When I was a child I had to go to Italian School every Saturday morning. I hated Italian school. But I loved that afterwards I was allowed to walk to nearby Liverpool Library where my mum would pick me up after she’d finished her grocery shopping.
Each week I’d come home with a stack of books to read. I remember my delight at discovering Flambards by K.M Peyton, a series of novels about an orphaned heiress who is sent to live with her horrible uncle on his rundown country estate in Cornwall. Although I wasn’t an orphan, and didn’t have a horrible uncle, I still related to the main character, but most of all, I envied her the adventures she had to have to keep me turning the pages.
My other favourite books at the time also featured difficult quests and perilous journeys. And whilst I’d outgrown the Famous Five and Secret Seven stories, I still dreamed of coming home from school to a luscious tea of scones, cherry cream cake and ginger pop, rather than a note telling me to peel the potatoes and take the clothes off the line. Instead I’d throw down my school bag, ignore the note, and curl up with the next volume of the Nancy Drew mysteries or the Trixie Belden Girl Detective series. My only disappointment with these books was the characters’ lack of interest in food.
Liverpool Library was where I learnt to browse and it was a skill that helped me through university. During my four years at Sydney Uni I practically lived in the Fisher Library stack honing my unique research methodology. I’d bypass the catalogue (and the research topic) and simply browse the shelves in my areas of interest. This was usually the 700 – 900s (Art, Literature, History), with rare forays into the 300s (Education) when assignment deadlines loomed. But on my way to those shelves that were loaded down with boring tomes on curricula and public policy issues in secondary schools, I’d have to pass 641.5 (Food) and so my essays would often cite some interesting sources.
To this day, although I love a good book store, I pop into a library at least once a week, browsing the shelves in the same haphazard manner that was so successful at uni and taking home a stack of books to read. City of Sydney is my local area so I’ve borrowed books from all of its eleven library branches. Each, with its own quirky characteristics, is a little adventure to get to and wander around in. There’s Customs House Library at Circular Quay with its stunning spiral staircase and light filled reading room full of novels and people working quietly on their own books. There’s the modern, glass clad Surry Hills branch on busy Crown Street, which contrasts wonderfully with the older historic buildings that house the Waterloo, Newtown and Glebe branches of the library. And soon the Haymarket branch will move to a brand new reading nest housed in a timber spiral, designed by Japanese Architects Kengo Kuma & Associates. 1
But if I was going to give a Best Library prize it would go to Woollahra Library, which I’m still a member of despite having moved out of the area. It houses an excellent collection of both fiction and non-fiction and an enormous number of new books. Best of all, the Double Bay branch has a giant red slippery slide connecting two levels of the library. It made carting my books to the borrowing kiosk a scream, until the library ladies told me to shush and let the children use the play equipment. So lately I’ve been visiting the Watsons Bay branch instead. It’s in a tiny house on the waterfront in this charming seaside hamlet and although there are no slippery dips, and very few books, it’s the most fun of all the libraries to get to – just a quick trip across the harbour on a ferry. And if my adventure on the sea makes me hungry I can always stop at Doyles on the Beach for a light snack; for their famous fish and chips or a seafood chowder, or the dark chocolate brulee with a side of mint gelato and home made biscotti.
I often wish that I lived on the north side of the harbour, then I’d be a member of the Lane Cove Library. I had the pleasure of attending an event there once and was gobsmacked by their collection. But even more memorable was the bus trip I took to get there. At Wynyard, I missed the 285 Express via the Freeway, and boarded a bus that also said it was going to Lane Cove, via the scenic route, I soon discovered. Although I arrived late for the event, sadly missing the canapes and bubbly that had been served to welcome guests, I didn’t regret my 55 minute journey along tree lined winding roads, complete with enormous mansions, high above the loopy inlets of the Lane Cove River.
But ironically one of my favourite libraries is a place where I’m not allowed to borrow any of the books. This just enhances the adventure of visiting the Mitchell Library which houses the magnificent collection of manuscripts, maps and pictures donated by David Scott Mitchell in 1907. You can look at these, if you book ahead and specify exactly what you want to examine, but you can’t touch. You’re asked to put your belongings in a locker, keeping only a pencil and notepad with you, and then you’re given white archivist gloves with which to turn any pages. The librarians have eagle eyes, instantly spotting any wrong doing. They immediately rush out from behind their desk to scold you and threaten eviction. Luckily, it’s part of the State Library, so when you are inevitably evicted, you can meander into an exhibition, or better still, visit the cafe and gift shop which are filled with lovely things that you are allowed to eat and touch.
I keep a list of libraries that I would love to one day visit. The list includes the British Library, which I actually have visited but don’t remember. It was straight after uni, after a year on a full time teacher’s wage, and sadly I was much more interested in London fashion, and how much of it I could cart home, than in looking at Shakespeare’s First Folio, or hand written originals of Alice in Wonderland and Beowulf. It’s now as lost to me as the Great Library of Alexandria, another on my list, and one of the most magnificent libraries of the ancient world. Tragically much of it was destroyed by fire in 48 BC, the rest was wrecked by revolution in 275 AD. I’d also love to visit the New York Public Library as featured in The Day After Tomorrow, one of my favourite block buster films about the end of the world. But each time I think about splurging on the air fare I decide to buy another iTunes card instead and watch one of the fifty films and TV shows that have been set in this beautiful building.
So perhaps I’ll have to content myself with exploring two libraries closer to home and more fitting the current style of my budget. I’ve been told that both Katoomba Library in the Blue Mountains and Kiama Library on the South Coast are beautiful spaces with stunning views. One looks out onto the blue of Storm Bay with the Pacific Ocean twinkling beyond. The other apparently has panoramic views of the misty peaks and valleys that surround the town . Each is a two hour train trip away – perfect for curling up with a good book and and a little bite to eat. But how to choose which to visit first?
Once again I turn to my childhood reading for inspiration. What would George, Anne, Julian, Dick and Timmy the dog do? They’d either toss a coin, or choose alphabetically. Katoomba it is! They’d have a jolly good breakfast before they left home and pack some scrumptious snacks for the train ride. Then, on arrival in this high mountain town, they’d visit one of the six bakeries and patisseries to get a few essentials for lunch. And after a good browse in the library they’d pop into the two delicious bake houses at nearby Blackheath for supper supplies. Then they’d do it all again the next day at Kiama which also has six bakeries!
So these are some of my favourite book places. What are yours?
Sources and images:
Attributions via commons.wikimedia.org: Henry Lyman Saÿyen: Child Reading; Customs House Library staircase by Jason7825; Watsons Bay by Adam J.W.C.; The map division room of the New York Public library by GK tramrunner229
Image of the new Haymarket library in the The Darling Exchange by Kengo Kuma, courtesy of City of Sydney
All other images authors own.