sausage sizzle and free books. Wild scenes here.


There was a giant mouse and a man yelling abuse at the librarians.


I got some books for you about Ice-T and monster squids.

At least I could experience library love vicariously, as I had missed the Hornsby celebrations I had hoped I would catch the end of. Despite my lateness, I popped in to explore the aftermath.

Hornsby library is tucked is at the edge of the shopping area, a big brick block of a building with a no nonsense exterior. Just inside the doorway were a couple of mascots, a boy and girl wearing stylish newspaper outfits.

They guarded the triumphal arch over the electronic gates, objects that are fixtures at every library, but rarely blessed with decorations.

There were no librarians at the front desk, but there was a large plate of picked-over snacks among the information pamphlets. Only tiny teddies and miniature Cheezels were left, jumbled up in an unappetising pile on the white plastic plate.

Near the windows, sitting at desks, were high school students, girls with roses so perfect looking and long stemmed they didn’t seem real. Most of the girls had roses, some encased in long plastic boxes, others with bows around them. A few had gerberas, which must represent a different type of love.

On the other side of the library the librarians were examining the wedding dress display that had been arranged on one of the walls.

Each dress was paired with a photo from the wedding at which it had been worn. The pink dress had originally been white, and had then been dyed pink; there were photos of it being worn at the wedding and then in pink mode at a later celebration.

In the centre of the wedding dress display was a board decorated with photos of people reading. When I looked closer at it I realised it was photos of just one guy reading the same copy of Fishing magazine, in front of many world landmarks, Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty and the like. He must be able to recite that fishing magazine from memory by now.

There were forms for you to enter your own photographs of yourself reading. Did I have any photographs of myself reading, or for something a little more challenging really reading, rather than pretending to read? Some investigation through my files at home led me to a photo I believe is authentic:

It was taken in 2007 and I was reading an issue of McSweeneys that must have been very engrossing.

After examining the board I had a quick look around Hornsby library, but was distracted by missing all the library love and didn’t feel like settling down. I left the girls with their roses, busy flirting rather than studying, farewelled the dragon in the Youth Zone, and set off towards the clanking monster of the Hornsby water clock. I remember the controversy when it was built in 1993, captured in this news segment (with fantastic animation of chicken bones) from back then:

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Filed under Library Events, Northern Sydney

Maroubra Library (Physiognomy)

Maroubra library, also known as the Bowen library, is camouflaged among the grey, low rise buildings of Anzac Parade. Just inside the entrance is a cafe, one of those mobile set-ups which can be folded up again at the end of the day. As well as the expected tea, coffee and muffins, you can buy drinking coconuts here, if you want to get into a tropical mood before entering the library. I thought about buying a more conventional library beverage, a cup of tea, but was curious to go upstairs first.

At the top of the stairs was a large book sale area and various glass cabinets, one with a display of local area memorabilia, like a tin bucket printed with a photograph of Coogee Beach, another with tiny knitted things, sponsored by the local Rotary Club. Beyond this is the entrance to the library.

The display I noticed immediately upon entering commemorated Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. It is curious how important people continue to age after they have died, and not a phenomena that I imagine ordinary people get to experience. Someone had obviously enjoyed making the Happy 200th Charles Dickens sign, perhaps the same person who made the signs about food and drink in the library.

Eat your watermelons and drink your coconuts outside, people.

I wondered if this rule applied to mints, as in my wanderings around the library a number of times I passed by a table with books spread out on it, with an open bag of No Frills brand “Extra Strong Mints” on top of them. This abandoned scene remained there the whole two hours I was in the library, unclaimed.

It was peaceful in Maroubra library, although it was busy.  The only major noise came from a woman sitting at a desk surrounded by textbooks, who was conducting a loud telephone conversation in Spanish. Her voice blurting “perfecto! perfecto!” was distracting me so I went as far away from her as possible, to the newspaper and magazine area. As usual there were a number of men in caps, sitting reading. As befitted the beachside area, their caps were for surf lifesaving clubs. Other common cap logos include promotional caps businesses, and car manufacturers. One man was making notes in a secretive fashion, hunched over what he was writing as if he expected it to be read over his shoulder. This section of the library was in the corner of the building that looks over the street, at the prow of the library. If the library was a ship, a newspaper reading man would be a good choice for the figurehead.

