ENDANGERED SPECIES

7 Dec

Britishreadingroom

I enter this palace for the public and the cool stones greet me; solemn welcome. Outside: human gorillas, their shirts off revealing a legacy of bad tattoo technique and liver damage, stalk about the lawn looking for nice middle-class kids to intimidate into handing over their spare change. Hell! Why not? Why should they be the ones to enjoy the joys of intoxication wearing their clean textiles designed to make ’em look ‘cool’ while busy getting shitfaced? Well they wait ’til post meridian for one. The human gorillas have been here since 7am. They have a cask or two. These days it’s commonplace to bear witness to squalid wasted lives right on the doorstep of this country’s finest library.

Inside and I’m tap-tap-tapping away at keys provided me at public expense. Walk along the rows of computers and you’ll see a lot of FaceBook pages; lots of backpacker accommodation, emails, video clips of car racing, of rap gods, of interfaces with various financial institutions. None of it has anything to do with the life of the mind.

Brisithreadingroomconstruction

Up the stairs, a vertical diagonal that zig-zags its way up three floors of public space. At the top there’s a domed room. Ah! domed rooms… this library is one of those colonial neo-classical jobbies that went up everywhere within European empires of the 19th century. Them’s were the times if you had any money. It’s in its original condition mostly, old desks, green lamps. The walls are surrounded by the meager canon of Australia. Many books about obscure figures, much polemic on minor episodes. We are a young country.

The dome is a high one and walls that lead up to it are verandas for the ‘museum’ part. The main feature: Ned Kelly’s armour. I wonder what Kelly’d think of his armour being used for tourism purposes by the State that killed him?

I hadn’t been up there for years, not interested. But I went up to get a view of the Dome Room and realized I’d forgotten its wonders. There’s a lot more to Australia than bloody Ned Kelly. Some of us have good taste even. There’s a delicious leatherbound 1946 edition of Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal with a Kandinsky-esque design by Jean Landau. There’s prints by Hokusai and Watanabe. There’s an enormous volume from the 1820s and 30s – drawings of birds by John James Audubon. Delicious, even if you don’t like the stuff generally and I don’t much. Worth a bit apparently. Won’t say how much, wouldn’t want to tempt anybody. 🙂

On one of the walls an enormous lecture by Gertrude Stein. It’s concrete poetry, not designed to actually be read. Properly anyway. But in the Dome Room a curve band runs about the diameter with various quotes that are, from various writers viz libraries: what they are, what they mean. My favourite is Jorge Luis Borges whose idea of Heaven is a library. Another states:

Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark. The pleasure they give is steady, unorgastic, reliable, deep and long-lasting. In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.

Is that not beautiful? I won’t say who wrote it. Google it, someone will be surprised.

This place has changed as the curator of a school tour will tell her audience. Once upon a time there was no leeway for anything but the strictest observance of miserable discipline as exported by havens of sadism like Harrow. You couldn’t do anything. Now the pendulum’s swung the other way. It’s not so much that the library has become run-down and mediocre, quite the contrary – the library itself, the librarians – are excellent. This place runs very well and has a lifetime’s study in it. But now what can you not do here. And so it’s a free internet cafe…. etc.

And it’s a place that is host to many students particularly from Asia whose customs do not require, for example, the observance of silence standard in Western libraries. That problem is not addressed by those who notice it for fear of accusations of bigotry. Another reason we are incompetent to assert our customs in out own country: they have eroded. The British bootstrap has given way to our famously casual ways and the former strictness with which children were raised has become taboo in English speaking countries, replaced by something as yet vague. We are forgetting the custom that a library is a certain kind of place much like a church or a museum. How are visitors s’posed to understand our customs when we ourselves are oblivious?

Meantime the Market enters the building. A new line has been drawn and the foyers of the building are now retail zones. One annex, dedicated to electronic media, is regularly used for swank corporate do’s (public and private). Mmm smells good. Nothing wrong with that, per se. However, tho’ the integrity of the library is still maintained, its territory has shrunk. And the people within it display diminishing respect. Sadly, the more people thru the door, the more funding, hence the internet cafe. But if the place is crowded out with backpackers on holiday who smirk when you tell them you’re finding it hard to read because they make too much noise and if that becomes routine, something you just have to put up with…

ArgentineLibrary

Oh I’m having a Grand Whinge today aren’t I? Truly things aren’t so catastrophic as I make out. In general people do know how to act. Still the disrespect I’ve described is in evidence and often.

Behind it I sense the erosion of our traditional sense of these places and what they do and how? They are democratic institutions, anyone may enter. But few do, at least for the purposes of reading, writing; the study of art, the study of music, of genealogy, of technological communications, of Japanese flower arrangement, of the history of the Australian Open. What’s forgotten is that that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, tho’ such spaces for the life of the mind may be something only the few are interested in, there are thus fruits born that benefit everyone. Such spaces needs must be places where one can think, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.

This is such a space, still. But somewhere there’s a puncture from which the peaceful ether that makes it what it is, is leaking.

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