Haberfield Library is inside the Haberfield Centre, entered through a series of automatic doors. The first set of automatic doors swing, rather than slide open, an action which is rather ghostly, as if two invisible footmen have swept open the doors upon seeing you approach.
It was a Monday morning, and the library had been open for less than an hour. The librarian at the front desk was sipping from a mug (I hoped it was a library-themed mug: “Old Librarians Never Die They Just Check Out”, but it was the kind of floral/abstract patterned mug normally found in workplace kitchens) and I greeted her as I entered. The desk was directly opposite the entrance, so it would have felt rude not to.
The library once must have been a hall, as it had lofty ceilings and an elevated stage area at one end, which was now the children’s book section. The walls were painted a pale pink with blue trim and this colour scheme, coupled with the sense of hush prevailing in the library, gave it a peaceful ambience. There were a few people here and there, a Justice of the Peace was set up at one of the tables with a pile of papers and a series of rubber stamps, waiting for people to get documents certified; a few men were browsing the shelves. I sat at a table which had a fresh copy of the Sydney Morning Herald on it and I opened it up to read the front page. I had only skimmed over the headlines and half read an article about cycleways when my attention was drawn towards the biography section, and I got up to investigate it. It was a good thing I had: about 30 seconds later a man entered the library and moved with great speed towards the newspaper on the table. He was a classic newspaper man, wearing a cap and glasses, and he proceeded to read every page thoroughly. I don’t like to think what might have happened if he’d come in and discovered me reading the paper that was rightfully his.
Haberfield and Ashfield libraries, libraries which are in the same “family”, both have a large biography section. I don’t read many biographies but I do like biography sections in libraries, because you can a play a version of one of those games where you have to list what famous people you’d invite to a dinner party. Except rather than your carefully chosen list of heroes, you have to have dinner with the people who appear on the shelves in alphabetical order. So here, for example, if you choose P, you will have to have dinner with Cole Porter, Beatrix Potter, Prince, and Marcel Proust, among others.
Other games that you can play with the biography section include, for the narcissistic, working out where your biography would appear on the shelf, or just reviewing who has had their biography written. Sometimes it’s surprising. Dr Harry Cooper has a biography. So does Kiefer Sutherland.
The biography section was popular, even though there were few people in the library there were two earnest browsers, a woman clutching a biography of Kathryn Hepburn (I wonder if she knows about Kathryn Hepburn’s brownie recipe, or as I call them, the Hepbrownies?) and a man slowly making his way through the shelves from a (ABBA) to Z (“How Murderball Saved My Life” by Mark Zuppa).
After looking through the biographies for a while and imagining unlikely dinner parties, I looked around the library further. At either side of the ‘stage’ were plaster Greek goddesses, presiding over the racks of CDs and shelves of children’s books. It was their presence and the high ceilings which gave the library its sense of peace and order, I think. When library architecture more resembles a shopping mall, people are much noisier. I moved to the magazine area and sat near a woman reading the Italian newspaper La Fiamma. I had a book about 21st century sound art I had discovered on a shelf next to a book about art deco design, one of those books I assumed is the only one about its topic and thus marooned on the shelf, although it could have just been in the wrong place. Now there are certain stereotypes about sound art, and when I opened the book at a random page and was confronted with a two page spread of a man screaming into a microphone, wearing a raw slab of meat on the top half of his head, these stereotypes were not dispelled. I quickly turned the page so the nonna reading La Fiamma wouldn’t see, not that she was looking.
By now a few more people had entered the library, although all of them, even the children, spoke in whispers. Haberfield must be the quietest library I have visited for some time, although maybe it was just the time of day. It was nice sitting in the magazine section, with sun coming in from the windows. I closed the sound art book and looked around, noticing an unusual framed picture behind the magazine racks:
There was a strange melange of symbols in the Book Feast poster: the monk chewing on the book with an avid expression and a row of savage white teeth. I would like to see an exhibition that collected together library/reading initiative posters. I have come across a few while writing Biblioburbia, the Muppets themed one in Avalon library, “Destination Information” at Engadine. Book Feast was the first that encouraged actually chewing on the books, but people do conflate eating and reading, saying they “devoured” a particularly interesting book. And there are often crumbs to be found inside library books.
Before I left Haberfield library I had a look at the rack of 50c book sale books near the entrance. There was a good selection of them but one stood out to me in particular: “Behind the Lines” by J.T. Wilson. His name was familiar…why? When I pulled out the book, I remembered.
Anyone who hung around in Newtown about ten years ago would have come across J.T. Wilson, who set up his ad-hoc short story stall on King St and could often be seen exactly as pictured on the front of his book. “New Stories, All Written in Newtown!” Though I had passed by J.T. Wilson many a time, I had never read one of his stories – here was my chance, and so this book was my souvenir from Haberfield Library.