Those were the days... The university of Sydney Fisher Library Undergraduate Reading Room in 1963.
I met Fisher on my first day at Sydney University. The air was perfumed with summer, soft purple bells fluttered from Jacaranda trees and students twittered in sandstone corridors, giddy with the excitement of a new year. Having just moved from a country town I knew absolutely no-one. As I watched friends swarm and disperse like schools of fish I realised I had only one real option for lunch. Like any self-respecting girl with glasses I would take refuge amongst the muses.
Fisher library is not your usual classical-columned beauty with porticos and pediments. In fact, it’s staggeringly ugly: a steel rectangular box, nine stories high that looks like it’s sinking under the weight of its own bulk. But as I learnt on my first day, inside this brutalist building was a vast sprawling wonderland brimming with the relics of a thousand years of learning. It was dizzying in size (the largest library in the Southern hemisphere) and its collection – from 7th Century BC stone tablets to 16th Century witchcraft manuals – was breathtaking. I say ‘was’ because like all arcadias, Fisher library was sliding ineluctably towards destruction.
Without libraries our imaginations will shrink, our curiosity will contract and our world will be a sadder place.
If you go to Fisher today you’ll find its shelves looted, its bright tranquility replaced by boorish banter and its twelve splendid floors of books reduced to three. Given that its fate has been that of many other libraries, and given that pillaging barbarians don’t bother to give eulogies, I thought the least we could do was to say goodbye. And to inform those who come after of what we have lost.
Firstly, we have lost the thrill of being ambushed by books. Have you ever seen someone striding purposefully towards the accounting section only to be stopped short by a book on Persian poetry? It can happen to the best of us. I remember being unable to reach the legal philosophy section without being accosted by a saucy red book with a gold embossed title: THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS. For a few delicious hours each day I would blissfully surrender to a world where women could turn into celestial objects: ‘I swear I saw Mary last night when she fell into grievous fits and became a STARR.’ In setting students readings in downloadable chapters, universities today kill curiosity, seal up the rabbit holes students SHOULD fall down and banish serendipitous learning.
Secondly, we have destroyed an arcadia of silence. The reason why people are so perfectly happy in libraries is because libraries suspend the noise of time. They let you sit in the lap of eternity communing with the dead and the immortal. Only in hushed silence can you enter the world of a book. Why? Because books are loud and clamorous places. Added to the jostling of voices on the page is your own conversation with the author- sometimes debate, sometimes haughty indignation, sometimes swooning love song. And unlike reading online, books have margins that let you record all these feelings for future readers. Before there were online trolls there were bookish trolls with brains and they would jam the white spaces outside the text with furious, brilliant scribblings.
And then of course there’s the smell of a room bursting with books: sweet and dusty and musty. And maybe it was this heady concoction that made libraries such LUSTY places. There is no aphrodisiac like an aisle of books and it saddens me to think that my students won’t know the devilish delights of stolen kisses in a darkened stack. At Fisher, the eighth floor was designated queer and the ninth was for heterosexuals. For those more prudish, romances would flourish on the steps outside the library as couples emerged from their writing to seduce each other with wit and words and thoughts.
Finally, when we lost Fisher, we lost its librarians. Of course there are still librarians, but they are not of the same variety. Fisher library was filled with eccentric and ebullient staff. They had ferret noses for following the scent of the most obscure books. One librarian, who bore a striking resemblance to the paddle pop lion, once ushered me into an aisle to show me a book: ‘And so you see’ he gushed, ‘the very first UFOs were drawn as canoes, and then after that ships, and then air-force planes. The way people imagine UFOs changes with technology!!!’ Librarians were like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland enticing you down holes that led into labyrinthine universes of marvels and magic.
Fisher was a rambling old growth forest which has now been scorched to the ground. It’s the closest we come to literary clear-felling. When I went inside recently I felt winded. There are no books in sight when you enter. Sharp fluorescent lighting accentuates wide open spaces that blink with cheap chrome finishings. It looks like Hoyts. People talk loudly to each other. Computer rooms have replaced book-aisles. A television is running constantly on the second floor. And most of the old librarians are gone. Why? Because books and journals have moved online and some students apparently learn better in noisy groups and open plan settings. 500,000 books have been removed.
Soon no-one will ever be ambushed by a book again. Nor will they lazily flick through the other books surrounding the required reading on the shelf. Without libraries our imaginations will shrink, our curiosity will contract and our world will be a sadder place. And the damage may be irreparable simply because we won’t have the books to find out why we got here and how we can go back.