Category Archives: Sydney Public Libraries

Greenwich Library (Treetops)

When I mapped out the libraries I’ve been to so far – for the mini zine I’m making for the zine pinata, for the Snapdragon zine fair – I decided it was time to visit a library in the north. Each of the compass points of Sydney has its own character. I know the north well, I grew up there and I work there, and have been up and down the North Shore train line thousands of times. At least six times I week currently, I pass through Wollstonecraft station. It’s a minor stop in between St Leonards and North Sydney. One of the curious things about the station is that the platform is curved, so as you approach it you can only see the end. The train line follows the shape of the land.

This part of Sydney is one where you notice topography, the steep and rocky land around the harbour. When Simon and I got off the train at Wollstonecraft, we followed the path down into Smoothey Park and towards the footbridge. Underneath the bridge was a creek, with tall tree ferns growing around it. I stopped to stare into the newly unfurling fronds of the ferns, marvelling that this gully was so close to the train line which I’d travelled along so many times.

This footbridge, for many, is a normal feature of their walk home from the station, but it seemed a bit magical to me, to be walking along a thin path through the treetops. Over the other side of the footbridge is the suburb of Greenwich. My only encounters with this suburb were visiting a friend who lived there back when I was still in high school, a girl who is the only person I have so far known to own a Great Dane. She loved this dog, but to outsiders the dog was a rather terrifying beast who would come up to the door barking and slavering, large as a pony.

It was late afternoon and the air tasted clear and sweet. The thick grey rainclouds on the horizon that had looked threatening stayed put, and the sunset was beginning. As we toiled up a steep street, we stopped at the strange sight of what looked to be a buried ship, turned to stone:

We were in the kind of place where fences have prows. At the top of the hill there was a vast, cottage garden with big vines of jasmine buds, and tiny yellow climbing roses trained over the fence, the kind of garden where every tree and bush has a particular character. I noticed a man among all the plants, crouched down, weeding. The garden rambled around the house, an old 20s bungalow, white with peeling paint. Turning the corner, we spied the sign for the library. A car was parked in front of it and a woman and her daughter, stood deliberating. Her daughter, in the kind of many layered uniform that suggested a school of prestige, was holding a dirty slice of apple. “Throw it in the gutter,” her mother was saying, “the rats will eat it”.

I’d decided to come here after talking about Biblioburbia to Tom, who suggested I visit Greenwich branch library as it is a curious shape: a hexagonal gazebo kind of structure, accessed by a bridge. This called up all sorts of strange imaginations, but in fact the reality was not too different from what I pictured.

In the late afternoon gloom, the interior of the library glowed golden. We walked across the bridge and stepped inside. There was harpsichord music playing softly, and the librarian was busy restocking the shelves. The library was small and very neat, and I felt as if I’d walked into large, warm cupboard. We greeted the librarian – as it was such a compact space it felt more like a shop, where one’s entrance and exit should be announced – and I went to look at the non fiction section. Parked in this area was a bar heater, leaking warmth, and I stood near it while I looked over the books. Each side of the hexagon housed a different section, a neat arrangement.

Greenwich library is small, so the Dewey numbers skip forward rapidly, in some cases advancing by the hundreds in one shelf. I have taken to looking at the books at the beginning of the section, as it is here where you find books about libraries. There were none, but there was The Rough Guide to Blogging. Something about the idea of using this guide amused me, so I picked it out to examine it. I turned to the page with tips for writing, wondering if I could learn anything.

My favourite piece of advice was: “Be brave, honest and sexy. Revealing embarrassing incidents and exposing insecurities, emotions and inappropriate reactions can endear you to your readership.” While there is something to this advice, I can’t help but imagine how it could fail when the reader of The Rough Guide to Blogging tried to follow this advice. While it’s true that this is a technique that people writing on the internet, or writing memoirs, use to connect with the reader, it does make me wonder at a world where honesty is not inherent. I have  been thinking about this in relation to zines and the way people write in them, compared to the way people write in personal stories intended for the mass media. In the latter there is often a voice of contrived honesty, that uses tricks such as the one above to make the reader feel close to the writer. While there is nothing wrong with this, I think it’s good to consider what honesty in writing means, how it might be possible, and to think critically about it.

The harpsichord music stopped and was replaced by something more operatic, and between them was the soothing voice of what could only be a 2MBSfm presenter. Sometimes Simon and I listen to 2MBS at home, and my favourite part of the shows are the announcements. The presenters’ voices are so calm, sometimes to the point of being soporific. On weekend mornings the station favours rousing symphonies, the kind that make us groan when we’re blearily staggering around the kitchen, cleaning up while the kettle boils.

As the music continued, I realised that this was the first library I had visited that has had music playing, and it is actually an unusual thing. This library did have an air of difference, with its unusual shape, in among the trees, and walking across to it was like passing into a different kind of world, a hexagonal island of bookish calm.

I sat at the study table, which had the day’s newspaper laid neatly out down one side, the sections separated out, and looked at the other books I’d picked from the shelves. Simon handed me Real Wild Child – An Insider’s Tales from the Rage Couch by Narelle Gee. For my non-Australian readers, Rage is a late night music video program that had different bands and artists guest programming it every week. Rage was an integral part of my life as a teenager. I stayed up late to watch it,  and when I couldn’t stay up any later I taped it and spent the weekend watching through the rest. Particular guest programmers stuck in my memory, such as Frank Black brushing his teeth with laundry detergent, TISM programming the ABC news and Four Corners themes, and the Reid brothers arguing whether Morrissey is “shite” or not. I would get sick of seeing particular videos that everyone seemed to program, particularly Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles”, for some reason. I figured this was the only Dead Kennedys video that Rage must have had, because they never played any other, and this wasn’t a constructed music video, it was from a live performance. I couldn’t really imagine the Dead Kennedy’s making a wacky video where the band members are set up in some kind of ironic sitauation (like Pavement in the video for “Cut Your Hair”, for example – I use this example as I have been hearing Pavement everywhere at the moment, like I’ve been placed back in 1996).
I could write thousands of words on Rage, but I will not do so here. 90s nostalgia is a vigorous thing at the moment. On the weekend Simon and I paused outside the Enmore Theatre to eat a gelato and listen to the Wonder Stuff, who were playing inside. I never expected to be listening to them in 2011, and even less to Jesus Jones, who were the headlining band. We didn’t stay to listen to them though, by that time we were already riding home singing “Right Here, Right Now” sardonically. Jesus Jones are a band I can’t imagine anyone loving.

Going through the book, I read through the list of guest programmers, which is also on the Rage site. I enjoyed picking out the ones that were most of-their-time: Gary Clail, Diesel, EMF (I had to google to remember their most famous song, “Unbelievable”, but then it came back into my head with great force). I am wary of engaging too much with 90s nostalgia, though I still like some of the music from that time. My engagement with music for the first half of the 90s was completely through listening to the radio and reading the NME and other music magazines, so even at the time I had felt removed from it. My teenage years were mostly spent thinking how things were happening elsewhere.

While I was reading the Rage book and musing about 90s-ness, the librarian continued to put things away. She was chipping away at a huge pile of DVDs, more than I could ever imagine having been borrowed. Apart from me and Simon, the library had only one other visitor, a woman returning books.

“What are you looking at?” I asked Simon, who was sitting beside me but facing in the opposite direction.

“Errr, Keith Richards,” he said, quickly closing the thick biography of Keith in which he was examining the photograph section and putting it back on the shelf. He then muttered something about the librarian’s fussing driving him crazy. Indeed the whole time we had been in the library, the clop-clop of books going back on the shelf kept up a regular rhythm. It was such a peaceful world in the library, I thought that if I worked there I’d want to sit with a cup of tea reading the whole time, although I suppose librarians aren’t allowed to do that. I expected any minute for the librarian to bring out a vacuum cleaner and get us to lift up our feet so she could vacuum underneath, so intent she was on making the DVDs neat.

Although it bothered Simon, I didn’t feel very worried about it, and as he went off to look at books in another section of the hexagon I opened The Moon: A Biography by David Whitehouse. In particular I read the part about the Great Moon Hoax, which came about through a series of articles published in the early 19th century in the New York Sun. The articles described the environment of the moon, the mountains, forests, crystal pyramids, lunar palm trees, horned bears, living pebbles and Vespertilio-homo, humans with retractable bat wings.While obviously entirely fictitious, I felt a wish to inhabit this peaceful moon-land, which was no doubt why the readership of the paper grew greatly after the publication of the series of articles. The book made the point that there is still much speculation about what’s on the moon, and there is a whole school of thought that believes the 1969 moon landing to be a hoax too. The next time I consider the moon, I will imagine it with crystals and man-bats rather than craters and dust.

