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IT SEEMS APPROPRIATE TO START BY ASKING THE NEW STATE LIBRARIAN WHAT SHE ENJOYS READING. 

I read a combination of different things. I’ve been reading an interesting collection of short essays and pieces by Charmian Clift. I really like non-fiction. I love reading books on architecture, design and urban history. The two I’ve got at the moment are The Women Who Changed Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press) that a friend gave me from her overseas travels. And then a book on sea pools around the world that somebody I follow on Instagram contributed to. 

I like reading fiction too, but I’m quite particular. My son gave me Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, which I’d read many years ago. I just finished that on holidays — I enjoy rereading. 

I really like biographies and autobiographies too, because I find that after a long day in the office they’re so relaxing. I’ve just finished Sam Neill’s memoir — that was great. My husband, a historian and curator, buys me lots of books, usually things I would never select for myself. So, between him and my 23-year-old son, they keep me in books. 

State Librarian Caroline Butler-Bowdon

Caroline Butler-Bowdon in the new Photography Gallery. Photo by Joy Lai

WERE LIBRARIES, BOOKS AND READING PART OF YOUR CHILDHOOD? 

I grew up in Adelaide but both parents were from elsewhere. Dad was an architect by training. In the early 1960s cities were burgeoning and the need for architects was great so they had the choice of Canada, Brazil and Australia. It was back when your passage from the UK was paid for by the Australian Government. 

Dad had served during World War Two in Ceylon — now Sri Lanka — in the Royal Engineers of the British Army. So he had this love for the tropics and warmer climates. He met my mother in Cape Town. They had three children there, one child in England, and my mother decided she didn’t want to dress four boys under five, on a daily basis, in a cold climate. I’m not quite sure how they ended up in Adelaide. They had three more children there, including me, the baby of the family. 

We grew up in a world where books, ideas, language, research and art were big themes. I probably didn’t go as willingly to places like museums some of the time — I was an outdoor child and sport was my main focus. But we were taken to these places and books were a huge part of our upbringing. 

WHAT WAS YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY GROWING UP IN ADELAIDE? 

Walkerville Library. It’s a very beautiful library, so inviting and colourful. I still remember that they redesigned it and put in this incredible sunken area for kids with cushions where you could sit and read — very 1970s. I haven’t been there for a long time. I thought it was magical. I remember the school librarians being so encouraging of individual research projects, which I loved. Like my mother, who was always incredibly encouraging of people reading. 

TELL ME ABOUT HER. 

My mother was a huge reader — three books a week — a very literary person. I spent my childhood listening to her talking about things — she’d go to a monthly Patrick White reading group, for example. 

She ran book clubs and all sorts of things as an English teacher. She had this gift for finding the children who probably didn’t have many books at home, particularly those on the bright side and the children with English as a second language. I still get messages from the children whose lives she transformed through books. It moves me every time. 

My dad was an artist as well as an architect. He made the most exquisite woodblock prints of Italian cities. 

When I got this new job, my siblings reached out and said our mum would be the most proud, because books were her life. She always said if you have books, you have a good life. We were the lucky ones with these two guiding lights. 

SCHOOL MUST HAVE PLAYED A ROLE TOO. 

The school library I loved passionately. I loved the people who worked there. All that access to knowledge — the full set of the World Book encyclopedias, the kind of thing that my parents would never have bought. 

I did art in my final year of school. It was my favourite subject. I did an in-depth study of illuminated manuscripts. I’m not really sure why! I went to the State Library of South Australia, the modern building next to the Mortlock Wing. They brought out these incredibly valuable, beautiful manuscripts so I could see them. I remember thinking at the time how extraordinary the librarian was showing them to me, a 16-year-old, who knew nothing about the topic other than liking the look of them! 

LIBRARIES AS BUILDINGS CAN BE QUITE EXTRAORDINARY. 

I think they influenced my love of architecture and design. Libraries are a very important typology in architecture. We’re sitting in the most extraordinary room right now with craftsmanship and timberwork, stained glass windows and so forth. They’re places that make your heart sing, lift your spirit. It’s that extraordinary feeling of crossing the threshold and being somewhere special. 

That’s what this place has always been for me. I remember visiting here when I was around 20 and first arrived in Sydney. I thought it was incredibly grand, but open to all. I could visit any day of the week. I could come and study here. I could come and see exhibitions. I could meet people here. It planted that whole idea of libraries being at the heart of society. 

DOES YOUR NEW ROLE AS STATE LIBRARIAN FOLLOW ON FROM THE WORK AROUND PUBLIC SPACE THAT YOU’VE BEEN DOING IN THE DEPARTMENTS OF PLANNING AND TRANSPORT? 

The work that I have been doing has been in public spaces and in parks and streets and centres but yes, I think it’s fully connected. It’s about how you create different experiences in those places — quiet experiences as well as noisy, fun, activated experiences and everything in between where people can learn something new about their city. 

Libraries, in my mind, are like parks. The absolute bedrock of cities and places. The best democracies in the world have great libraries. Libraries are all about place, thinking, belonging, connection. Obviously learning and research as well. They can transform people's lives. 

