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Spying on the reading habits of others

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Kalinda Ashton is the author of The Danger Game (Sleepers, 2009).

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  1. Okay, I like the idea of libraries. In theory, I’m for them. But I also really like actually owning books, being able to crease the pages and drop them in the bath and so on.
    That’s why, since discovering Abebooks, I almost never got to a public library.

    PS This bizarre recaptcha anti-spam thing wants me to validate my post by typing ‘vodka hag’. Weird.

  2. Somewhat on topic, I was looking at Abebooks and this is what they have as Obama’s favourite books.
    http://www.abebooks.com/books/barack-obama-favorite-books.shtml

    I love buying books, but also like the public library. Great on hot days too. Figuring they will be very useful as my son gets older. I used to love hanging at the local library when I was in primary school. No surprise then that I did work in libraries for a bit.

  3. I can get obsessed with libraries and I think it’s genetic. My three year old insists on playing ‘library games’ for the better part of the day, which consists of clearing the bottom shelves of all the bookshelves in the house, stacking them , ‘beeping’ them out of the ‘library’ with a stick, putting a ‘library card’ in the back (a yellow post-it note) and ‘carrying them home’ in a library bag…where he will set & lament the fact that he can’t read…and talks about marrying ‘Jenny the library lady’. Hmmm…too much of a good thing

  4. This probably isn’t very ideologically sound but the thing I really like more than libraries is looking at people’s book collections. When I used to work in a bookshop, we sold a lot of second hand books. Sometimes we’d get an entire deceased estate, which would be like a map of a whole life. Cos this was a bookshop in Trades Hall, a lot of the collections were from old Lefties and the thing that really struck me was how eclectic their interests were. A lot of the old CPA members had trucks of books on politics and history and so forth but also books on mathematics and science and religion and cookery and astronomy. Amira Inglis wrote somewhere that the Old Left were ‘the people of the book’, which I reckon was about right.

    PS Is anyone else getting these weird word combinations from ReCaptcha? Now it wants me to type ‘Immor Nutbourne’!

  5. Yep, “Democrats neglect” for me! If you really want weird, though, try the “audio challenge” — it’s like something from the cutting-room floor of a Plastic Ono Band session.

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