It was now properly dark outside, and I decided it was time to head home. I put my books back on the shelf and went to examine the plaque near the desk, which told me that the library had been opened in 1964, by Marjorie Propsting, who gave her fabulous name to the library. A librarian, she was also the mayor of Lane Cove for many years. A portrait of Marjorie hung on the wall above the plaque, which gave the library even more of a home/parlour atmosphere, as if this was the portrait of the matriarch.

“Thank you!” Simon called out to the librarian, who was still tidying the DVDs, as we left. Outside it had turned cold and I jammed my hands in my pockets as we walked back across the footbridge, the space below us now a dark mystery, as we fixed our gaze on the bright train station just visible through the trees.

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Filed under Northern Sydney, Sydney Public Libraries

Burwood Library (Fingernails)

Although I have been to Burwood plenty of times, I didn’t know there was a library there. Partly this is because it is tucked away in a side street beside the train line, and partly because my journeys there are usually focussed on other things, like the Vinnies. Burwood Vinnies used to be one of my favourites but then was cleaned up and became much less interesting. Imagine my joy to discover that it had cluttered up again! This sometimes happens a few years after an op shop gets tidied.

In order to browse, you need a certain amount of clutter. This applies to op shops and libraries equally. “Clutter” doesn’t have to mean mess, although in an op shop I’m not averse to a bit of mess. Libraries are by nature ordered places, but the ones I like best have lots of books of different types and from different times, where if you look, you will find something unexpected.

In the Vinnies I found a different kind of book altogether:

From the ‘drunk against the lamppost’ era of bar kitsch (70s and before), I wonder if this ceramic book was ever actually filled with whiskey. It would fit about half a bottle but I struggled to imagine someone pouring a drink from it. This made me resolve to use it next time I have people over for dinner, to pull it out from the shelf after dessert and collect the laughs. I paid $1 for “Bright Spirit” and watched the old lady, who to my surprise had long fingernails painted black, wrap it carefully in pages of the Good Weekend with Rove’s face on them.

The street that leads to the library runs alongside the train line on the other side of the station to the op shop. I passed the Police Citizens Youth Club, a building which looked deserted.

The two big terracotta pots growing weeds on the awning, the holes in the plaster where a sign had once been, all suggested that the building was no longer in use. On closer inspection it was still functioning, with signs for various martial arts out the front.

I could see the library up ahead, on the corner of Marmaduke St. As someone who takes particular interest in street names, I approved of Marmaduke St. I’d also read, in one of those useless pieces of trivia that stick no matter how much you’d rather forget them and replace them with something more erudite, that Bear Grylls has a son named Marmaduke. Marmaduke Grylls. I imagine him growing up to be the opposite of his father, a terrible cad and lush.

Burwood library is a 1950s brick building with a garden out the front, and a noticeboard like primary schools and churches often have. Unfortunately on the day I was there it was blank. I would have liked it to have had messages about reading, like churches have about Jesus. Before I went into the library I sat in the garden on one of the benches, enjoying being in a different corner of a familiar suburb. As I sat there a black cat with white paws padded up to me, stopped, and regarded me with curiousity. “Hello,” I said, and half expected it to answer me. It stayed quiet, and sat beside me licking a paw. Was this the library cat? I hoped so.

At the entrance was the sad sight of the closed after hours returns chute:

Further signs greeted me at the entrance: bags can be brought into the library as long as they’re presented for inspection, there are limited powerpoints for laptops and only ones in the study area can be used, you can only use the blue payphone mounted on the wall for 3 minutes. Libraries are thoroughly mapped out with signs. Some are stern, some encouraging. These made me wonder about the vandalising and thieving citizens of Burwood, who want to make long telephone calls.

The first person I noticed in the library was a librarian wearing an amazing pair of spectacles, huge 80s frames with decorative wings on the sides. I didn’t think anyone still wore glasses like this unless going to a fancy dress party (or maybe is a hipster taking things too far). The librarian was talking to a man who she had just come back from searching the shelves with and said “the magic eyes don’t always see everything”. Assisted by such glasses, what eyes wouldn’t be magic?

Burwood library is the central and only library in this council area, although looking at the labels in old books I saw that it once had branches at Drummoyne and Five Dock. Various plaques were embedded in the walls, commemorating where the library had been added to over the years. I have noted the plaques at every library I have visited, and I like how here they showed how the library has changed over time.

The building was old, but not in an oppressive way. The books were over two levels, the upper level with books around the edge of the room, accessed by a wood panel lined balcony. This design gives the room height; I have realised that high ceilings are good for libraries, they combat the claustrophobia that can result from row upon row of bookshelves.

I sat at one of the desks near the librarians, observing the people reading newspapers. There was of course a newspaper man, reading through the Sydney Morning Herald, wearing slippers, as if he were in his own living room. A number of other people were reading the Chinese newspapers, including a man sitting at the other side of the table I was using. I watched him reading the lines of characters which to me are unintelligible, trying to imagine what it would be like to understand them.

Another popular area of the library was the kids section, which had little green bucket chairs to sit on. It wasn’t being used by kids, though, at every one of the low tables an adult was sitting, appearing slightly stunted from the lower than usual seat. At a few of the desks were teenagers studying, but older people were sitting at them too, among the kids books and chirpy posters encouraging reading.

Of all campaigns I have noticed to encourage children to use libraries, this is my favourite. Having a job where I teach groups of students who sometimes amaze me with their lack of curiousity, I often reflect upon how there is a strong link between curiousity and creativity. Get excited! Be Curious! The internet is curiousity’s best friend and worst enemy. You can look up anything you want, yet the very fact of its accessibility makes you less likely to engage with it, a kind of easy come, easy go sort of phenomena, where you only engage with things on a surface level.

Behind me was a folding partition with book reviews from newspapers pinned onto it. These articles had been cut out and glued to red cardboard. I like evidence of craft in the workplace. I remember once going into a branch of the Commonwealth Bank to find it had been decorated with glittery homemade cardboard signs advertising some kind of home loan deal. I liked imagining the staff in some office out the back, with scissors and cardboard, making signs for something so financially significant as home loans.

On the other side of the partition were shelves of non-fiction books, books in languages other than English, and magazines. I looked around these shelves for a while, searching for nothing in particular. Sitting beside one of the rows of books was a book called Growing up in the 50s. This library didn’t seem to have a librarian whose job it was to maintain shelf order (usually with a kind of obsessive dedication, based on my observations at other libraries – or maybe it’s the job you do when there’s nothing else to do?) so there were quite a few books sitting out abandoned like this. I hoped there was a whole series of “Growing up in the…” books, Growing up in the 90s, for example, but there didn’t seem to be.

I was happy to notice that Burwood library has quite a lot of old books, sometimes surprisingly old, like these collections of plays:

I went upstairs to look at the rest of the non-fiction books, which are arranged around the perimeter of the room. From up here I could look down on the library below me:

As I investigated a section of books about technology and the future, a girl squeezed past me with a whispered “sorry”. I thought about her whisper, and how, in recent articles about libraries, much has been made of their atmosphere, and whether the “shhh it’s the library” idea is something that attracts or repels people. For a while the Librarian Action Figure (based on a real librarian!) was much-mentioned in these articles, a kind of light relief to the more serious issues being discussed. Don’t people come to libraries because it’s quiet, though? This is a part of the argument that confuses me: surely libraries are primarily places to do quiet activities? I don’t come to libraries to talk. In fact I think it’s good to have places where people don’t blabber their life stories into their phones and have the kinds of conversations you want to send in to the paper because they’re so stupid.

To the side of the non-fiction section is a study area, full of students at desks, surrounded by books. Even though it was Tuesday morning there were a lot of students there, perhaps because the HSC trial exams are soon – I know this only because of the “collar bomb” story. The desks were arranged around the centre of the room, which was open to the level below it, the fiction section. On a thin panel above the desks was a strip of wall that had many pen scribbles on it, the kinds of things students write on desks, obscenities, pictures of genitals and “for a good time call…”. It has been a long time since I wrote anything on a desk. I remember going through a phase of drawing a round face with a big nose (self portrait?) on every desk I used in Year 7 to see how many I used in a term; I’m not sure if I saw the experiment through.