DO PEOPLE APPRECIATE THEIR TRANSFORMATIVE ROLE? 

The profile and potential of libraries has soared. They are becoming increasingly valued and innovative as cultural and public spaces. We’ve seen that around the globe. COVID underscored their value even more, if we’d ever doubted it. People are craving social exchange but, critically, they’re craving places that are different. Places that are distinctive, have meaning and that successfully cross time. 

EXHIBITIONS ARE ABLE TO DO THAT, AREN’T THEY? 

We’ve just been in the Shot exhibition in the new Photography Gallery. There are three centuries of photographs in that space; 400 photos that make a cross-section of extraordinary periods in history. But the Library itself does that too, with its different parts built at different times. 

The most extraordinary new auditorium in Sydney just opened here at the Library. Beautiful acoustics, beautiful atmosphere. It will become a stage for all the wonderful things that can happen here, events that can spark imagination and stretch people’s understanding of their place in the world. 

First Nations stories are so important here. The incredible exhibition that’s on at the moment of Aboriginal objects from coastal Sydney that have been held in overseas museums. That helps people to understand 60,000 years of history and continuing, living cultures. 

Libraries offer an open invitation for minds, but also for hearts. How do you connect? At the heart of that is reading, writing, stories.

THE STATE LIBRARY OF NSW IS SITUATED IN A SIGNIFICANT CULTURAL PRECINCT. WHAT OPPORTUNITIES DOES THAT OFFER? 

I really look forward to connecting in with all the other institutions around the Library. You know, we have an incredible group of cultural institutions and all their collections and experiences. We’re of course surrounded by the Domain, the Botanic Gardens — we’ve got the best of indoor and outdoor. The collections here draw out all the stories of the places within walking distance of the Library and, indeed, across the state. That excites me. 

I think there’s great opportunity to improve the walkability in and around this area. It’s a way of connecting to stories. What are the stories between here and the Botanic Gardens, and the other institutions? What are the threads of collection that led to some of the great streets of the city and indeed the whole state? 

I’ve been doing quite a lot of that work in transport and planning. Beginning to tell that story of people understanding their city or place through walking it. 

Also, I was on the Macquarie Street Steering Committee, through my leadership of the Premier’s Priority dedicated to public space. I learned a lot from the other institutions along this great street. 

AND THE LIBRARY SITS AT THE TOP OF AN INCREDIBLE NETWORK OF PUBLIC LIBRARIES ACROSS THE STATE. 

Part of my recent work has been collaborating with the majority of the councils across NSW on different sorts of funding programs. They all have libraries and I cannot wait to go and explore more of them. 

Librarians and staff are there daily for their local communities. They’re places to read, places for events, places for connection. Every single library will have a bounty of stories that show off the difference that library makes in that community, just as this place that we’re sitting in does. 

How can we draw that story of impact and value out? We do that with numbers, that’s important. But also with stories. If one experience in a library changes the way somebody sees something, or a connection with one librarian encourages somebody to explore something new or think about something differently, that’s something to celebrate. I think that’s happening day in, day out across the whole library network. 

THE SANDSTONE MITCHELL LIBRARY CAN BE INTIMIDATING. HOW DO WE BRING MORE PEOPLE HERE, OR TAKE THE LIBRARY TO THEM? 

Yes, how do we connect with people who might not feel welcome here, who might never have visited or who might not know what’s here for them? It starts with the offer, the program and our essential services. Obviously, the whole digital program is of massive importance. If there’s a reason to visit somewhere, people will come in large numbers. We’ve seen that here. The incredible combination of this storied institution with all its contemporary relevance plus these new facilities becomes one whole experience. 

It comes down to continuing to integrate the different parts of the Library to create a whole experience — encouraging a researcher to see an exhibition, tempting a child who visited for school to bring their parents back at the weekend, someone who works on Macquarie Street who is so inspired by the collections they visit a regional city and so on. 

We see incredible programming here already. Everything that I’m thinking about builds on the exhibition and events program that’s already in place. Things like Openbook. Growing the education program. Connection with the public library network. Capacity building. 

When I did my Churchill Fellowship in 2018. I spent time at the Louisiana Museum of Art, about 20 minutes from Copenhagen, Denmark. The head curator there spoke to me about the ‘sauna’ principle. It’s about ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ programming. You will always do things that are popular — the ‘hot’ offer. But then the ‘cold’ or the cool might be harder, niche programming for different sorts of audiences. It has to be a combination of different layers of programming. 

The scale and depth of the collections here are staggering. The Library's continuous research program is at the core of the institution. 

ARE PARTNERSHIPS PART OF THIS? 

At the heart of this are proper partnerships that, firstly, match and, secondly, grow the core purpose of the institution. That’s what really interests me. Partnerships that draw on the deep expertise and the collections across the Library. I see incredible opportunity. It’s the type of work that I’ve been doing for the past 15 to 20 years. 

I’m thinking too of how we work with schools. I’m passionate about schools. I sit on a school board, I’m the daughter of an English teacher. It’s deeply ingrained in me. The strength of the education program is at the heart of what we do. 