I sat for a little while near the rack of magazines, an area that smelt strongly of Tiger Balm. The lounge chairs in this area, and throughout the library, were of 50s design and paired with kidney-shaped glass topped tables with wooden bases, unusually stylish for a public library.

On my way back to the non-fiction section I passed many people using the public computers, all of which seemed to be occupied. People looked up medical conditions and played Mah Jong online, and looked up ads on gumtree. In the lounge area in the centre of the library, near the displays of new and “red hot” books with a one week only borrowing period, a man sat making notes from a book called Nemesis, occasionally glancing up to see if he was being observed.

I ducked into the non-fiction shelves and found myself looking at the clairvoyance and fortune telling section, which featured books about tea leaf reading, pendulum dowsing and face reading. The face reading books particularly interested me, so I picked one out for further investigation. I moved on to look at books about goth craft, then books about how to run book clubs. While book clubs have been around for a long time, in the last five or so years I have noticed them being particularly in vogue, and imagined this to be a recent area of the library’s collection. The face reading books were definitely the opposite, all of them many years old. Things like face reading and book groups are destined to move in and out of fashion. One of the things I like about browsing the non-fiction section is identifying past fads, or what trends are having a resurgence. Very rarely do completely new fads come along, although they are usually given new names.

In another section I found a lot of books about sustainability, including one called Time to Eat the Dog? The real guide to sustainable living. “Sustainability” is a word that has been used almost to the point of meaningless over the last few years, so much so that I’m not sure what it really means anymore.

I gathered up a few books to look at and crossed into the “grey zone”. This was my name for back of the library where there were many desks, and the reference section. In one glass-walled room a woman was studying with a huge book beside her. I walked close by the windows to see what the book was: the cloth-bound tome was called Paediatrics. She had many notebooks and also a packet of textas. The textas were probably something to do with a complicated colour coded note taking scheme, but I liked to think of her taking study breaks by drawing pictures.

I called this area the “grey zone” because the desks were grey, with white, shiny chairs at them. I sat at a desk at the back of the library, near the local history room which was tucked into the back corner. I could see the information desk from here, but in general I felt very far away from the heart of the library, almost unobserved.

The first book on my pile was Physiognomy: The Art of Reading Faces.

“There is something of the physiognomist in all of us,” I read in the first paragraph, the point being that we make judgements of people from their faces often, without realising it. My favourite parts of the book were the pages of faces for you to test you new face-reading skills:

And the notes someone had written in, in fountain pen, on the sketches of different forehead shapes.

The book was from the 70s, which led me to wonder if there had been any advancements in face reading since that time. Do people even study it in an official capacity? Someone must be writing these books.

This book had a great, though somewhat trippy, design, consider this kaleidoscope mouth page, for example.

The main thing that most people want to know from a physiogomist is whether they have an intelligent face, so I present this list:

The next book on the pile was a graphic novel I’d seen in a bookshop a few weeks earlier, The Wrong Place by Brett Evans. I was attracted to the ghostly watercolour images in layers of cool colours, but I was surprised to open the book at a page that showed the stages of a reasonably explicit sexual encounter. On the back cover of the book was a quote saying the book “contrasts life as it is, angst-ridden and awkward, with life as it can be: spontaneous, uninhibited, free”. The last panel of the sex scene was the woman asleep while the man leans against her, holding her cat ear head band and smiling, which could either be sweet or creepy, depending on the story. The man also indulged in some physiognomy:

The final book I looked at was a big book of papercraft I’d picked up from the Quarto section. There was a large quarto section with some surprising books, such as one about the noise artist Merzbow. Papercraft was full of things like cut out lanterns, paper clothes, dresses made of maps, paper Converse all stars, a paper forest, functional paper furniture and paper props, but my favourite paper thing of all was this cup of tea.

This was perhaps because I badly wanted a cup of tea. It was approaching the time I was to meet my local friends Helen and Lauren, so I went to put the books back. I’d forgotten where I got The Wrong Place from, so I just put it at the end of one of the rows where there was a gap on a display shelf.

As I went to go downstairs I noticed one of the librarians collecting up the Charles Dickens books from the Dickens birthday display. Was Dickens’ birthday over so soon?