I headed back downstairs to the kids area with the little green chairs. They were indeed comfortable despite their size, and I set myself up at a table with the books I’d picked out from the shelves. Near me, a teenage boy and girl were studying, although they kept getting up and going outside, leaving all their books spread out on the desks and their bags underneath it. They must be very trusting or hoping someone would steal their homework.

As I sat reading through An Optimists Tour of the Future, trying to find out if indeed our brains will become one with the internet (my greatest fear for the future after reading science fiction books in which this happens), I noticed a woman enter the library. She was wearing a tartan jacket, tiny denim shorts over black tights, black pvc sneakers with 4 inch platforms, a diamante tiara and matching diamante choker, and what was obviously a wig of curly brown hair. The wig-hair looked stiff and plasticky, and I noticed that the choker did indeed seem to be cutting into her neck. She tottered around on her high shoes, looking for a place to set up. She was carrying two large bags, one black pvc like her shoes, the other tartan like her jacket. Although she was dressed so meticulously, the overall effect was very odd. I was pleased when she sat in the same area as me, and I kept casting looks back to see what she was doing.

The book about the future didn’t seem too optimistic to me, as I read about “Grey Goo” and how the world could be “overtaken, eaten up by trillions of tiny mechanical robots” that replicate at too fast a rate to be stopped. I glanced back to the strange woman as I heard a lot of jingling coming from behind me. She had a set of keys on a keyring with a toy in the shape of a piece of toast. I too have a toast keyring, although mine is of the replica food variety and hers was squishy like one that Simon has:

Simon's Toast, with face. Vanessa's toast, with butter.

When I next glanced back, as the jangling continued, I saw that she had a large number of these toast keyrings, as well as donut keyrings of the same type. She was working on the part of them that has the keychain attached to it with an unpicker, with complete concentration. Was she modifying them for personal use? Was she adapting them? Simon suggested later that she was making them into a necklace, but there was no clear result from her task. She spent a fair while on the donuts and the toasts, before finally settling down to read a book from the Chinese language section.

I had to admit I was finding this person more interesting than the book so put it down. I’d had so much hope that it was going to turn me into an optimist. It’s impossible, I’ll never be an optimist. I also had a book about archetypes, Who Am I? An Archetypal Quest, in which you cast an “archetype map” from the archetypes given in the book. You are made up of a combination of these archetypes, all of which have positive and negative characteristics, or light and shadow, as the book names them. I had hoped the process of casting my map would be simple, but I would have had to read the entire book in order to choose what archetypes most spoke to me and I didn’t have time to delve into the complexities of my identity. I did, however, notice a coincidence:

I was sitting right next to the Enid Blyton section in the children’s books. I was never much of a Blyton reader, though I had read the Magic Faraway Tree at some point. To the left of the Blytons were some Judy Blume novels, of which I had read many, and still remember details of to this day. This isn’t to say that I loved Judy Blume books, they made me feel kind of uncomfortable. I couldn’t relate to the families in the books, something about them seemed too American to me, or at least that was what I attributed the strangeness to at the time. A lot were about physical changes to the body, which was something I had an aversion to knowing too much about. My favourite Judy Blume book was “Deenie”, about the teenage girl who had to be put in a full-body brace in order to straighten her spine. The horror of it thrilled me, what if I needed something like that! The book goes through the process of Deenie, who had once been a popular, everyday girl, being cast for the brace, and having to catch the special bus to school with the other children who had disabilities as well as suffering all the other painful social consequences of being different to the other kids.

When I was a bit older, I borrowed a book from the Turramurra library called Letters to Judy, a collection of some of the letters she had received from readers over the years. These were more interesting to me than her books, I liked the idea of this secret world of correspondence and the idea that a writer could become your friend and advisor.

Although I have mixed reactions to Judy’s books, I do have a poster of her, which I think of as my motivational poster. I look upon her smiling, 80s visage and think about the power of being able to write and make people feel less alone. I found the poster in a Canberra op shop when I was in town to run a zine workshop and felt like it was a kind of sign from the universe telling me I was doing the right thing. For me, Judy Blume seems permanently fixed in the 80s, but she is still working. Check out Judy Blume’s website! It’s worth it for the animation, possibly one of the strangest features of an author’s website I’ve ever seen.

Deenie wasn’t on the shelf here, which was perhaps a good thing as I would have become engrossed in reading it again. I got up to have a look at the children’s books section and found a whole area devoted to books about myths and fairytales:

I like how this series of books comprehensively covers the many different types of mythological creatures, wizards, ogres, changelings, witches. Nearby was a book called the Olive Fairy Book, which I picked out as it reminded me of the kinds of books I used to borrow from Dural library as a child. Opening it, I was perplexed by this message in the back:

I did, indeed, slide my fingernails across the plastic, somewhat nervous as to what might happen (a potplant over the other side of the room might explode, or something). But all that happened was a kind of grating noise.

Also nearby was the Complete Idiot’s Guide to the World of Harry Potter. “Covers all seven books”. Don’t have time to read the books but want to know what people are talking about when they are going on about muggles? This is the book for you. My rather ambivalent opinions about the world of Harry Potter I will save for another time.

Some new people had appeared at the desks, a girl in drab study clothes, her hair piled up messily on her head, glasses on. I noticed the waistband of her beige track suit pants had slipped down to reveal the bright red g-string she was wearing underneath. This was her secret identity. She sat at the desk leaning on her maths books, sending a text message. Other girls were sitting on chairs nearby, reading copies of Dolly and Vogue.

In the fiction section, a room to the side of the kid’s area, I browsed around and pick out a novel about a woman who works in a library, The Stopping Place by Helen Slavin. The excessive number of quotes from reviews printed at the start of the book led me to believe it would be compelling, impressively offbeat, racy, captivating, highly evolved, quietly moving, and hilarious. I can’t remember ever having read a novel that was about a librarian, although I feel like I must have some time in my life. Are there great librarians of literature? Who are they?

I was intending to sit down and flip through this book, but when I was having a final browse in the art and craft section I decided that I would borrow it, as I was going to join the library in order to borrow:

I will be going into detail about this book in a separate post, as it is exactly the kind of book that I imagine is – but shouldn’t be – weeded from library collections. Published in 1975, it features the wildest masks you could ever or never imagine making at home.

Its survival here was perhaps due to the fact it had been borrowed many times, if the due date slip was anything to go by:

I went up to the desk and asked to become a member of the library. I felt nervous doing this for some reason, perhaps because I don’t live in Burwood. You don’t have to live in Burwood to be a member, but I felt a bit like an imposter. I filled in the form for a card and the librarian entered my details into the computer. I watched her long fingernails tap the letters of my name and address across the keys. My reward was a green and orange library card (the same colour scheme as my Leichhardt library card, coincidentally).

I went round to the other side of the desk to check out my books from another one of the librarians. She scanned my card, then the library novel, then opened the back of the masks book to find the barcode. She looked at the due date slip I had just been admiring then ripped it right off the page, crumpled it in her hand and threw it in the bin! I gaped at her, shocked, and she pushed the books, with the receipt tucked into one of them, across the counter towards me.

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Filed under Inner Western Sydney, Sydney Public Libraries

Padstow and Panania (potplants)

Upon stepping into the Padstow library, eager to read the announcements on the community noticeboard that faced the entrance, I was accosted by a woman. She had a newspaper folded under her arm, and was on her way to the toilet cubicle that lay to the right of the entrance. Throughout our conversation she went as if to go into the cubicle, but then would come back with another question.

She was interested in my clothes, my stockings in particular.

“Grass green stockings! They’re a real grass green. Have you been rolling in the grass?” she asked.

I looked down. I would have called my stockings sickly olive, rather than grass, but she marvelled over their colour so much I thought it wise to agree.

“No, but they are grassy.”

“Where did you get them from?”
“An op shop, ” I said, wondering if this answer would disappoint her.

“Were they new?” she asked.

“They were still in the packet, but they were from the 80s judging by the packet design.”

“Oh yes, I understand. They look great with those shoes,” she said, indicating my black Mary Janes, “Where are they from?”

“Melbourne.”

“I’m a Melbourne girl – though I’ve lived here for 30 years. Where in Melbourne?”

“Collingwood.” I wondered how specific this was going to get.

She started to sing what I imagine must be the theme song of the Collingwood Magpies before breaking off to say “actually, I’m from Carlton”.

She goes on to review my outfit from the feet up.

“I don’t like the skirt.”

“It’s a dress,” I said, “so there’s more of it to hate.”

“It would be better with a black skirt – or shorts – and a black turtleneck, The sunglasses are good too, where are they from?”

