Libraries: what they mean to me

One of the many, regular questions being bandied about at the moment, during the COVID-19 pandemic, is this:

“what are you missing most during isolation?”

When I start to compile a mental list I am conscious of the fact that all of the things I identify will return in time. It’s no big deal that I am without them for a year or so of my life. However, I then remind myself of the rocky journey through the mines of depression and anxiety that my life has been thus far and how slippery the road can be. It may very well be the cliched “first world problem” to be temporarily removed from some of my hobbies and haunts, but it’s a problem all the same. For those of us who have stared suicide in the face and survived, it’s no small deal.

Some of the things that I miss would be on the list of many of you reading this; like watching professional sport and going to the cinema. Others may ring true only for a few of you. For example, I miss meeting up with my early morning running group, and rehearsing for amateur theatre. In fact I’m supposed to be performing in a production of Mamma Mia right now!

One thing I miss terribly, which is inextricably linked to my mental health, is visiting the local library. The current situation has inspired me to reflect on libraries, what they mean to me, and why they are so important. Rather than simply providing a list of vital services libraries offer to the wider community, however, this is a far more introspective study in the role that libraries have played in my life — indeed, in keeping me alive.

I’m sure that I am not alone when I say that one of my favourite weekly events during my primary school years was visiting the school library. My library bag was one of my most treasured possessions as a child — the type that was made of colourful material and featured a pleasing, thick, drawstring at the top. There was a certain ecstasy involved in relieving my library bag of its week-old, stale books and dancing off into the forest of shelves on the hunt for fresh game. I still experience a brief flash of that same feeling these days, in my late forties, when I return and borrow books at the local library.

At school, once we had selected our new books to borrow, it was time to sit down and listen to a story being read by the school librarian. To this day I can vividly recall sitting in the school library, in 1981, and hearing The Man From Ironbark for the first time in my life. I was utterly transfixed. Thus, in my early years, the library was firmly established as a place of wonder, excitement, imagination and discovery.

By the time I began high school, the library served an even more important purpose — refuge. When I was 12 my family relocated from Melbourne to Sydney due to my father’s job and my older brother’s choice of university. It’s a vulnerable time to be removed from friends, extended family, local community groups — basically everything you’ve ever known. Around this time I was becoming more acutely aware of my “status” as a misfit, of my emerging identity issues, and of an increase in the “voices in my head”. Add to this my experiences with emotional and physical abuse from my parents, and what my psychologists have since termed my “highly sensitive nature” … not a good time for me.

So I started high school as the new weird kid from out of town; kind of cool if you’re a character in a movie but not so much in real life. I experienced my first ever panic attack on day onel. It happened at lunchtime. Clutching my rudimentary map of the school I instinctively headed for the library. Now, to be honest, that first trip to the school library wasn’t fantastic. I spent it sitting behind the librarian’s desk breathing into a paper bag (this is 1986, remember) and being asked every 30 seconds if I was ready to, well, to piss off, basically.

The next day, and each day after that for several weeks, I spent every spare moment in the school library, in a corner by myself, reading old copies of MAD Magazine. If I had not had those periods of time each day to recover, reset and prepare then I know that I would not be here, typing this, now. The library saved me. There was no other place on the school grounds where I could be safe from the bullies and undisturbed by the staff; no place where I could find quiet and stillness; no place that made me feel the way the library did.

Libraries have an extraordinary zen atmosphere. From the moment I step foot inside a library I feel like I have come home. As time went by I found the courage to join the informal lunchtime games of chess that took place every day, amongst other students who, like me, seemed similarly ostracised, damaged, shell shocked, or socially awkward.

In August 1991, during my final year of school, my brother was killed in a car accident. This made the process of studying for my final exams, selecting and commencing a university course, and “becoming an adult” a surreal experience. With this new baggage of grief, coupled with a now firmly established misfit label and a few more years of domestic abuse under my belt, I commenced my undergraduate studies. My world in turmoil again, poorly prepared for university life by my upbringing and schooling, I sought solace in what is still one of my most favourite places in the world: the University of NSW library. Floor, after floor, after floor of library-nerd heaven. A library on steroids. The smell of tens of thousands of books. Hundreds of secret nooks and crannies to hide away, in complete silence, from the world. My safe haven, and the place where I spent most of my time for four years of my life; often when my presence was required or expected elsewhere.

After completing my Bachelor of Arts I then studied an extra year at UNSW purely to be closer to the library, which at this point in time, was basically the love of my life. I completed a Graduate Diploma in Information Management, majoring in Librarianship. I joined, and soon became a committee member of, the Friends of the UNSW Library. I was living the dream. Finding myself. Breaking free.

I shall spare you the details of how I never ended up working in a library. Let’s just say a marriage, a bankruptcy, a divorce, a trip overseas and a suicide attempt later, I found that door, and many others, firmly shut. So these days I continue to be a grateful user, lover and visitor of libraries.

Libraries have changed a lot during my life: from the dusty card catalogues and sci-fi microfiche of my youth, through the CD ROMS and lectures-on-cassette of uni days, to the noisy toddler times and community education centres of the modern day. But, if you visit your local library enough, you will find the quiet times of old and your favourite nooks and crannies. You’ll discover which chairs are in sunshine at particular times of the day. You’ll learn which shelves can be relied upon for your next read. You’ll find peace and space to breathe, to recalibrate, or to escape.

I still need the library to help me with my mental health. I can often be found there (or at the cinema) when I should be at home or at work. I will always have depression and anxiety, along with my borderline personality disorder. That’s how it is for so many of us, not just in Generation X, but increasingly across all generations. But like many of you, I have learned through the help of mental health professionals, to accept and manage … rather than suffer and cope.

In the 1980s in Australia we had the Safety House Program. Pretty much everyone was given a sign that they could put on their letterbox to let children and women know that, if they felt unsafe, they would find the front door unlocked and could ask the inhabitants to ring the police. Let’s not get into how extraordinarily flawed the practical implementation of the program was, and focus instead on the rose-coloured sentiment. Libraries and cinemas are Safety Houses for me. When I feel unsafe or overwhelmed, I know that I can find refuge.

My local library has given me even more than this in recent years. It has made the transition to a more minimalist lifestyle much easier (getting rid of books was the hardest part!). It has been, and will continue to be, a significant place for my son and I to spend time together, to bond, and to share common interests.

Importantly it has allowed me to reconnect with the other safe haven of my adolescence. When I closed my bedroom door as a teenager it was to disappear into the world of fiction known as Dragonlance. Based on one of the early Dungeons and Dragons campaign settings, Dragonlance novels (of which there are close to 200) are where my brain resided during some pretty dark times. The current library system allows me to reserve and borrow books from far and wide. Receiving a notification from the library to say that my latest Dragonlance adventure is waiting for me on the shiny “reserved” shelves gives me that same buzz that I used to feel 40 years ago when I would see my library card stamped and my new library book being placed reverently into my colourful library bag.

It’s a wonderful feeling. I miss it — but I know it will come back.



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