Downstairs I bought a cup of tea from “Bean King”, where a minor drama was taking place involving an elderly woman who had developed a sudden limp. I realised I would be of little help so retreated to a table, to wait for Helen and Lauren. They soon appeared and we sat at the cafe table while I finished my tea. Lauren told us about her visit to The Fat Duck, and eating snail porridge as part of the four hour degustation menu. I’d watched a few episodes of Heston’s Feasts but the only moment that I remembered was when the 17 tier absinthe jelly was made to sway from side to side by using a vibrator. Apparently you can order these swaying jellies for parties. I wonder if there’s a version you can make at home.

Lauren and Helen escorted me upstairs and into the library, for a group expedition through the shelves. Out of the thousands of books in the library, the first book Helen pulled out was one that I too had looked at, a rather surprising coincidence.

What was the appeal? For me it was wanting to know what S.A.D stood for, and then the 90s teens on the cover.

After we browsed the self help and military history sections, Helen decided she would join the library, so I went with her to the information desk while she signed up. I watched the librarian, a friendly guy with a ponytail and glasses that said Red or Dead on the side, enter in Helen’s address to a screen that had the clunky look of an internal computer program. He lamented this program and its inability to accept email addresses. A few minutes later Helen had her library card and was now a full Maroubra citizen. You really belong in your new area when you join the local library.

Near the information desk was an exhibition of kitchen and cookery paraphernalia. Lauren works at the State Library and told us about scanning and restoring the old books, as we looked at some cookbook covers that had been enlarged and hung on the wall. I owned a number of the cookbooks, which were from the 1970s and before, like the Golden Circle Pineapple Cookbook. The one that got most of our attention was Crock Pot Cookery, with its glistening roast chicken. “It’s a raw chicken you know,” Lauren said, “painted with iodine.” I knew the one about the ice cream made out of mashed potatoes, but not the iodine chicken. Roast chickens are a staple of food photography, someone in the world is sure to be iodining a chicken as you read this.

The cookbooks were labelled as “sometimes showing the humorous side of cooking”, and I saw they were from the collection of my friend Mala, super op shopper and also librarian. I had looked for her when I entered the library, knowing that she works here, but she must have had a day off, or been hidden somewhere in the secret vaults of the library, or perhaps working at another of the branches.

My other favourite thing in the exhibition was the pudding charms:

Rather than having only one lucky person finding a coin in their pudding, the whole family had a chance for a pudding fortune with these, or a chance to make a group visit to the dentist.

Most of the objects were in vertical glass cases, but there was one smaller case in front of them with teacups in it, out of which we all chose one. Helen’s was the most floral, Lauren’s was white with gold trim, and mine was an autumn rose themed design.

Helen and I went to look at the DVDs, which were near the kids section. The kids section was decorated with ropes of bottle lids, making a kind of bead curtain effect, and had cute drawings pinned up on boards.

There was a superhero theme in a lot of the drawings, my favourite was the giant carrot.

As Helen browsed through the DVDs, looking for one to borrow, a baby in a white jumpsuit with a tie printed down the front appeared from under the racks, crawling fast. It was like watching a beetle, industriously moving towards some unknown goal. His mum followed after him, trying to intercept any movement that might cause trouble. We smiled at this, and also the librarian who walked by us, giving instructions to a library user “When you get to the computer, go to the Google…”

Helen picked out The Leaving of Liverpool DVD, and when we went over to show Lauren she told us that she was in it! Her family came from Liverpool to Australia when she was a teenager (but long after the post world war 2 period featured in the film of course) and her family signed her up to audition for it. Helen had to borrow it now.

From where we were standing I could see a guy sitting at one of the computers with one of those fake cigarette inhalers in his mouth, something that always causes me to do a double take. People don’t seem to smoke them so much as suck on them, like they are a dummy for adults, although I rarely see people using them. They seemed very futuristic to me when I first found out about them.

We started searching for a book for me to look at so Helen could take a photo of me, the kind of photo that might sum up my Biblioburbia project. We looked through the Quartos until Helen found one called Camouflage. I took it over to one of the 50s lounge chairs and made an attempt to blend in.