“Japan,” I said, feeling awful, like one of those people whose trendy outfits get dissected in magazines. I was a cliche just like them, with my mixture of things from op shops, things from boutiques (though it was just the shoes, I never buy clothes new) and something I bought in another country.

“Yes,” she said, “I saw you straight away, if you wear all black with the grass green stockings, it will be a great outfit. A real grass green,” she continued to wonder, as she finally went into the bathroom with her newspaper.

I turned to enter the library to the stares of the people using the computers nearby. Having never been to Padstow library before, I hadn’t realised that my conversation would have been loud and distracting to anyone inside the small library, just metres away.

Suitably embarrassed, I quickly sat at one of the study tables and got out my books and my computer, ready to do some work.

I had been to Padstow once before, out of curiousity, seeing it on the front of a bus on a day when I was out op shopping. In search of the library I’d gone over to the side of the station where the op shops are (or were, one had gone, leaving only the little old Red Cross store, which was empty apart from the voices of the women in the back room, talking about nursing homes) thinking the library was there. Actually, it was on the other side of the station, in a park, beside a little Early Childhood centre, many of which must have been built in the 1950s – 1970s, in the same drive towards civic architecture which produced many of Sydney’s branch libraries.

The Padstow library is a pale brick building, with big mirrored windows that reflect the street. From the inside, though, you can look out at the cars and people going past through these windows, as you sit at one of the study desks.

Sitting in front of me was a boy with geometrical designs on his hoodie, studying maths, and in front of him, a girl studying Chinese history. She was established at her table, a constellation of useful objects – books, pencils, water bottle, hairbands, stationery – surrounded her. I had work to do also, but any work I did was interspersed with close study of the library and its atmosphere.

Padstow library has a lot of indoor plants, which makes the library feel comfortable, like a living room. The plants are in pots on top of the shelves, among the announcements for things like the Seniors screening of Sweeney Todd. At the end of some of the shelves of books were collages promoting Fantasy books, with reading mermaids and flying books.

I watched a girl with a long long plait browse the fiction shelves, a copy of The Arrival under her arm. Another woman was looking at the New Age section, pulling out a book called “Mythology of the Incas” and staring at the cover for a long time, before selecting a book about women’s empowerment by Louise Hay. Louise Hay, queen of affirmations, comes up in our house sometimes, as I recall particular parts of her most well known book, You Can Heal Your Life, where she talks to herself in the mirror every day with loving affirmations, and, if she does get angry, takes it out on a pillow. I think Miranda July has read some Louise Hay books, they weirdly remind me of each other although one is a self help guru and the other is an artist.

Outside the library, two teenage girls were walking past. They were wearing matching outfits: cut off shorts and singlets, with big collared shirts over it all. One girl had a packet of Twisties in her hand, and a half eaten Twistie in the other. I wondered where they must be going, but they were just wandering, as a few minutes later they walked back across, stopping to preen in the mirrored surface of the library’s window, unable to see me staring out at them from behind it.

It was school holidays and kids were everywhere. On the train, as I travelled along the East Hills line (the train line of Sydney I’ve had least experience with), I watched two kids clinging to a wire fence that separated the train tracks from a playground. I had wanted them to wave, and was ready to wave back, but they were caught up in their own private world, the fence the boundary to some game. Then I felt afraid of school holidays, and wondered whether this would impact on the libraries and their peacefulness.

No, it turns out. Apart from the two teenagers in front of me, there was one other girl, studying at the opposite end of the library. She looked as if she were suffering, every few seconds lifting her head from her page and sighing, casting looks of despair out to the rest of the room. A number of times I caught her eye and quickly looked away, in case I was afflicted with her lassitude. It had been a while since I’d seen such pure boredom, although some of my students come close sometimes. Occasionally one of mine will even fall asleep though, which I guess is the apex of boredom.

By contrast, I was very busy. I typed away at my computer, working for a while before packing up and going to inspect the shelves. Like many public libraries, the books had stickers on their spines to show their genre. I particularly liked the Mills and Boon section. This library also had a vast Large Print section, revealing, perhaps, the demographic who borrow most.

The shelves that lined the walls were illuminated by lights, above which were the subject you could find on that particular shelf. The Animals section was larger than I thought it would be, although having looked in one of Sydney airport’s bookshop a few weeks earlier, I had been surprised by the size of its animal section – there are a lot of books written about animals. The only books I have read about animals are Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg (about the genius African Grey parrot) and Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson. If I ever want to look into the topic further however, there are plenty more. The most common animal books seem to be about dogs, cats, lions and monkeys. Perhaps there is an opening for me to write a book about the bond between me and the rabbit here.

I tore my eyes away from Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods and went to set up a position at the other end of the library, near the bored girl. Here, rather than the small, windowside individual study tables, were large tables that could seat a number of people. There were also red baskets, with the sign “Customer Baskets, for your convenience”, which made me think of the supermarket. This library did have a number of things on sale, including library bags and bookmarks, but the baskets were for books. No one who I saw enter picked up one of these baskets.

From this position I could see the screen of the man who was sitting at one of the computers. He was going through the practise driver knowledge test that you have to do prior to getting your learner driver’s license. Having done one of these myself not so long ago (I have done this test a number of times, and passed it every time, got a learners license, then failed to learn to drive). This man didn’t look like someone who needed to learn to drive. He was a tanned, stocky man in his forties, with a thick neck and tribal tattoos on his arms, but maybe people look at me and think I look like I know how to drive too – what does a driver look like?

I watched him for a while: the clunky graphics of this test, the kind that makes you feel stupid because the buttons you have to click on are so large, was easy to read from across the room. The whole time I’d been in the library, a woman had been bustling around, straightening the shelves and putting back books. For an hour she had done nothing but this, although the library was already in impeccable order. The room resounded with the clop – clop sound of books being rearranged on shelves from her manic shelf-straightening.

The other staff were in the rooms behind the counter, access to which was through a doorway with a KEEP READING sticker on the lintel. Painted on the glass panel above this were the words Fuel Your Mind (fuelling, freeing, the library is a busy place for the mind).

I looked down at the book of Japanese cookery open on the table in front of me. Having been in Japan and eaten all sorts of delicious and curious things, I was eager to try to cook some of these things on my own. This book was big and heavy with large colour photos of each dish. In general I prefer cookbooks without photographs, so what you are cooking remains somewhat a mystery, but these are harder to find. I chose one recipe that seemed appealing and thought about transcribing it, until I read:

This sticky rice dish, sekihan, is cooked for special occasions and takes 8 hours to prepare.

Eight hours! As I marvelled over this, the man on the computer got a call on his phone. His ringtone was a wild, funky explosion of music and he took his time in answering.

“I’m in the library practising my test… I’m kicking bum… What happened over the road with the coppers?”

I listened avidly, but there was no clue in his next comment as to what the coppers had been doing.

I’d been wondering how he was going on his driving test – it was good to know he was kicking bum. He’d been working his way through it slowly, reading every word on the screen carefully. I decided that I would stay in the library until he finished it, before I moved on.

It was 1:50pm, the time that seems to come in every library (although the actual time is different in different libraries) when the men come to the library. “Man Time”, I call it. Old men, in caps and bright cable knit jumpers. Young men, wanting computer access. Men who know the librarians personally and are after books about coin collecting.

I stopped gawking at everyone in the library and concentrated on the book I’d picked out from the shelf, “365 Everyday Games and Pastimes” by Martin and Simon Toseland. I like looking through such books, although in actual fact I hate playing games. Word games are the worst, compounded by the fact that, because I’m a writer, people expect me to enjoy them. This is not an unreasonable assumption, but my trouble with them is that they make my mind freeze up, like sometimes when I have to spell words aloud. Added to my lack of competitiveness – oh, so you want to win this game of snakes and ladders? go right ahead – I’m a sourpuss when it comes games time.

I don’t want to be like this, somewhere in my fantasies is the image of a smoky night in the 1930s, where a version of myself and my fantastic friends drink brandy, smoke, and play party games to our hearts content. In the book I read about the word game called “Buried Names”. In this game, you bury a name of a famous person in a sentence. The example given was:

One DAy I was watching a VIDeo when I was BECKoned into the kitchen by my mum, who asked if I wanted a cheese or HAM sandwich.

You read this sentence out and people have to guess whose name is buried in the sentence. On paper, I found this interesting, but it would drive me crazy if I were to be asked to play this, especially if liquor was involved. All I ever want to do when drinking is talk on and on, and listen to records.

Another book I investigated was a collection of quotes about books. I looked in the index to see what kind of quotes there were about libraries.

