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.