However not all the Library’s security concerns related to the threat Japan posed. On 6 February 1942, the Mitchell Librarian sought information from police about a Mr J C Edwards. Concerned that Edwards might not be a fit and proper person to hold a reader’s ticket, Miss Leeson wanted to know whether this man had received a sentence of three months, four or five years earlier, for stealing stamps from a stamp dealer in the Royal Arcade. 14
Despite the extra administrative stresses generated by the war, the Mitchell Librarian still had time for more traditional duties. And during March 1942, Leeson wrote to the publisher of Waterless Horizons, a book about the explorer Edward John Eyre:
Deficiencies in the author’s composition were, perhaps, not within the publisher’s power to alter, though even here, I think the author would have been open to suggestion. But there are far too many literal errors, and the punctuation is very bad.
— Letter from the Mitchell Librarian to Captain J H Peters, 6 March 1942
After the duly mortified publisher wrote back admitting that he personally was responsible for the proofreading errors, Miss Leeson offered further advice:
The author must have written very rapidly or he would not have repeated words and phrases so frequently. For instance, at the bottom of page 71, he repeats the phrases ‘a few days later’ and ‘at the end of their journey’ in successive lines. There are numerous instance of this kind of thing.
— Letter from the Mitchell Librarian to Captain J H Peters, 13 March 1942
If the Library staff were beginning to wonder whether all their war time preparations had been necessary, their doubts must surely have vanished on the night of 31 May 1942 when three Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. Before long all hell broke loose as navy patrol boats dropped depth charges, which shook houses and broke windows.
One of the submarines aimed a torpedo at the American cruiser USS Chicago which returned fire with massive five-inch shells. Some of these skipped off the water; one hit Fort Denison while fragments from others were located in Cremorne and Mosman. Meanwhile, the torpedo, which had been aimed at the Chicago, exploded under the Kuttabul, an old ferry which was being used to house naval ratings. And many of these young sailors were killed, less than a mile from the new Public Library building. Almost as dangerous as the five inch shells and torpedoes, were intense bursts of machine gun and tracer fire, spitting out red hot bullets which bounced off the surface of the harbour ending up all over the place. 15
However the very next morning, 1 June, the Mitchell Librarian was at her desk. It was business as usual as Ida Leeson wrote to a Mrs E K Pazzi of Bundaberg, Queensland:
In reply to your letter of May 25th I regret to say that the Trustees of the Mitchell Library are not interested in books such as you describe. We are only concerned with Australiana, New Zealand and the islands of the South-west Pacific. With regard to their value generally, the History of Scotland would be worthless commercially as you only have the 5th volume.
— Letter from the Mitchell Librarian to Mrs E K Pazzi, 1 June 1942
Then, just over a week later, the midgets’ mother submarine, which lay off the coast about nine miles south-south-east of the Macquarie Light House, began shelling Sydney; its target was the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In all, ten shells were fired, with most of them landing in the Eastern Suburbs. 16
In light of these ‘war conditions’, the trustees resolved to defer an official opening of the new Library building. Even so, readers and researchers were allowed to use it on and from 23 June 1942, just over two weeks after Sydney had been shelled. One of the first visitors was the President of the Board of Trustees who was also Australia’s minister for external affairs. Stopping by on his way to Canberra for a cabinet meeting, Dr Evatt said, ‘I would not have missed seeing this for anything.’ 17