As I scanned over these topics a girl came through the door, smiling in my direction. She wasn’t after me, though, she was on her way to her friend, the painfully bored girl sitting behind me. I could feel the relief as they greeted each other, and the sound of books being shut and being packed into her bag was a sound of great happiness, even for me. I hate seeing people bored.

They headed out the door together, off into the sunny, cold afternoon. It was a particularly nice winter’s day, and the sunny view outside tugged at me, as the peace of the library tugged at me to stay. How was he going with his driver’s test?

He was still clicking through the screens, in the portion of the test where your comprehension of roadsigns is tested. This is the easiest part of the test, in my opinion. How can you mistake a big red sign with STOP on it? The man was having no trouble answering these questions, and I knew it would be time for me to leave soon.

One of the books I had picked out was a tiny copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I’d read this book before, but I was intrigued by its pocket size – it was the full book, shrunk down so it could fit in the palm of my hand. This book had been much read, its pages weathered and stained.  On the front page was a stamp which gave the details of when the book was acquired. Some library books have this stamp, and I always pay it attention. I am the kind of person who takes time reading all the extra information in a book – the acknowledgements, the bio, the pages of quotes, the copyright information, in addition to the text itself, so it is natural I would enjoy knowing when the library acquired their books. This led me to another thought – you can’t fully enjoy a library unless you are the kind of person who appreciates details.

Perhaps my favourite detail in Padstow library, apart from the plants, was sign instructing patrons to look after the library books. I’d never seen such an explicit plea to be careful, and keep the books away from water, food, coffee – all the things that muck them up.

The man at the computer leaned back and stretched his arms forward, releasing the tension in his shoulders now that he had passed his test. I could see the green text on the screen announcing his success. He sat forward again, and clicked on the screen to do another practise test. No way was I sitting through that again! I left the library, pausing to take a photo of myself in the reflective windows the teenage girls had used as a mirror.

Note the grass green stockings.

I had ten minutes to wait for a train, so went on a quick search for a jam tart. Every project I do has some kind of signature food; for this project, it’s jam tarts. I am surprised, though, by the number of bakeries that don’t make them. The Padstow Bakehouse didn’t, although it did have a pleasingly faded sign and window display. Outside the bank next door, a little boy stood holding two shiny silver fake guns, pointed at the door as if about to hold it up. I looked around for someone to laugh about this with, but no one else had noticed.

When planning which library to visit, I had decided on Padstow by a kind of automatic process, where the name just floated into my consciousness. Padstow is part of the Bankstown library family, which also includes Panania. I’d never been to Panania, and thought today would be a good day to do so. It is a few stops further on, from Padstow. What would I find there?

The rat-tail thugs outside the chicken shop made me nervous as I walked past them up towards Panania library. I didn’t know anything about Panania, and felt a sudden spark of worry that it was a “dangerous” place. Although I am wary of stereotypes and judgements of places based on their socio economic profile, the thing about Panania was that I didn’t know anything at all about it. For the people on the streets around me it was home, the centre of their universe. This is one of the things I like about exploring different places. I am an outsider in the centre of others’ universes.

The universe of Panania is one of multiple bread and fruit shops, old ladies sitting talking on park benches, council rangers with dogs on leads, the Panania Treasure Mart and its 50% off sale, and kids running wild in their front gardens, which, fenceless, overlap with the footpath. Further down the street, an old man in a tartan cap pushed a creaky petrol mower over the grass on the nature strip. He paused as I passed by, and I went to smile at him but he averted his eyes.

At one of Panania’s bakeries I found my jam tarts and strolled up to the Salvos, eating them. I have a strong op shop radar, which enables me to find them even in places I have never been to before. It was very busy in the Salvos. As I looked through the bric a brac a girl near me asked her mum if she could have the metal coin bank patterned with a $20 note she held in her hands, since her sister had one. “No,” her mum said. The girl wasn’t disappointed. “Oh well, I’m getting a book and a wig!”

Some women were standing near the counter, gossiping about a couple who’d married during a siege somewhere in the world. “He’s a good man but…” one trailed off, “not bright,” said her friend, stepping in to help.

I thought of this poor, not bright chap as I bought my Dolly Parton record from the grumpy woman behind the counter. She didn’t offer me a bag and I spend the rest of the day walking around with Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits under my arm, feeling self conscious.

After op shopping, I went back to the library. Panania library must have been built around the time as Padstow, and in fact both of the other libraries I have been to so far – all the buildings date from around the 1960s. I peeked through the windows, and saw no one inside. Perhaps the library was closed?

When I approached the doors, though, they opened, and I stepped inside. There were people there once I looked, they appeared slowly from their bookish camouflage. Overall, though, the library had a feeling of desertion. Perhaps it was the sunny afternoon, or the lure of hanging out in front of the chicken shop, or buying wigs, but I felt sad that so few people were in Panania’s library.

It was a big library, well stocked with books, and different study areas:

Exam Style

Grandma’s House

The Desk – note baskets, potplants, high windows…

Despite the lack of patrons the staff were busy, and when I looked into the back room I saw a librarian seriously considering a construction paper cutout of a chicken. I settled down in one of the study areas with a couple of books: The True History of the Hula Hoop by Judith Lanigan (though I dislike fiction books with non-fiction titles) and Making Things Move: DIY Mechanisms for Inventors, Hobbyists and Artists by Dustyn Roberts. I like thinking about inventors, hobbyists and artists tinkering with DIY mechanisms!

I browsed these books for a while, watching a woman waiting at the counter, wallet in hand, trying to get the attention of the librarians in the back room. It took a surprisingly long time for such a quiet library. When someone did come out, they said “You have to stand by the gold rope! Otherwise we can’t see you.” There were two gold posts, a rope strung between them, mid way along the counter, near the fishtank where a black, bobble-eyed fish busily swam back and forth.

I could see the trees swaying in the wind through the inevitable strip of high windows, and felt a yearning to be outside. Two libraries in one day and the details start to become overwhelming. I flicked through the grubby books in the Book Sale area, before stepping out past the Nurse Schwarzel Memorial Fountain and the desert island reading mural, and headed towards the station.

“Izit Saint Patrick’s Day?” asked one of the chicken shop thugs as I walked past.

It’s best to make some acknowledgement to this kind of thing, rather than ignore it. It shows you are not afraid.

I looked at the pimply boy  in the track suit and shook my head. “Nah,” I said, as if he had no hope of ever knowing the secrets I knew, and continued on my way.

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Filed under South Western Sydney, Sydney Public Libraries, The Suburbs

Stanmore Library (Thumbtacks)

During the many years I lived in Petersham, I’d ride my bike along the path past the back of Stanmore Library. Painted on the back was a graffiti mural, which I must have looked at in passing hundreds of times. Today, when I came to Stanmore library, I found the whole building painted over a dull green, the mural included. Despite the many times I’d seen it, I couldn’t remember exactly what was on it besides a figure of a girl in a short skirt with purple hair. It was one of those council sanctioned graffiti murals, perhaps with a don’t do drugs message, the kind that’s meant to be as exciting as actual graffiti. Now as I stood looking at the blank green wall, I imagined the figures in the mural buried underneath.

Stanmore library is one of the smallest Sydney libraries I have visited, although it looks smaller on the outside than it does on the inside. The building is one long rectangular shed, situated in the park beside the train station. This has always seemed to me a good place to have a library, in a space that has some kind of civic importance. Another civic object, to be found alongside the library, is this drinking fountain, presented to the citizens of Stanmore in 1949.

Although I like drinking fountains as civic objects, I can’t help but recall one time seeing a large, slobbery St Bernhard with its paws up on the side of one, while his owner turned on the water for the dog to drink. The dog’s big tongue slurped over the spout, which would then be later used by some thirsty passerby.

It was 11am on a rainy Wednesday when I arrived at the library. I’d caught the 412 bus to Stanmore with a number of small old Greek ladies. I was waiting at the bus stop with one of these women, and watched as she unwrapped a packet of cigarettes she’d just bought from the grocery across the street. She lit up a cigarette and I stood up to move upwind of her, reflecting how it was perhaps meant to be the other way around: wasn’t I meant to be the one smoking, being (although I’m not sure this word quite applies anymore) young? She and her cohorts stayed on the bus, going, perhaps, to the hospital further along the bus route.

The library had changed its colour scheme since I was last there, many years ago now. It used to have bright green chairs like big green apples. Now the colour scheme is beige and the purple of Marrickville Council. I looked around for somewhere to sit. It was man hour in the library, besides the two librarians, everyone else there was male. I went down to the round wooden table in the young adult fiction area, and sat in a position from which I could see the whole library in front of me.