My favourite picture in the book was an illustration of a cooling tower painted to camouflage with the landscape, during world war 2 in England by artists working with the Ministry of Home Security’s Camouflage Directorate.

This reminded me of the Dazzle ships, which were painted in geometric patterns to confuse the enemy in World War 1:

Although I don’t know for sure, I think I camouflage well in the library. As long as you are quiet and law abiding, nobody pays you much notice if you are loitering, or writing in a notebook (although taking photos makes me feel conspicuous). Libraries are designed for loitering, even if, like the gentleman to the right below, you just want to sleep with your feet up on the table.

As Helen borrowed her dvd from the self check machines, I noticed that Dickens’ birthday was well and truly over. His birthday message had been removed and his books replaced by a new display, heavy on the Roddy Doyles.

All birthdays must come to an end, even if you’re Charles Dickens.




Filed under Eastern Sydney

Parramatta Library (Cautions)

After spending only a short time in Parramatta Library I had the feeling that everything that could have gone wrong in the library had done at some point. There were many cautionary messages, the toilets had to be unlocked by a staff member before use, and there were signs everywhere that suggested past incidents:

I approached the library not from the town square but from the rather grey back alley, where I found a ten of clubs playing card on the ground (meaning “vexation, confusion, a person who drinks a lot” according to What the Cards Foretell) and passed by an intriguing, but closed, gift shop.

Was it the library gift shop? The council gift shop? The signs looked tiny amid the grey walls.

Outside the library is the place where teenagers in school uniform congregate to smoke, yell, and look tough. One boy was holding a clear umbrella which he trained on people, and when they came into range he “shot” them by opening it up.

On the door was a letter to all school children about using the library during school hours. Students now have to show their school timetable to prove they’re not meant to be in class at the time. If they are meant to be in school, the authorities will “redirect” them back there.

The entrance to the library is in the middle of the ground floor. To the left is the non fiction section, and to the right is the fiction and the children’s section. the centre of the library is busy with school students going up and down the stairs that lead to the levels above, and the library staff going back and forth from the desk. I wasn’t sure which way to turn, so the first section I went to look at was the book sale. Books were only 20c, a so far unmatched bargain compared to other libraries. I picked out a biography of G.K Chesterton, a book of 100 treasures of the Mitchell Library, and a book of essays by Gerald Murnane. I had read the Gerald Murnane book before, the essay about him learning Hungarian I remembered in particular, the idea of learning the language of a country you will never visit (he rarely, and famously, has ever left Melbourne).

As I looked through the book sale, a librarian came over and started straightening the shelves of sale books. Was she doing this to check I wasn’t stealing them? I put back the copy of The Urgency of Full Employment which I had been looking at, and decided to move onto another area of the library.

I went upstairs, following the many people who were headed that way. I passed a mezzanine floor which was painted in primary colours and had a reading area for the Community Language newspapers, and the intriguing “Retro Room”. I expected to see a 50s boardroom with Mad Men type characters in there, but it was just a regular meeting room.

At the top of the stairs was the large reference section and the HSC study guides, which were housed in bright coloured boxes, and a space with many desks. Walking through this area was the closest I have come to feeling like I was back in high school for some time. All the students were well-behaved, it wasn’t that I was being called names and having paper planes thrown at me, it was that there were so many school students. But I am twice their age, and therefore invisible.

I sat down at the end of the room, in the young adult area. In the room behind me a class about digital cameras was being conducted. I could see the PowerPoint presentation the class were reading: “mirrorless interchangeable lens digital cameras”. The class, I saw on a flyer downstairs, was about “Technology for Travel”. I walked slowly past the door so I could see who was in the class. It looked to be the grandparents of the school students outside, and one younger woman who asked a lot of questions. I didn’t want to make it obvious that I was looking in, so I made my way over to the indoor plant in the corner, and felt the leaves to see if it was real or fake. Fake.

I had a look in the reference section, which had a lot of big, old history books. The biggest was one on Korean history, which was a size usually reserved for dictionaries, at least six inches thick. It was so heavy I needed two hands to lift it.

