The first library I remember was the Footscray City Library. I was nine or ten and travelled there from Yarraville by tram. I imagine the trip cost a penny for a child. The library was quiet and dark, staffed by unsmiling women. I borrowed heavily – W E Johns, Edgar Rice Burroughs, R M Ballantyne.
My mother, a committed reader, had ideas for me above our station. She joined me up at the Athenaeum Library in the city, thinking its august surroundings (did it actually have chrome smokers’ stands or is this an invention of mine?) would elevate my taste. To no avail – the Athenaeum turned out to have a large collection of books on pugilism and I read about the London prize ring, the Queensberry rules and the biographies and autobiographies of boxers.
We moved, against my wishes, to Bentleigh in the south east, the dullest suburb in Melbourne. I frequented what was known as a ‘penny library’ where you paid for each book you borrowed. My funds were very limited and I had to make careful selections. Would I lash out for a new Ion Idriess at a shilling or settle for two John Creaseys at sixpence each?
Later, I joined the Moorabbin Public Library, a forty-minute walk away. I remember bingeing on Australian authors – Frank Clune, more Idriess, E V Timms, and scaling up to Henry Handel Richardson and Martin Boyd. I lived for sport and books, fantasising about success at boxing and immersing myself in romances of the past. The present was so dull!
University libraries figured largely in the next decade. Doing a History and English Honours degree at Melbourne, I must have spent thousands of hours in the Baillieu Library. As a tutor while doing an MA at Monash, I was appalled to see that the library had areas set aside ‘for students who study noisily’. I was never able to take the place seriously and worked at the La Trobe Library in the city.
The Menzies Library at the ANU was a wonderful resource for a doctorial student. I read innumerable pages of Parliamentary Proceedings and scores of reels of microfilm. Serving every branch of study, it had an extraordinary range of journals. Recent issues sat on racks and some had intriguing titles. Skin & Hides Quarterly amused me. I never opened it, preferring to imagine what it might contain.
In all my different locations thereafter – Gippsland. Sydney, the Illawarra coast, a Queensland island, Byron Bay and back to Sydney – the second thing I’ve done, after changing my electoral enrolment, has been to join the local library.
Libraries have changed radically over those years. The dim, dark-panelled, hushed Footscray style has given way to bright rooms with metal shelves, racks of DVDs and CDs and DIY check-out systems. There are times set aside for reading to children with noisy interaction between the kids and the librarians. If you don’t like it, go at some other time.
I now carry cards for five libraries – the Sydney City Library (I frequent the Newtown and Circular Quay branches), the Mitchell, the Fisher, the National Library and the extraordinary Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (SMSA) library where, if you can’t find a readable novel, you’re not trying. The university libraries are under intense, philistine ‘managerial’ pressure, but so far the public libraries have escaped the depredations of the nay-sayers like John Howard and Campbell Newman. Libraries’ preservation is one of the few things I’d go to the barricades for.