Like Dural Library, Stanmore library has windows lining the two long walls of the building, up high. Through these I saw the trains rushing by on the train lines above. Every few minutes one would whoosh past. Planes came over as well, screaming down on their path to Sydney airport. The planes always come that way when it is overcast, something I know well from my Petersham years. Despite these sounds, the library was a place of great calm.

A man sat on one of the couches, reading a week’s worth of Sydney Morning Heralds. He was an old man in a beanie, the kind who has sockless, skinny ankles poking out from under the hem of his trousers. I watched him struggle with the large broadsheet, getting it into the best position for reading. On the other side of the room, two men used the internet. Both had notebooks with lists of things to look up, and both occasionally swore at the screen. I didn’t pry too much, but I peeked over the shoulder of the man nearest me, to see he was looking up different kinds of locks.

The table I was sitting at was near the Graphic Novels and the “Board Books”, a genre I hadn’t come across before. It means the thick cardboard books for children, the thick cardboard which readily gets damp and germy from being chewed on. I looked away from them. The table surface beneath me had a pleasing patina, the varnish wearing off a little. The bookshelves that lined the walls were the same colour wood. There were other desks, more modern melamine ones, in the centre of the room. A man was sitting there studying, bent over his notebooks.

A man in an orange safety vest entered and delivered a poster to the librarians. The librarians then debated for a long time where to put it up. Eventually they took it, and a jar of drawing pins, into the corner where the noticeboards were, with posters for events like National Simultaneous Storytime and Reading Challenge 2011. The new poster was for Refugee Week, although first I read the slogan and read Freedom from Fear and thought it was about anxiety. An older poster was taken down and this new one put in its place. Something I particularly enjoy is pinning up posters on boards, removing the out of date ones to make room for mine. I pinned up a flyer for the zine fair I’m helping organise on my work noticeboard last week and did exactly this.

I went to browse the non fiction collection, which was on the wooden shelves lining the walls at the other end of the library. The good thing about a small library is that you can look at all the books, and don’t have to pick a particular section to work your way through. One section I will be focussing on in particular during this project is the books about books, which is the very start of the Dewey decimal numbers. I picked out a book from the 002s, “The Book of Lost Books” by Stuart Kelly. “The incomplete history of all the great books you will never read” was its subtitle. In general I find these kinds of list books very boring, especially ones that suggest I ought to do all the things inside before I die. I look at the book and think Oh my God I’m going to die? Rather than rushing to book holidays, buy books, listen to albums or whatever other essential experience is listed within.

This book, however, appealed to me as it was about things that no longer existed. These books had existed at some point in time but were lost or destroyed somewhere along the way. I took this book back to my desk and examined it further. The two entries I read first – the book is structured chronologically, according to author – were Nikolai Gogol and Sylvia Plath, both stories I already know. Gogol burnt the second half of his novel Dead Souls in a crazed fervour, and Plath’s second novel, Double Exposure, “disappeared” sometime after her death. The author notes how chilling the word “disappeared” is in its vagueness. There were no contemporary examples. There is more of a trend for works in progress to be published in whatever state they are in after an author’s death, such as The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov (which he explicitly didn’t want to have published) and The Pale King by every angsty boy’s favourite writer, David Foster Wallace. Instead, contemporary lost books are the countless books that people have written and never had published. These are the “novels in the drawer” of people who would never be referred to by their last name in a literary context.

As I sat pondering this, my thoughts were interrupted by a careful voice reading out “I do not like them Sam I am” from the children’s area behind me. A little girl and her grandmother had come in and settled there. The girl had immediately gone for the open jar of thumbtacks, in that precise way children have for locating the most dangerous or precious thing in a room. A librarian came to the rescue, saying “Don’t touch, very sharp”, putting them out of reach.

I moved on to the next book I’d picked out, this one from the 300s, which was “A Dictionary of Old Trades, Title and Occupations”. I was hoping for some clues for a new job for me. I was not looking for a new job, but I believe it’s important to have a back up plan. So if being an Associate Lecturer falls through, I can try my hand at being an:

Amanuensis – a secretary or recorder of transactions.

Chickweed Seller

Chronologist – a documenter of events

Dragon’s Blood Dealer – dealer in resins and gums

Mouldiwarp Catcher – a mole catcher

Wart Curer

These occupations, many from 19th century England, were notable in their specificity. If only all I had to do was sell chickweed!

It was peaceful in the library, with the men busy working and me looking through books in the corner. The librarians kept up a low, steady conversation about library related problems, someone’s timesheet not filled in correctly, where to find a JP on a Wednesday… I felt almost as if I was in someone’s house, it was so cosy in there. A couple with a baby came in a return some books, Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, a Kathy Lette book. The baby, parked near the entrance, while its parents looked around, was zipped up in a rainproof pouch inside a stroller, with only its head showing. It stared out uncomprehendingly, as if stunned by the strangeness of everything around it.

The final book in my pile was from the biographies section, a book about Joan Jett. It was a big square book with lots of photos inside, which seemed to be a kind of autobiography, although it was hard to tell exactly. The majority of it was photographs. The introduction was by Kathleen Hanna and there were some slightly blurry photos of the two of them posing together. The first page of text was, perplexingly, the letters W.W.J.J.D? What Would Joan Jett do? That’s a question to ask yourself next time you are in a moral quandary. My favourite pictures in the book were of Joan Jett on the phone. Did I ever expect photos of people on clunky, curly cord phones to be retro?

In one photo she’s lying on a bed, her shoes still on, a small soft toy elephant on one beside table and a tape recorder on the one on the other side, leaning against a wall that’s patterned with bamboo and big yellow flowers. The room is 70s domestic but she’s in black jeans and a t-shirt, of course. The other photo is in a kitchen, and she’s wearing a tuxedo t-shirt and staring at the camera while she’s on the phone. On the kitchen bench is a box of Hostess Suzy Q’s, mini boxes of Corn Flakes and a box for a kind of candy called 8 Stripes. Suzy Q’s are a chocolate cake sandwich with cream in the middle (and I see you can buy them on Amazon…but would you?) I like photos of famous people in domestic situations, especially if they have a style that looks out of place around packets of Corn Flakes and 70s wallpaper. (here for those who don’t trust word descriptions)

I photocopied these pictures of Joan Jett on the phone, noticing the photocopier had a sign on it warning me to use coins.

I was happy to – I dislike control cards, especially the ones that you have to set a pin for. Do you really need a pin for a photocopy card? I put my 40c coins into the machine and copied the pictures. Over this side of the library was another appealing desk, this one beside a big indoor plant. I decided to relocate here. This desk wasn’t wooden but it was a wood patterned laminate. The accompanying black vinyl 80s armchair with wooden armrests are not so good, however, it was were the kind of chair you feel you might never get up from. Even if you are strong and healthy you get a taste of what it must be like to be elderly and have trouble getting up. I hauled myself up out of it and chose one of the beige desk chairs instead.

From my position here, half hidden by the plant, I continued to observe the library. The plant was like a kind of camouflage – here I was, peeking out at library users in their natural habitat. A man in a track suit with stringy long grey hair borrowing books about depression; a woman with a huge noisy bunch of keys who was wearing a stick on label with KAREN written on it, and sunglasses even though she was inside, and had some urgent business at the counter. In quieter moments the librarians discuss how they need a bucket or an umbrella stand during wet weather and the popularity of their Premier’s Literary Awards display, which had been set up that morning and already been borrowed from.

From this desk I noticed that the bookends are the same green that I remember the lounges being. The longer you inhabit a place, the more details you notice. I can now see the snowflakes cut out of coloured construction paper stuck to the windows, the other side of which is sprayed with an angry silver graffiti tag.

One of my tasks at the library was to find a novel to read while I’m on holidays. While I looked I took note of the books I can’t imagine anyone borrowing from a library:

How many times would you have to renew it?

I haven’t felt very excited about fiction for a while now, but forced myself to pick Utopian Man by Lisa Lang from the display rack. The novel won the Vogel Literary Award in 2009 and I remember reading about it in the newspaper. I also remember thinking, while reading the article, “I am never going to win the Vogel Literary Award”. This was not me lacking self esteem, this was a kind of acceptance that I’m not going to write a novel. For a long time I thought, as is the general perception, that a novel is the height of literary achievement and I would naturally write one. I might have one in my drawer from a long time ago, but I don’t think it’s going to have any siblings in the near future.