I went downstairs again and sat in the no man’s land by the side of the stairs, near where the development applications are on display, thinking about what section I would investigate first. While I sat here a man was getting angry with the librarians about how the toilet doors were locked. I didn’t envy the librarians on toilet unlocking duty. I realised that the small desk that was near the book sale with a sign saying it was for staff only was for librarians on toilet duty, as they could see the doors from there. They unlocked it remotely, with a switch or a control  that I couldn’t see. “Turn the handle! Push!” one of the librarians yelled out to the man who was swearing at the toilet doors.

I didn’t intend to write so much about the toilets, but they were quite a dominant feature of this section of the library. Above the toilet doors were old, painted murals of the Parramatta of times past, of convicts, estates, and royal mail coaches. These murals, on wooden panels, were painted in 1958, originally for “The Coach Inn” restaurant, which was in an old convict-built cottage in north Parramatta. They did have the look of another place and time about them.

In the shelves nearest to where I was sitting, a man browsed the junior non-fiction singing “well she’s my babe” over and over, punctuated by a series of grunts. He took out a book about inventions and conversed to no one in particular, and in some detail, how a printing press goes about printing one page. I thought he was reading it from the book, but he was just looking at the cover so must have known the process.

I decided to move to where it was a bit quieter. Along the front windows was a line of red chairs, many of them taken by people quietly reading.

Through the window I could see at the tables outside a schoolgirl was wriggling with indignation as a boy had put something down her blouse, but I turned away from these distractions and looked at the books. Sometimes the books on display side by side amuse me, such as:

I like to imagine the person who might borrow both of these books. I looked at the section of books about cities, and took out a large volume called Endless City. It was from the “Local Government Corporate Library”, which must be one of the library’s collections. This makes it sound rather boring, but there were a lot of interesting books about cities, urban planning and suburbs in this section. As with the History of Korea, this book was a rather large and weighty thing, and I took it over to a vacant desk in the fiction section over the other side of the library to look at it.

In this area a couple of students, a boy and a girl, were doing an assignment about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii in 79AD. This is one of the classic school history topics that I imagine every Australian school student would learn about. I’d never thought about this critically before, but now I stopped to wonder why. I guess it’s because it is an exercise in historical method, as the town was frozen in time, and the everyday life in that time was preserved. When I learnt Latin in high school, one textbook told the story of a family in Pompeii, and ended with the eruption and death of them all. I remember feeling sad about this at the time. I had spent all year translating their adventures.

I returned to the present and looked through Endless City. There were a lot of graphs and infographics, and chapters like “A Taxonomy of Towers”, picturing controversial designs for future towers. It didn’t, however include this one being built in South Korea, which has caused controversy for its resemblance to the World Trade Centre, prior to its collapse:

My favourite graphic was a comparison of the different patterns of the streets and buildings in six different cities, New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin. These were the cities used as examples throughout the book.

The other book I’d picked up was about carparks, The Architecture of Carparks,  by Simon Henley. Sometimes I get in the mood to look at weird buildings, and I was hoping for examples of strange carparks. The best is weird buildings that were never built, like the Zeebrugge Sea Terminal, which I discovered in this book, as well as lots of black and white photos of carparks. Carparks look better in black and white.

In the aisles near where I was sitting, where the fiction books were shelved, I could see a woman who I had encountered earlier in non-fiction. She was one of those people who browses the entire library. When you spend enough time in a library observing you notice the other people who are there as long as you, and what they are doing. This woman had come prepared with a trolley and would stop every now and again and review the books she held in her arms, assessing whether she wanted to borrow them. She had a number of fiction books and a biography of Benji Marshall which she didn’t seem completely sure about.

The girl working on the Pompeii assignment was writing furiously with one hand and eating an apple with the other. As I’d been sitting looking at books she’d kept up a constant stream of snacks, first a sandwich, then a plum, and now the apple. Her study mate had gone out to buy some more food, so now she was sitting there alone.

On the chair behind her was a woman with long grey hair in a side ponytail, wearing all black and a pair of wire frame sunglasses. She had gone up to the shelves, pulled out a book called White Queen and used it to rest a piece of A4 paper on. She smiled as she wrote what looked to be a letter in line after line of curling script.

