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.

Lbrary in Limoge, France
Lbrary in Limoge, France

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!’

Outside of one of the public libraries I frequent
Outside of one of the public libraries I frequent

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?



4 replies on “Public libraries I have loved”

  1. I remember that there was a playgroup at the Bunbury public library in the mid-late ’70s (run, I think, by SDA missionaries) that I loved going to. There was story time and we made papier-mâché puppets! There was a day when I expressed my concern about the limitations of the library – because we could never KEEP the books, we always had to take them back – then I remembered the puppets. I already loved reading (thus, the grumpiness of returning the books) but the library was where I fell in love with story telling and drama.

    1. That’s a lovely insight into the mind of a child who loved reading, Jo. I can imagine you telling a librarian that you should be able to keep books you loved. Libraries these days seem very creative about programs they provide, especially for kids. I love going to the local with children. I enjoy it as much as they do.

  2. I remember the same Osborne Park library, at the same point in time. I recall devouring book after book of my fave foreign folk tales, until I reached saturation, but they remain strong in my mind 48 years later. I read voraciously from age 4 and in school holidays it was hard to keep enough books in my TBR pile. Thanks for the memories 🙂

    1. Thanks for letting me know that particular library was important to you as a little girl. You would have been about the same age then as the kids I pushed through the black sand to that library. What magical, wonderful places libraries can be, especially for children who are voracious readers. And for all of us. Somehow, reading ebooks does not have the same magic, if any. I wonder if you still read as keenly?

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