Utopian Man is about Edward William Cole, who was the Cole behind the Coles Book Arcade, and Coles Funny Picture book, the first port of call should you ever need a picture of a monkey in a hurry. Opening up the novel, I saw that it has a lot of dialogue, which made me wary: I get sick of reading dialogue and hearing their voices in my head. I hold the book and struggle with my own head-voice: it just needs to be the kind of book you can read on the plane, Vanessa, just borrow it.

Which brings me to another question: is it a good idea to travel with library books? I’ve taken them on holidays quite a few times, sometimes over the other side of the world if it’s only for a short period of time. I enjoy returning them, thinking that I’ve taken them on such a journey, which will forever remain a secret.

One of the things I love about library books is that they’ve been in other people’s houses, in their bags, read while in bed, in the bath, on buses, who knows? Sometimes the crumbs and hairs caught inside give me clues to their previous journeys. What I’d like is a register in the back of the book where people could write notes on their reading of the book. Places where the book kept them company, or strange things that happened while they were reading the book, rather than the kind of book club musings or Amazon reviews that would, of course, be the most likely things people would think to write there. I will keep you up to date with what happens while I read Utopian Man, to test this idea.

With all this talk of borrowing, it’s obvious that I’m a member of this library. The Stanmore library is one of the branch libraries of Marrickville: the others being St Peters (currently closed for refurbishment) and Dulwich Hill. I like how libraries exist in families, with the big main library and its smaller siblings. In my extensive readings of the local papers over the years I’ve read debates about whether to retain branch libraries, and remember reading one about plans to close down the Stanmore branch, which attracted irate letters to the editor.

Although there are plans to built a new central Marrickville library in the old Marrickville Hospital site, I see no plans to close the branch libraries. But who knows, what with the death of books and all.

Having heard and read plenty of things in the last week about the death of the book, I am starting to feel like I am a dreadful conservative. Maybe I am. I hope to die before the day comes when I can surf the internet in my own mind and see webpages on my retinas. All I will say about the debate this time is that my opposition to arguments for making libraries less the books and more about social space is that I’m one of the people who goes there for the books. And whose business is it for anyone to tell me if I should still read books or not?

For now I’m a woman wearing a red jumper, borrowing a book from a library. I go up to the desk and hand the librarian the book with my card on the top, she scans my card, hands it back, scans the book, prints out a borrowing receipt and tucks it inside the pages. I put it into my bag and go out into the overcast afternoon, as another plane roars overhead and I walk through the underpass and out towards Enmore, happy to be out in the streets again after a few hours of library peace.

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Filed under Inner Western Sydney, Sydney Public Libraries, The Suburbs

Dural Library, or Ancient Egypt

On the Hills Bus, with 2CH blaring loudly from the speakers above every second seat, I look out the window at the national park. The M2 cuts through it, a long pale scar. I’ve never been on a Hills bus before, although I’ve seen people queuing for them at peak hour, lined up neatly in single file along the pavement outside the QVB. I’ve also seen the buses travelling over the Harbour Bridge, packed with commuters, and wondered what it would be like to have to stand in the aisle all the way to Dural.

Dural is one of those suburbs that unless you have lived in the Hills District, you probably haven’t heard of. When I say “Dural”, I might as be saying Dubrovnik. It’s possible that I too would be unsure of its location had I not lived in the area as a child.

“You Light up my Life” wails from the radio as the bus turns into Old Northern Road. We pass the Koala Park, with tour buses out the front and a couple of Japanese girls taking peace sign photographs in front of the entrance. Simon used to live across the road from the koala park. He tells me that strange shrieks would come from the park at night, rumoured to be the sound of the koalas’ frantic coupling.

The bus turns off and makes its way through suburban streets. All the houses are McMansions of various sizes. Cars with P plates in the driveways, everything neat. I’ve never been on these streets before and when the bus comes out the other side of the estate onto New Line Road, I realise why: all these houses were built in the years since I left the Hills District. They were in the area that, when we’d drive through it on the way to and from the city, used to be fields. I’d look across it, counting the cows dotted on the hills.

It’s a novelty to be in a bus on a road I’ve only ever been on as a passenger in a car. Not being a driver gives me a different perspective on travelling around Sydney. I sit and let it slide by the windows. For residents of this area, though, it would be impossible to rely on the bus service, which is designed only for commuters to and from the city.

The bus terminates at Round Corner, the central village area of Dural. As a child I enjoyed what I felt was the strangeness of “Round Corner” as a name. The corner itself is a dogleg where Kenthurst Road comes off Old Northern Road. In the corner is Dural Mall. The Mall isn’t a multi-storey Westfield kind of mall, it’s an L-shaped court lined with shops. Built in 1979, it is a compromise between the old way, of on-street shops, and the new way of enclosed shopping centres. The covered walkways give Dural Mall the visual appearance of a maze or a computer game.

Since I lived there the mall has been built upon, but its general shape has been retained. I follow the only other passenger who had stayed on the bus to the end, a young guy with long ratty hair and puffy sneakers, down into the end of the Mall. As I do this I catch sight of an old sign on the wall, in a gap between where the Mall used to end and a new building beside it. The signboard lists all the shops in as they used to be when I remembered it, all of which (besides the post office and fruit shop) are no longer there.

I regard this as a good omen for my project. I slip into the gap in between the buildings and examine the sign. The dark green, the signature colour of Dural Mall, triggers something in my memory, as do the shop names, La Pomme Bakery, The Shoe Tree. I like that it must have been left on the wall because no one thought it important enough to remove, and that it hides in a gap, tucked away, like it is the Mall’s own memory.

I love these details that remain through neglect, I have an eye for things that are weathered, old, almost hidden. When I visited Dural Mall as a child it was with great excitement. I liked the dank Franklins with high shelves (now an Aldi) and the gift shop from which I’d think about stealing pewter ornaments (now a butchery). When I got a bit older I was interested in the hippy clothes in the Recycled Clothing store, and I’d buy my first copies of Smash Hits from the newsagency. The old sign was on the wall of the once newsagency, now bottle shop.

I walked into the Mall and went to the Daily Delicious Bakery to gather my thoughts. Not the Bakers Delight or the Michel’s Patisserie (hell is a string of chain stores) but the former La Pomme. I was sad it was no longer La Pomme, with the big green apple on the sign. Apart from the location it was completely different, although it did have a fantastic sign out the front picturing everything they sell. I ordered a salad roll and a jam tart (I’d been thinking about a jam tart for weeks) and sat in the corner, reading the Hills Shire Times.

 

Having read all about Granny Plankers and the proposed Hills district train line from Epping to Rouse Hill, and listened to tradespeople ordering large amounts of pies, it was time to head over to the library.

Walking through the carpark, a version of me at eight years old walked alongside, with my sister and my mum, on our way back to the blue Telstar to load groceries into the boot. We would have stopped at La Pomme for our favourite treats: a Neenish tart for Fiona, a Vanilla Slice for me.

I’m in a stage of my life when I feel sad when I think about my childhood. Not because of any inherent sadness from that time, or wish that I was back there, but something to do with its distance. I’m living in a future that back then didn’t exist: the year 2000 was as far as my imagination stretched. I calculated the impossibly adult sounding age that I would be in 2000, hardly believing it would ever come. Now I am living on the other side of it, in the unknown.

The library is much smaller than I have remembered it. I feel like laughing as I walk along the path through the tall Ironbarks that surround the library, because it looks almost toy size, compared to the one in my imagination. My memories of it have merged the library building and the taller building adjacent to it, a gym which I have never entered. This feeling of smallness is a strange one. I feel like a giant girl, big legs in black stockings, wearing a red dress, my black hair a cloak, on a secret mission.

The first thing I realise is that the library is the perfect place to take notes. I’ve been the recipient of plenty of odd looks in the past when I’ve been taking notes in unexpected places, but here there is nothing more normal than to sit at a desk, get out my Spirax and my pencil and start to write.

The “angled ceiling” of my memory below is incorrect, but I remembered the exposed bricks of the interior correctly. Although refurbished in 1998, according to a plaque near the entrance, the library building retains its 70s design. High windows stretch the lengths of the two long walls, giving the library the feeling of being a kind of treehouse, as the windows look into the branches of the trees outside. As a child this had seemed magical to me.