I went to put my books back, passing a man listening to horse races on a transistor radio and making notes on the TAB section of the newspaper. The man who had been telling the story of the printing press was in the exact same position, still talking, holding the same book. The man who had been angry about not being able to get into the toilets sat in the chair I’d been in earlier, near the stairs, watching everyone from under the visor of his cap, as if everyone was suspicious to him.

As I put the books back an announcement was broadcast about taking your belongings with you. “The library is an open public space…please take your belonging with you when you move around the library”. This message was then repeated in Chinese and Arabic.

There are a lot of warnings in Parramatta library. The final one I noticed, before I bought my 60cents worth of cancelled books, was affixed to a Bon Jovi CD, as it was affixed to all CDs.

What kind of loss or damage could arise from Bon Jovi’s Greatest Hits? I will leave the answer to you.

I bought my books from the same librarian who had come over to check on me when I was browsing the book sale earlier in the afternoon. She was still suspicious of me, as soon as I came close to the desk she was there, asking if I needed any help. I’d hoped to get the librarian man with the bleached blonde hair, flipped over into a rakish style. He had his iPhone clipped to his belt inside a designer leather holder and an air of style a notch above what might have been expected of him. But he was busy welcoming some new members who had just signed up for library cards.

Near the door were some ads for Library Lovers’ Day, which is on Valentine’s Day this year. Most libraries, I have realised since seeing an ad for Library Lovers’ Day at Sutherland Library, are having some kind of celebration for the day, as it is the launch of the National Year of Reading. Many seem to be having morning teas, talks and various local entertainments. The Hornsby library, I noticed when looking up their website, is having the Berowra Ukulele group play, for example. Parramatta library is having book blind dates, poetry readings, and music, and other libraries are having author talks. I’ll be in the library on Library Lovers’ Day for sure, but which one, you will have to wait and see.


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Avalon Library (Good Cheer)

Avalon is far north of the city, on a skinny headland that, on the map, looks fragile next to the great blue of the Tasman Sea. Whenever I think of Avalon the Roxy Music song comes in my head. I could hear Bryan Ferry’s voice crooning to me as I negotiated my way through the endless pedestrian crossings that make up the shopping area of Avalon.

The photo of the Avalon library on their website was taken on a sunny day, but I had chosen to visit on the most inclement summer day one could imagine. I would make no beach visit today, but this made it a perfect day to go to the library. Despite the disguising gloom I recognised the building, which houses both the library the Recreation Centre.

The library is upstairs and outside the doors were two trolleys of books for sale. Rather than the usual begrimed copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the books on these trolleys were a cut above the usual. I also liked the polite phrasing of the sign:

I picked out two books, a copy of Prozac Nation and a biography of Catherine the Great. I’d owned a copy of Prozac Nation when I was a teenager, and more interested in things like being “young and depressed in America”, as it says on the cover. I picked it up now as I’d just read a message from my friend Steph, someone who once she starts books has to finish them, where she said this was one of the few books she couldn’t stand to finish. I noticed that there was a bookmark on page 13, from a bookshop in Avalon. The reader of this copy had not got very far either.

The Catherine the Great book was safer, at least it was certain not to mention prescription drugs or Mommy, Daddy and Harvard on every page.

Avalon library is a Community Library, which means that it is staffed by volunteers. There were plenty of volunteers, mostly woman, clustered at the front desk, chatting. It seemed like a very pleasant place to work. As soon as I entered I noticed a poster above the photocopier:

There were a few unexpected touches such as this. Another one was the basket of puzzles available for loan:

Near the entrance was a display of “New and/or interesting Fiction”, as well as New and/or interesting Non-fiction and Large print, each of which had an individual sign on the corresponding shelf. A few people were browsing here, but the part that I found interesting was the collage of the covers of new books, which were stuck onto sheets of red cardboard and affixed to the windows of the office area.

It was an unusual approach to a new book display, but actually a rather good one, as it was much more informative than reading a list, and also had a pleasing appearance, like shingle tiles. Behind this I could see into the office area, where a man was covering a book in soft plastic. On the same desk was a box of stickers for the different genres and the stamps and stickers that make a book an Avalon Library book.

