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My first experience of a library was at seven, when we moved back to Melbourne from Paris. Standing among unpacked boxes and cases, my mother said, ‘Let’s leave all this. I’m taking you kids on a walk, to a surprise.’ My brothers and I followed Mum, walking what seemed like a long way — I know it’s only a few blocks now — to the local library, in Carlton. In the entry there was a box of kittens being given away — Mum had seen a flyer. We chose a sweet black one and called him Minou (puss), and we children whispered secrets in his ear all his life. He kept them.
We probably took home books as well. Books too, contained all kinds of secrets between the covers, ones that were shared between you and the writer, ones that the world didn’t tell you out loud. I have marvelled at, and in, libraries all my life. The hum of intense reading that thickens the air. The idea that whatever local library you’re in, a kind, soft-shoed librarian will, after only a few quiet words, bespoke fit you with the book you need. More, they will find any book from anywhere in the world and call it in, by mail or bus or train or plane, just for you. It’s as if, in their capable hands, any aspect of the world, past or present, can be sifted and sorted, all Dewey-numbered and delivered — for free.
It shocks me that libraries haven’t always been like this everywhere, for everyone, as a right. Of course I know that long ago barely anyone could read, that knowledge was locked up like powerful drugs, contraband or spells, in monasteries. But it’s so relatively recent — only from the late 1800s — that the campaigns for free universal education, and free libraries, have led us to where we are now.
One of the most beautiful libraries I’ve ever seen was one of the earliest of these, the Staatliche Bibliothek at Neuburg an der Donau, in Bavaria. The collection started during the ‘secularisation’ period in Germany from the early 1800s, when books from monasteries and convents were taken and made available to the people. It is housed in a magnificent, double-height baroque oval room, with a walkway all around the rim of the first floor. The ceiling is gilded and gold angels watch over everything, as if to bless knowledge, imagination, incunabula.
As a student in West Berlin in the 1980s, I worked at the breathtaking Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, a 1960s Hans Scharoun–designed building erected in the lee of the Berlin Wall. Inside, the spaces are open, airy, as if to leave room for thought to soar. The feeling I had in there seems, in retrospect, to be the essential feeling I get in all libraries, old or new, local or grand, and it is defined, again, by an angel. Not in gilded wood this time but in the shape of a real man, actor Bruno Ganz — liquid brown eyes, hangdog handsome — in an overcoat. In Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, Ganz’s angel haunts this library. Invisible to the people studying or reading at the desks, he approaches them and listens in on their thoughts, worries, hopes. He is the essence of attention and compassion.
Back at university in Melbourne, I got one of the best jobs of my student days in the English Department Library. It sounds prehistoric now, but I sat at the front desk, typing out index cards for new acquisitions or requests from staff for books or journals — anything from the latest novel, to psychoanalysis, poetry or medieval studies. I read things that had nothing to do with my studies: a smorgasbord of serendipity. Despite my time there, I have never understood the Dewey decimal system: how can numbers tell you what a book is, to a decimal point?
But the library that most made me was the Baillieu, at Melbourne University. A multistorey building, the Baillieu Library had every book you could want and many more, and carrels where everyone studied, piles of books and notebooks next to them. My most profound memories are not of finding what Dewey told me I was looking for, but the excitement of finding what was next to it: things you’d never find if you followed only reason, or numbers, or an algorithm. Almost 40 years later see that I have been fruitfully sidetracked my whole life.
The best thing I came across in there I wasn’t looking for either. He was in another carrel, reading architecture books. Utterly unclassifiable, I have had him out ever since, on long-term loan.
This story appears in Openbook summer 2023.