Public holiday: the Library will be open on 3 October. View opening hours

Secrets of the library

The first post in her new blog series SPINE; 
reader-in-residence Caroline Baum reveals the treasures she's finding in the Library.



State Library Reader in Residence, Caroline Baum standing in Library stacks

I’ve been reading for my entire professional life. As broadcaster, producer, journalist, author, curator and moderator, it’s what you do. But this is different.

For starters, I have to get dressed first. Until now, I’ve read mostly in bed, in the morning, my brain fresh and rested, instead of the way most people do: exhausted, at the end of the day, for barely 15 minutes before the book falls from their hand.

Now I have a reason to get up – as the inaugural reader-in-residence at the state library of New South Wales, that imposing set of buildings in Sydney facing on to both Macquarie Street and the Domain, via the Mitchell wing, whose massive doors feature remarkable scenes of Aboriginal life and deserve closer scrutiny. (I make a mental note to find out more about them from the Indigenous services team.)

I’ve been given the keys (actually a swipe card that prompts a cheery tune) to a kingdom and invited to play, explore and discover. Access all areas. Well, almost. But first, I have to try not to get lost – the library is a veritable labyrinth, a maze of corridors beneath Macquarie Street. I am tempted to leave crumbs from the Fellows room, where I sit, so I can find my way back.

A quick first browse – guided by the encyclopedically knowledgable Maggie Patton, manager of research and discovery – yields instant, serendipitous treasure: the Robbins collection of stage magic. It comprises 900 books, catalogues and pamphlets full of trade secrets, intended exclusively for the eyes of professional illusionists and conjurers. The collection includes 15 years’ worth of issues of Abracadabra, (“the only magical weekly in the world”), manuals on hypnotism, tricks using doves and – I kid you not – one featuring “magic with livestock”. I select a book from the shelves only to discover it had been signed, with a flourish, by none other than Harry Houdini. Moments like these make my scalp tingle.

Randomly exploring the stack, as the miles of book shelving storage are known, I come across a 19th-century cookbook with endpapers that show exactly where on a formal dining table each dish should be placed, their positions as formally choreographed as those of the guests: roast pheasant at the head, then “crow fish in savery [sic] jelly”, “pickled smelts” and “stewed cardoons”, and in the centre, something called “transparent pudding covered with a silver web”, followed by “collard pig”.

There are surprising objects here too. “Oh that’s Patrick White’s nanny’s trunk,” says Patton offhandedly. With its barrel-shaped lid, it looks like the kind of thing you would expect a coachman in a TV adaptation of a Dickens novel to hoist on to a horse-drawn carriage for an orphan or governess.

“We also have hair,” says Patton, promising to show me locks and curls belonging to Henry Lawson, Eleanor Dark and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. For now I am still trying to absorb the vocabulary of this unfamiliar universe: square archive boxes for the storage of newspapers are known as “pizza boxes”; objects, as opposed to works on paper, are called “realia”.


Extract from Secrets of the library: 'magic with livestock' and Patrick White's nanny's trunk 
by Caroline Baum published in The Guardian, Mon 14 May 2018 04.00 AEST