Because the staff were volunteers, the library had a much more cheerful atmosphere than at a regular library. There was a lot of tea and coffee making going on, and plenty of coming and going of volunteers. “I’m off to my creative writing course!” one woman announced to the rest, and went on to explain that it was through the Avalon Active Seniors’ Group when another woman expressed interest. The woman who asked about it then said she wasn’t sure if she was active enough to be a member.

I went off to look at the shelves. One of the books on display was in the style of old girl’s annuals and was called The Girl’s Book: how to be the best at everything. It included how to make your own lipgloss and how to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, as well as many more projects, both useful and ridiculous. While there was no doubt some good information in this book, I was worried about the message that “how to be the best at everything” sent to the teenage girls this book was obviously marketed towards. Girls get told they have to be good, and good at things their whole lives. It can be quite liberating to do something badly but enjoy doing it nevertheless.

While I was looking at this book one of the volunteers came up with a young woman who I noticed had been instructed on the ways of the library a little earlier. I knew from this conversation that she was starting university this year, so she would have been at least a third of the age of most of the volunteers. Her job was to tidy up the shelves. “These books are quite heavy, but you’re young and strong,” said the woman showing her how to do it. Most important was pushing forward the books that had slipped towards the back of the shelf.

I was looking in the art and craft section, and pulled out a book about Bottle Collecting.

The book went into a lot of detail about digging for bottles, and the resulting dangers, such as having your “search hole” cave in on you. I liked that it was a practical guide, rather than just being about searching in antique shops. The book gave many examples of different bottles and different collections, such as this collection:

And this bitters bottle from the 19th century in the shape of a pig.

I had taken this book over to a desk by the window to look at it. On a clear day  you would be able to see the beach from here, and I could make out just a little of the blue grey water in between the palms and Norfolk Island Pines. Below, on the street, people rushed to the safety of their cars and sheltered under umbrellas.

When I took the bottle collecting book back, the girl was still shelf straightening her way through the Dewey Decimal numbers. I opened a book about jewellery making and noticed that on the date due slip, the last number to be stamped there was 2011. This was unusual, most libraries did away with date stamps a long time ago, and if date due slips remain in books they stop sometime in the early 2000s.

A few minutes later I heard it, the crunch of the date stamp as a man waited for his books to be checked out. Avalon Library does indeed still use the date stamp!

The conversations among the volunteers were still going. A new volunteer was telling the others what she was good at. “I can’t cut straight, I can’t draw a straight line but I’m happy to clean shelves,” she said. It was heartening that so many Avalon residents wanted to work at the library.

While it was a jolly atmosphere, in order to concentrate I had to go back to my spot by the window over the other side of the library. Here people sat at computers, looking things up on Ebay or writing emails. One very well dressed girl whose outfit was strangely matched with a pair of ugg boots, sat with a book open on her lap but her phone inside the book, sending messages.

I settled down to look at a book of symbols, in particular the Hobo Signs section. These signs were developed in the 1930s in the USA and were a language for the many homeless and itinerant people on the move, looking for work. This is a good idea and could be adapted for the more privileged, and used for things like parties (a warning symbol for “just 6 people sitting on milk crates” for example) or op shops.

Near where I was sitting was a long, panoramic photograph of Avalon from 1921. It was hand coloured, and this gave it the look of a painting. I only realised it was a photograph when I got close to it. Since I’ve been visiting libraries I’ve paid more attention to what hangs on library walls. Sometimes they’re in the community art genre, other times they are of some historical note. This painting was 90 years old and I imagine it moving from place to place, to finally come to rest here, in this bright, modern building. It looked like it needed leather arm chairs and bead-fringed lamps to really be at home.

The last book I looked at was called What Should I do with my life? I opened it to find out if there were any answers to that and the page I looked at put forward the scenario of receiving, at age 17, a letter telling you your destiny. I found this very hard to imagine, but when I looked up and saw the young woman straightening the shelves near me, and the volunteers behind the desk talking about John le Carre to a man borrowing a pile of novels, I knew that if I lived in Avalon, it would be simple. My destiny would be to work at the library.

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Adyar Library

The Adyar library is one of Sydney’s privately operated libraries. There are plenty of private libraries in Sydney, including the Mechanics School of Arts library, libraries in institutions such as the Powerhouse Museum and the MCA, libraries such as the Japan Foundation library, that specialise in a particular language and culture, and smaller libraries not affiliated with institutions such as the Bibliotheca library of artist’s books.

