THE LOVE OF LIBRARIES

‘I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.’ Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Dorothy Parker was certainly correct in her quote about curiosity, and thank goodness for that.


 

Such wise words. These days  curiosity can often be satisfied via Google, but writers like me still need (and love)  to delve into old manuscripts within libraries. What wonderful places they are. My personal feelings are similar to those expressed by Germaine Greer;

‘Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm or cold, light or dark…In any library of the world, I am home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.’ 

However, one thing Germaine did not mention was the sheer excitement of discovery for researchers, when even a tiny nugget of information can be so important.

Author Stephen Scheding understood perfectly. While researching his book A small Unsigned Painting, Scheding  spent hours at Sydney’s Mitchell Library  (the original part of the Library of NSW). At one point he was  searching for a telephone number in an old directory. His joy when successful was unbounded; ‘I can’t believe it. I want to shout out in the vast muffledness of the library. I want to tell all the other researchers. I know that they would just love to share my triumph…..I rudely jump the queue at the front desk to get the Sands NSW Directory off the reference shelf. I haven’t got time to explain my frenzied manner, but I’m sure the other researchers in the queue would understand…..’   Well I would.

 

That same Library is my own go-to research destination, and I know the exultant thrill of discovery very well.

I suspect it was the flushed cheeks and the gleam in the eye of people like Scheding and myself that once prompted the NSW State Library to hang a sign on the stairs asking patrons not to slide down the bannister. The sign has disappeared now, so maybe sliding has been officially sanctioned. I’d hate to think it was because no-one ever bothered to have a go.

Thanks to a reference from the  New South Wales State Library I was issued with a readers’ ticket  to the wonderful Bodleian  Library in Oxford. I needed to access unpublished journals while writing  my book  Thee Water Doctor’s Daughters.  As part of their strict admission procedures, I was required to make an oral declaration promising not to steal or deface books or , ‘ …..bring into the library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame.’ When I finally entered the ancient Duke Humfrey’s room I experienced the same feeling of awe described by Charles Lamb;

‘What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers that have bequeathed their labors to these Bodleians were reposing here, as in some dormitory or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding sheets.’

The Bodleian is strictly a reference library, so you are not allowed to actually borrow the books. Mind you, King Charles I was not allowed to either.

Duke Humfrey Room at Bodleian Library

The  magical Duke Humfrey’s Room

Libraries now provide very nice cafes; a chance to reflect on one’s findings and enjoy a hit of caffeine;

 

My associate Editor Des in Café Trim, at the Library of NSW.

One of my favourite parts of the State Library is the luxurious Friends Room, housed in the original, 1910 Reading Room. For a small annual subscription  members can enjoy a club-like atmosphere. There are comfortable leather armchairs  and  hand-knotted floor coverings which feature  art-deco designs by Florence Broadhurst.

You can read a newspaper, make a cup of coffee, or do some quiet study. I always  marvel at the books housed in the lead-lined cabinets. It’s a delightfully incongruous collection compiled and donated  by  Dr  Ben Haneman.; 1100 editions of Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote. 

 

Friends' Room, Library of NSW

Such a privilege to enjoy this space.

It is not only scholars  and students who spend their time at libraries.  They are also  the refuge of the lonely and the homeless. That inclusiveness  really appeals to me.

On a more worrying note,  people of ill-intent target libraries as well.  Of course, t’was ever thus.  The librarians at Camden’s School of Arts were once reduced to taking drastic measures to combat some young offenders;


Stories of  more serious book theft and removal of valuable images still hit the headlines.  NSW State Librarian John Vallance told me that staff once discovered  a  larger locker  outside the  Governor Marie Bashir  Reading Room being used to stockpile guns and ammunition.

 

Lockers at the Library of NSW

You might be surprised by what’s in here!

You know, those lockers look big enough to hold a bod… well, let’s not go there.   I am reminded that there was a near fatality in the Mitchell Library in 1923  when a would-be robber shot at  library attendant Joyce Cocks.

My partner and I have made a bequest to the Library of New South Wales, with the purpose of establishing a research fellowship. It is one way of repaying the  enormous debt I owe to  libraries, and to this one in particular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments
  1. Wonderful places, libraries. Myself and 4 older siblings were signed up to our local library as soon as we could walk, as was my own little granddaughter. Glad to say we are ALL still lovers of books and treasure the joy they have brought into our lives.
    With regard to your last paragraph – Nice Gesture!

    • Pauline

      Even when I was very poor living in London in the 1970’s I could still visit Marylebone Library and walk out with an armful of books. It meant such a lot to me. I hate it when I hear they are closing so many.

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