THE library of my youth was a mysterious and wonderful place. We used to visit there at least once a fortnight – always returning, then borrowing, the maximum amount of books. Why wouldn’t we?
It was a dark place, and smelt of carpet and dust; of paper, ink and time. Beautifully cool in the heat of summer, it was the quietest place in my small world. Oh, so quiet, to quote Bjork.
Everyone whispered in the library. The mute librarians appeared to have a complex system of communication that involved winks and subtle body movements, while parents spoke to their children in hushed tones. You didn’t read aloud in the library of the 70s. It was a place of reverence and old gentlemen playing chess.
I always felt at home in the library’s timeless bubble, even in the years when reading took a back seat to television, movies and football.
It’s the same reason I love the strange peace of a cathedral, though I never go in search of a god. The suspension of time; escaping traffic and commerce amid the dust motes and incense; the distant rumble of a tram.
Bookshops used to be like that. Dark little corners of the world. Life rafts for the bookish and reflective. A sneaky ten minutes spent with my friend Hemingway; some surreptitious page sniffing during my lunch break.
But things changed a few years ago. Bookshops grew, lost their dark corners, became places to drink coffee and eat focaccias. They began to stage events, open late into the evening, and provide couches for people to linger and read.
For a while I was a non-believer. But the world of literature should never be closeted away.
It’s important for bookshops and libraries to be public places. Places to meet, stick around, discover, and reconnect – with the world and our imaginations.
I visited the new Bendigo Library for the first time on the weekend and the place was jumping.
There were parents reading to their kids, while other children wandered and explored their new space alone. There were people quietly reading, people scanning the shelves, people deep in conversation upstairs and down, people enjoying a cuppa, others just passing through on their way from Hargreaves Street to Lyttleton Terrace.
A library as a thoroughfare – I can’t think of a braver, more innovative concept for any city.
More than just a place to borrow books, to research, or feel nourished by words, our new library is a hub of technology, community connection and, most importantly, a welcoming space for every demographic.
It might be a world away from the whispering stillness of my childhood library, but it’s a symbol of civic inclusiveness like no other.