The Adyar library is run by the Theosophical Society, and has a collection focussed on “metaphysical, spiritual and philosophical subjects”.  It is housed in Theosophy House in Kent street, an appropriately Victorian building.

When we got to Theosophy House, a grey-haired woman dressed  in mauve was unlocking a box that contained a noticeboard near the entrance. She saw us at the door, which had a sign saying the lift was out of order stuck on it, and asked if we wanted to go upstairs. She said the library was open for about ten more minutes and we were welcome to visit it, as long as we didn’t mind climbing 5 or 6 flights of stairs. We struggled up the fire escape stairs until we reached the third floor, where we found the library.

The library was very neat, with wooden shelves decorated with indoor plants and pottery. In order to borrow from this library you have to be a member, but it is open to the public for browsing. As we only had ten minutes it was hard to know what to do, so we quickly looked around the shelves. There was a small fiction section and on top of these shelves were a series of pamphlets about Theosophy. The most popular was “The Theosophical Society. What is it all about?” I took the last copy, as I this is something I have wondered for some years.

If asked what I knew about Theosophy before reading this pamphlet, all I could have told you was that it was founded by a woman with the excellent name Madame Blavatsky, in the nineteenth century. From these basics, the pamphlet told me that the society was established in New York City before moving its headquarters to India, to a place named Adyar.

My confusion about what Theosophy is came down to not knowing whether it was a religion or not. The pamphlet assured me that it was not, it was a philosophy that emphasises unity, interconnectedness, and a holistic world view. This made things a little clearer, but only a little.

I didn’t have time to sort out all my questions about Theosophy, so I went looking around the library. As you’d expect there were a lot of books about spiritual and philosophical matters, and it is perhaps the only library in Sydney where there is a whole section on Atlantis.

Lemuria, which I had discovered the existence of at Waterloo library the week before, was the subject of a number of books also. I concentrated on looking at the nearby art section and took out a book called Sensitive Chaos: Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air by Theodor Schwenk.

“Look at this book!” I said to Simon, who was browsing nearby. A woman who was looking at books nearby, who was also wearing purple, peering across, over her glasses, to see the book I was so interested in.

I sat down at one of the nearby tables and looked through Sensitive Chaos. I’d picked it out because of its name and cover design, the kind of 70s textbook appearance that usually means good pictures lie inside. The zinemaker in me has a good radar for interesting black and white pictures. I was not disappointed. I flipped through all sorts of weird pictures of whirlpools, smoke, shells, ears, woodgrain and jellyfish, any of which would have made a great zine or 7″ cover. All the swirly, fluid shapes was slightly perception altering; I could have looked at the book for much longer to discover its secrets. Many others had, it had been borrowed at least a couple of times a year, I saw on the card at the back.

Does the “R” mean returned? I’ve seen it on other cards like this so I guess it does.

I could see through the internal windows into an office where a man sat at a desk, talking to the small lady in purple we had seen downstairs. The offices of the Adyar library seemed a nice place to spend one’s days, cosy among the shelves and the plants and posters of the Three Objects of Theosophy.

Simon beckoned me over to the reference section to show me a big, old book of Occult Chemistry, bound in green cloth. There were a number of books on this subject, with strange diagrams inside and an alternate version of the periodic table.

I understood almost nothing of what the book was about, but I imagined myself in another kind of life where I was an occult chemist and this book made sense to me. It was an appealing kind of daydream, in which I worked in an alchemist’s den and went home to my unusual pets every evening.

Near the reference section were more pamphlets and a magazine section, and there were a number of nooks here and there in which bundles of cassettes with typewritten labels were piled. But I didn’t have time to look any further, the librarian was starting to tidy up the desk and a cleaner had come in to empty the bins. The emblem on his shirt was for a cleaning company, and I imagined he spent his evenings going around offices, like the people you see vacuuming the bank after hours. It must be an easy job cleaning the Adyar library, it didn’t look like anything too messy would ever happen there.

“Have you got what you need?” the librarian asked us and the woman who was still looking at the shelves.

“Oh, we were just having a look,” I said. I would have to look at the books properly, and discover occult knowledge, another day.

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