The humble library is one of our most intelligent, generous and enlightened, but often underappreciated public spaces, writes DANIELLE WOOD.
The humble library is one of our most intelligent, generous and enlightened, but often underappreciated public spaces, writes DANIELLE WOOD.

When the word is your oyster


Like most children, I suppose, Small Me had a range of fantasies, so that during school assemblies, long car trips or the christening services of younger cousins, I had my own reliable in-skull entertainment system.

One favourite was about owning a pet winged lion who would dispense playground vengeance on my behalf; another was about having a trapdoor into my stomach so I could tip my dinner straight in and not have to suffer the agony of eating mashed vegetables. But perhaps my favourite of all was the one in which I got locked, overnight, in a library.

Perhaps you're picturing a Hogwart-ian library full of leather-backed tomes, or a library like the one in the Citadel in Game of Thrones, full of precipitously stacked shelves and diagonal ladders.

But, no. Small Me dreamt only of being locked overnight in the public library in Murray Street, which was then, as now, an entirely unprepossessing building complete with institutional carpet and function-first metal shelving.

Perhaps the surroundings were irrelevant, because all I did in the fantasy was creep around after dark with a torch, opening books - each one of them a doorway into another world.

When I was little, the library appeared to consist only of the lending section on the first floor - the place where I endlessly borrowed Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel and The Kingdom of Carbonel. I'm sure the adults in my life would have bought copies for me to own, but I liked to borrow these books. It was somehow marvellous to have them for a little while, then return them, only to discover them all over again.

Public libraries are the quintessence of generosity.
Public libraries are the quintessence of generosity.

As I grew, the institution did too, sprouting new rooms as the need for them arose. One school holiday, I went for the first time through a door that led into a room full of bins of LP records, and beyond that to a room where the film adaptation of Nan Chauncy's They Found a Cave was playing.

In high school, tasked with writing an essay on Macbeth, I went up to the reference library on the second floor where I made the mind-blowing discovery that there weren't just books in the world, but books about books. Later still, I learnt about the alternate reality known as 'Stack' - that repository of relatively infrequently used books that only the librarians were allowed to enter. I still love the library and I go there whenever I have a free hour. Now my fantasy - as I browse the recipe books - is that I'm the sort of person with the time to cook Moroccan quail with rose-petal sauce and cucumber relish. Or, as I browse the craft books, that I have the time to repurpose vintage tea-towels into quirky skirts and spectacle-holders.

Seeing the parents and grandparents sitting on the floor of the lending library reading picture books with children reminds me of those days when my three kids were small. Those days. When it was too wet for the park and although I could have stretched to the expense of entry to an indoor play-centre and the in-house food that cost a bomb, it would have blown the whole week's play money. On such days, there was always the library. It's a joy to see how the library is used. Go there any weekday around 4pm and you'll find high school students using the collection to do their homework while they wait for their parents to finish work. People who don't have computers or internet connections in their homes will be there checking email or paying bills.

Our public libraries are such a wonderful resource for all ages.
Our public libraries are such a wonderful resource for all ages.

With a whizz and a clunk, researchers will be using the microfiche machines to hunt details out of old newspapers. There are readers perusing the shelves of the large print books, and listeners flicking through the racks of audiobooks on CD. And by some miracle, in a world where everyone always seems to be trying to get their cut, it's still free. Public libraries are the quintessence of generosity. And their lending function makes them at once homier and more benevolent than their lovely-but-slightly-more-precious cousin, the public museum.

I'm sure lent items do go missing, and I know that books suffer accidents involving toddlers with felt-tip markers and puppies with small sharp teeth. But basically, libraries operate on a system of trust.

They're what remains of the best of us.

Which is why you don't need to dream that we have a beautiful, historic, charming library in central Hobart. Our library, just as it is, is magic.

Originally published as When the word is your oyster