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Dapto Public Library see also Fisher Library see also Mitchell Library Reading Room. See also card catalogues. See also finding new — or maybe an old — world.
I have started this reflection in three different ways, in three different libraries, trying to work out what it is I’m trying to pin down when thinking about what libraries have done to me, and for me. It’s made me re-open boxes of research papers, do online catalogue searches, try to find photographs of buildings since demolished; forced me to look through folders of copied papers and photographs, to find handwritten notebooks and to notice marginalia (‘tell Jane, Royal Tour menu’; ‘show Ian, Great Fleet pics’, not to mention phone numbers of people whose names I don’t recognise at all). What am I looking for: is it a memory, is it an argument, is it a way of experiencing the world?
I’ve decided to ditch the obvious catalogue card, the one with the origin story: Library see Dapto Public Library see also Dapto Primary School library see also story of tiny woman in floral shift with large pile of books.
Despite the satisfaction of the old working-class-kid-gets-to-university narrative, I decided that card was one we’d all seen before too: University see Fisher Library see View over a park see New Life see also What Next?
Because really, it’s a combination of wide desks in a beautiful space and a particular set of catalogue drawers that shaped me as a thinker and a researcher, and they’re all in the reading room at the Mitchell Library. This is the library that not only changed me, it remains my image of what a library is and can be.
It’s also probably why, as I read books to deadlines every week in my job as a broadcaster/reviewer/arts journalist, my preferred method is to sit at a wide table in the rather vain hope of evoking a calm space in the midst of work and domestic chaos. My haphazard piles of books and paper lean precariously towards the ordered shelves I long for, the basement levels that really would make life a lot easier, if only they could be tunnelled out.
Because early in my research life (a Masters in Public History, a PhD, work as an academic researcher and later a TV researcher for a big history project), I discovered the delight of the card catalogue at the Mitchell, preserved as part of its bequest, but preserving too the work of individual librarians. Both ordered and surprising, constrained yet able to open up entire worlds of ideas.
I used to investigate any new area by taking out entire drawers, sitting at a table, and reading through every entry under that subject, because what it revealed was a changing world, new (or helpfully, old) taxonomies of knowledge, and highly specific references. It brought me into the sphere of librarians whose handwriting I came to recognise, even if I never knew who was who and which one really was Ida Leeson (who I’d read about, whose hands were all over those cards).
Photograph, see photographer, see photographs, see photography, see Photo -engraving. See also chalk-plate process.
So, Something Something Something see also Inebriates Home. I wish I could remember what took me there. I do remember that I was chasing various institutions at one point for histories of the homeless and destitute, or those in quarantine, when I found the card that said, ‘See also Inebriates Home’. Just think of the historical and cultural work that phrase offers.
For years, I was working on the history of journalism and then on the history of press photographers in Australia. I remember reading the papers of one journalist, from the late nineteenth century. There were four boxes of papers of his life and work, covering the years 1888–1908.* I knew when Queen Victoria had died in 1901 because suddenly letters were edged in black – a reminder of how tactile and physical is the work of research. The materiality of it, the press of a pen into paper from a century before. But this one stays with me because in the midst of tracking a career and trying to understand ‘press workers’, I was caught up in letters from his sisters, in stories of an affair, abortion, the legitimacy (or not) of his daughter, a divorce scandal and the oddity of the fact his wife was hardly ever referred to by name, but instead was called ‘Baby’ by the family.
What’s the point of that anecdote? It has stayed with me: it haunts me in the same way that, looking at historical photographs, I came to always notice the characters at the side, the figures in the crowd who’d seen the camera, the kid with no shoes climbing a pole, the men in street scenes with toddlers on their hip. The woman with the defiant jawline. All that detail that helps animate the past. But also, all that material, all those stories that are inside these libraries that have made me.
It’s that mix of order — catalogued, listed, indexed, put into reading and research guides — and the wildly eclectic, surprising, personal, contradictory, wilful, astounding stories that can be found there, that shows me some small part of what libraries can do. What they have done for me.
* Dalley, WM ms: Dalley, William Bede (the younger)
ML MSS 135; 7-1150C 1888–1912
Mitchell Vol 1: letters 1888–1912 Box 2: Divorce proceedings 1903–1908 Box 3: miscellaneous material 1888–1912 Box 4: related papers 1891–1908 Pictorial material at Pic Acc 4764
Kate Evans is co-host of The Bookshelf on ABC Radio National.
This story appears in Openbook summer 2021.