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.