Some schools will always visit. But how do we get to the schools — those in the city, regional NSW and beyond — that might not otherwise ever think of visiting in real life or connect with digital programs? I want every child, every citizen to have access to a library, like I was able to experience as a child. I’m thinking about how we might work towards that bigger invitation for communities who might otherwise not visit. 

WHAT ABOUT THE LIBRARY’S GLOBAL STATURE? 

The collections here have global influence. One of the roles I had when I was at Historic Houses Trust/Sydney Living Museums (now Museums of History NSW) was managing the exhibitions program, including the touring exhibitions program. We toured things across the world and fully across Australia. I’m passionate about that. 

YOU SEEM TO ALREADY KNOW LOTS OF PEOPLE WHO WORK HERE! 

I actually know quite a few of the staff through having worked on my PhD here, which was about urban history, specifically the history of apartment living in Sydney. 

Some of my happiest hours during my PhD were spent poring over diaries, drawings and sketches in the architectural collection here among the incredible two million images and photographs in the collection. 

I also met lots of people here through exhibitions I curated. For Painting the Rocks and Sydney by Tram, for example, I drew on the Library’s collections and on the expertise of curatorial and collections management staff. 

I’M GUESSING YOU MIGHT BE THE FIRST STATE LIBRARIAN WHO HAS ALSO JUDGED THE PREMIER’S LITERARY PRIZES, WHICH ARE RUN BY THE LIBRARY. 

Yes, I was on the panel for the NSW Premier’s History Prizes for a few years. I was lucky enough to get those huge boxes of books arriving on my doorstep. I spent my weekends thinking that the practice of writing history, particularly Australian history, was — and is — alive and well. 

WE’RE TALKING A FEW WEEKS BEFORE YOUR OFFICIAL START DATE. WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO? 

Meeting the staff! I want to meet the donors and the volunteers who give so generously to the Library. It’s the building, it’s the collection, it’s the place but, really, it’s the people who work here, who love this institution, that bring all that to life for the public. 

HAVE YOU BEEN DOWN INTO THE STACKS? 

Yes, I have. When I was a curator I used to come here quite often to look at collection items. Interestingly, I brought my son a few weeks ago to the Shakespeare exhibition. He’s an English literature Shakespeare obsessive. Even though he spends time at the State Library of Victoria he couldn’t believe the collection items here, including the First Folio. We were wandering around and bumped into a curator who I know who took us down into the stacks. 

But clearly, I’m a novice. I reckon you could work here for years and years and still find different parts of the place. I used to find that at Historic Houses Trust. I knew the places and the properties well but in some ways you never touch the surface. 

I’VE WORKED HERE FOR TWO YEARS AND I STILL GET LOST. 

I’m sure I will. Hopefully people will recognise me and help. ‘There she is, the State Librarian. She needs a hand!’ 

WHEN YOU DO GET YOUR FEET UNDER THE STATE LIBRARIAN'S DESK, WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO PUT ON THE WALL OR ON THE SHELVES? 

A combination of contemporary and historical, probably quite eclectic things. People always think about the 2-D paintings, manuscripts and so forth but I’ve always been interested in the realia collections too. 

YOU’RE A SWIMMER, AREN’T YOU? DO YOU KNOW WE’VE GOT SHANE GOULD’S OLYMPIC SWIMMING BAG HERE IN OUR COLLECTION? 

Wow, I didn’t. I was an athlete in my childhood and teenage years. I’m a passionate exerciser for pleasure, exploring new parts of Sydney wherever I go. It’s how I relax. 

I love the whole experience of swimming, it’s a deep passion. I swam this morning at the beautiful Prince Alfred Park Pool. My local pool is closed for renovation. I sometimes swim at Ashfield Pool, at Cabarita or the Boy Charlton, close to here, in the summer. I swim all over the place, as often as I can in ocean pools. I’m part of Ashfield Swimming Club. It’s the best community swimming club in Sydney. My daughter plays football so on the weekend you find me on fields fully across NSW. 

IMAGINE WE’RE DOING THIS INTERVIEW THOUSANDS OF DAYS INTO THE FUTURE. WHAT WOULD YOU WANT YOUR LEGACY TO BE? 

To continue the transformation and reach of all the Library’s programs. To know that every child, every citizen feels welcome to our Library and across the library network. That we continue to be known across the globe as having not only the best collections but the best experiences too. Everything from undertaking research, going to the cafe, the rooftop bar, coming to a talk, ordering a book, seeing an exhibition. To have that sense that there’s something for them, whether it’s right here on Macquarie Street or across the city and the state. 

I SENSE THAT YOU’RE BURSTING TO GET STARTED. 

I’ve dreamt for many years about not just touching the surface here, but really understanding the way the Library ticks, its role in society and its connection with the public. I don’t know if it’s too heavy a phrase but there’s something about this role that is a sort of coming home. I am so grateful to George Souris, John Vallance and the team here for welcoming me so warmly. I hope I can continue the great leadership for many years into the future. 

This story appears in Openbook summer 2023.