Our public libraries are some of Australia’s best loved social institutions. Writer Tracey Farr reminded an audience at the Perth Writers Festival about the importance of local public libraries. She recalled going to the old Cottesloe library as a child.
The State Library of Western Australia is too often taken for granted, in spite the the service it provides. I, for one, am very grateful for a life-changing library experience.
Born before the outbreak of World War II, I only vaguely remember my mother and her sisters borrowing books when I was small. The three women lived close to each other. Both of my uncles had gone to the War.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to be in Limoges, France. In the ancient city I saw a shop front in an old building being used as a library. I loved its quaintness. It also reminded me of the library my mother frequented.
The private library was somewhere within walking distance of our houses. The poky room smelt of mould and stale cigarette smoke.The gruff voice woman who ran it scared me.The space was dark, with shelves full of books to the ceiling. I wondered if they would fall on me. A bare light globe dangled from the ceiling.
Unlike public libraries today, children were not welcome. We were told to be quiet! My sister’s pram had to be left on the footpath outside. There were no children’s books.
I never expected that I would develop a passionate fondness for a local library.
One Spring day, when I was in my twenties, I walked to the nearest library as a young mother. The current baby and her two older siblings were crammed into an old cane pram. I was embarrassed by that pram. It was second-hand, battered and unfashionable. I don’t remember where we got it. I longed for a more modern, even fashionable, one. It was heavy even without a baby.
The Osborne Park Library was a long walk from our home in Nollamara. The northern suburbs were not well developed. There were no footpaths and no shade. I trudged along the side of the rough road, plunging the pram into the dirt as cars passed. My sandaled feet were dirty.
I stood in the middle of the library. The older kids, pleased to be free of the cramped pram, ran around. I had not read for pleasure for years. My schooling had finished at the end of the Junior year (now about Year 10). I’d trained as a nurse and midwife. Then married.
So many books. So much to read. And I stood there, frozen, unable to choose a book. My mind was mushy.
‘There must be some way I can work out what to read,’ I thought. I used to love books when I was at school.’
Almost despairing, but too shy to ask for help from a librarian, I was about to walk away. Then I saw a brochure advertising distance education. Taking it from the stand, I packed my babies into the pram and we went home.
The brochure said that adults who had a valid reason could enrol for distance education. They could sit for matriculation to university examinations. My children’s father worked shift-work. A baby-sitter was out of the question. Perhaps I was eligible?
I was! A few months later, at the beginning of the school year, I enrolled in Leaving English. Such a joy. I loved having a reading list and a plan. I never met my correspondence teacher, Kevin Byrne. But I fell deeply (and remotely) in love with him.
I tripped off to the library regularly, adding books to the burden in the pram. I read aloud to the baby while I breast-fed. I read while I stirred the custard. I thought all the time. I wrote. Someone gave me an old typewriter with a couple of sticky keys. I typed patiently remembering to pull the stuck keys apart. I posted assignments. I got them back. I devoured my teacher’s thoughtful comments.
I borrowed books for the children. Reading with my children, I relived the pleasures of my own childhood when my father read to me.
In July Mr. Byrne wrote to say I was doing so well he thought I should add Leaving History to my workload. I did. In November that year I sat both exams, as well as an adult matriculation exam. I passed with two distinctions. Joy!’
Later I would frequent other public libraries in Perth. University libraries became home-from-home.
But only one of the state’s public libraries changed my life for ever. I am very grateful for the chance I got to be someone different than the person I might have been.
What is your experience of public libraries? I would really love to read your comments.
Note. I asked, as a courtesy, if I could photograph the inside of the Scarborough Library, which is my local. Apparently, the manager could not permit me to use my camera. She told me someone would contact me. At the time of posting, am still waiting for permission. How does that work in a public building?