‘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 I needed to access unpublished journals while writing my book Thee Water Doctor’s Daughters.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.
Libraries now provide very nice cafes; a chance to reflect on one’s findings and enjoy a hit of caffeine;
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.
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.
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.