This week, before things rapidly descended into chaos, I went into Fitzroy Library. For years now, it’s been a habit of mine, to peruse the sorting shelves and discover what others are reading – what they have recently returned, what they have been borrowing. It’s a tiny piece of sociological research (with a laughable sample and no methodology). This week, in Fitzroy, it was refreshing. I saw a memoir about the experience of sisterhood (literally, not in terms of the feminist understanding), Julia Leigh’s Disquiet had just been returned and was spine-up on a trolley, others had been reading Cate Kennedy’s memoir about her time in Mexico. There were books on bizarre pockets of history, and practical ‘how tos’… According to recent research, about 12 million Australians are users of the public library system, and they make about 100 million visits annually across the nation’s state and local library network. I used to spend a great deal more time in libraries – when I looked after my then toddler-aged nephew every week, the library was a quiet place away from home where I could have some peace and he could be mildly entertained. In secondary school, I actually used to wag, and miss days, and go to the local library (yes, I was a wild kid.) For young parents and kids, the social aspect of the library (story-time and activities) is a godsend of sorts. In my twenties I tried for years to get a job as a library assistant to no avail.
But my habit of perusing sorting shelves to find reading fodder, and to spy on the leavings of others, began when I was at university. Frequently completing essays late and scrambling to catch up, I found the sorting shelves and trolleys were often loaded with just the books I needed to start research the essays others had already finished: my own disorganisation benefited from their punctuality. Laziness, you might say, was my first introduction to the strange interest in ‘just returned’ piles and the many levels of sorting shelves. There has been some interesting research done in the past few years on perceptions of public libraries and what they offer – in the UK and Australia. It’s a bit naff and nostalgic to be so beguiled by access to free books and dvds, for a genuine public service, but in these times of Connex and other gifts of privatisation, it’s an unexpected joy.