Dural Library is peaceful. As I sit at one of the desks in the Adult non-fiction section, I watch people entering and leaving. No one’s doing work at the desks besides me, perhaps because this is a part of Sydney where most people have enough space to work at home. The Hills District is of course famous for its vast McMansions, although the Dural/Kenthurst area still has a lot of older houses, built in the 60s or 70s, on five acre blocks of land. We lived on one of these 5 acre blocks, in a long, thin house built in the 1970s. This house, a castle in my imagination, has the same toy appearance to me the few times my mother and I have driven out to see “what they’ve done to it”. The library and this house must have been built at around the same time.

As I sit writing, a little girl wearing a silver puffy jacket, her hair in a pineapple ponytail on top of her head, approaches the loans desk.

“Do you have a book about how to build the pyramids?”

The librarian, a woman with a rich accent I can’t identify, though I can tell it is European, enjoys this request. She takes the girl over to the Ancient History section, near where I am sitting. She gets out a number of different books that have information about the pyramids and spreads them out on the nearby desk.

“I don’t know if it explains how they are made,” she says, pointing at one of the open pages, “it’s something to do with these blocks. It would be easier to say how to make an igloo…”
The girl’s family have come to join her, her mum, a couple of sisters, and a brother, who is wearing a primary coloured cap with a propeller on the top, still slowly turning from his latest movements. All of them look seriously at the books the librarian has selected. The girl chooses a couple of the books to borrow and the family soon leave, on their way home to build a pyramid.

The library gets quiet again. I can hear the hush of the air conditioning unit and the conversations of the librarians behind the desk. The librarian who was so happy to help the little girl is not impressed with the man who has forgotten his card and then forgotten his password to log on to the computer. She clicks her tongue and sighs at him. Librarian disapproval is powerful; he looks chastened.

He is hoping to use one of the computers that are lined up in a row along one wall. I go exploring this section of the library and look over the shoulder of the man who is searching through a woman’s photos on Facebook, happy pictures of a group of people camping. Smiling faces fill the screen and I look away. The happy snaps of strangers make me feel miserable. I resist trying to imagine what he is thinking as he looks at them.

In the corner is a lounge area with a magazine rack, in roughly the same spot it was in my memory story. I sit here for a while, copying down a cake recipe from a Woman’s Weekly book of baking. The cake has whole pears embedded in it, their stalks poking out the top, which strikes me as weird enough to consider making. It is like they are entombed in there, or growing in there, depending on your perspective. Next to me is a coffee machine, a fixture I have noticed in Marrickville Library also, although I’ve never seen anyone use it. I look at the options but none re very appealing. I imagine the crunching noise of the machine filling the quiet library, and imagine how self conscious I would feel, hoping that my cringing would serve to muffle the sound of it. I would have bought one, though, if I was more of a coffee drinker. One of the things that people complain about concerning the changes in libraries, especially university libraries, is the getting rid of books to put in more computers and cafes. The vestiges of that were here, with the coffee machine and the computers, but from all the evidence I saw, people were still interested in books.

A woman at the counter, one of the many older women who have been coming in with their empty canvas bags ready to load up on novels, asks the librarian to look up some books for her. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? On loan. The Poisonwood Bible? On loan. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow” On loan. I want to tell her she needs to go for something more obscure. Finally one of the books on her list is on the shelf, and the librarian goes in search of it.

I’ve browsed all the sections in the library, the green spines of the gardening section, the ring bound volumes in the local history folder, the bright, sparkly young adult books. The children’s section is different to what I remember: I borrowed classics there but these days it’s mostly the current YA and children’s fiction. Across from the children’s shelves there’s a mural of a tree with native birds in it. A couple of little girls are sitting below it, gossiping. The older girl cries out “I can see your nappy!” to clinch the argument she is having with her sister. Their mum, a harried woman with a white jumpsuited baby strapped to her front, shushes them.

I sit down at my desk again and listen to the librarians talking. “Yesterday,” one of them says, “I came home to find a parcel on my doorstep”. I imagine her walking up the path to her door in the dark and seeing it there, an unexpected shape. Of course I pictured it being a book, but I was wrong.

“She sends me yams, they’re not commercially available in Australia.” Apparently they are good, very good, either steamed or roasted.

The yam discussion is interrupted by two teenagers, a boy and a girl, entering the library. They walk in and wander around the shelves, looking for something. The girl receives a lot of messages, the iPhone ding-ding keeps ringing out like someone very impatient is waiting to be served.

What could they be looking for?

The boy approaches the counter.
“Do you have any books on Ancient Egypt?” he asks.

“You’re not going to build a pyramid?” the librarian asks. The boy looks confused but takes it in good humour. The librarian waits a moment before explaining about the little girl’s request an hour earlier.

She returns to the Ancient Egypt section with the couple in tow. I feel proud that I have chosen to situate myself in such an important area of the library. The boy and girl look through the books for whatever particular information they’re after, slipping between talking about this and carrying on a conversation about their friends, the kind that is cryptic to any outsider, peppered with the kind of nicknames that make you picture the worst.

They choose the most useful book and negotiate sharing of it: she’ll have it until the weekend, and then he’ll take it. I try hard to overhear it, but can’t determine which aspect of Ancient Egypt they are interested in.

I’ve been in the library for almost two hours now. If I wanted to I could stay there all day. This is one of the things I love about libraries, that no matter who you are you can come and spend as much time as you want in there, and no one will tell you to leave until closing time. You don’t have to have any money or even be doing anything particular besides keeping quiet. During my hours in there I got up and browsed the books, moved between the desks and the lounges, and never once was the focus of any particular attention. Me, ever the observer, likes this kind of quiet place where I’m under no particular scrutiny.

Back at the couches I flip through today’s Sydney Morning Herald, reading the obituary for Bob Gould, who died a few weeks ago. Goulds, his huge and chaotic bookstore on King Street, is a type of library in itself, in fact it’s probably more of a library than a lot of public ones, in the sense of a library being a collection of books. Public libraries weed their collections regularly, but the only way a book leaves Goulds is if you buy it, or maybe steal it, as I’m sure many are tempted to. (But really, would you?)

I felt sad about his death because he was such a Sydney character, although I will never forget my anger at him telling me I was a “lovely plump girl” during my very brief stint working at Pulp Books, my friend’s bookstore which was across the road from Goulds. This perhaps was my only real interaction with the man, apart from buying the odd book from him.

As I think through all this, I notice a man enter the library. I get the feeling he isn’t the kind of person who frequents libraries. It isn’t anything about his appearance, his monogrammed shirt, work trousers and no nonsense haircut, but more his behaviour. He steps inside, looks around and goes over to the computer area where the man had been doing the facebook stalking. He stares intently at the computers for about ten seconds. Then he turns around and walks back outside. I watched him get into a red Barina and reverse out of the parking spot, and then drive away. I know how he feels – sometimes you really don’t feel like asking how something works.

I can hear blasts of the whistle from the gym next door, adjudicating a basketball game. It cuts through the ever present hum of the air conditioning. The librarians are straightening the cookbooks, a display of which they have set up on a tiered shelf near the DVD section. Perhaps rather than cookery they should do an Ancient Egypt display. I get up and fiddle with the computer catalogue, trying to decide what to look up. It’s a clunky catalogue with overly big square icons on the screen for each menu item. You have to press the F buttons to access the different types of searches. I’ve always been a bit wary of the F buttons, they do things I don’t quite understand.

The last time I came here there was a card catalogue and books were checked out at the desk, the date due stamped on the slip on the back page. I wonder if any of the books that were in the library then are still on the shelf – no by the looks of things. These days you check out books at a tall grey machine, although many people still choose to go to the desk. I can hear the barcode scanning blips every now and again, a noise that’s now so commonplace that it’s barely noticeable. But, have you ever stood in the supermarket and just listened?

The afternoon turns sunny and I decide it is time to leave the library. I leave as unnoticed as I had arrived. The librarian at the desk fiddles with a small guillotine, and doesn’t look up as I pass. Outside I pause and look around. A few hundred metres from where I stand, on the other side of a fence, a new McMansion is being constructed. Workmen swarm all over the construction, putting in the windows.

I start back along the path to the bus stop on Old Northern Road. I am early and sit waiting as the schoolgirl beside me spritzes her neck with vanilla perfume and reapplies black eyeliner. A bank of dark clouds moves across the sky. Although it is still sunny, fat raindrops fall and explode against the surface of the road. I watch them, in love with the feeling of being deep within the suburbs, in the kind of place that no one would call special, unless you are there in that moment, with the sun and the rain and the sickly smell of vanilla, living both in the memory of it and how it is now.

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Filed under Sydney Public Libraries, The Suburbs, Western Sydney