Feature Articles / Kirsten Tranter on writers and libraries in a time of isolation

In the early days of 2020, smoke from wildfires around the state of NSW was still drifting into Sydney now and again. When I visited my local library in Marrickville on the bad days, it was hard to breathe; the space had been designed for a maximum of flow between inside and outside, a lovely […]

Newswrite cover illustration by Katherine Smith

In the early days of 2020, smoke from wildfires around the state of NSW was still drifting into Sydney now and again. When I visited my local library in Marrickville on the bad days, it was hard to breathe; the space had been designed for a maximum of flow between inside and outside, a lovely idea that now seemed like a possibly terrible flaw. In January I talked to library workers, arts workers, writers and artists about the revitalisation of local public libraries and the amazing resources they provide for writers, and walked regularly to Marrickville library to read, write and drink coffee.

As recently as late March, there were still a few libraries open, operating with reduced hours and changed circulation practices. Now, as I write, Sydney libraries are closed indefinitely. So, this is not an article about the current revitalisation of local libraries, since the very concept of “current” and “present” has been transformed in terms of writing and reporting: last week was different to the week before, and the month before that; we cannot work with the presumption that the present tense of writing will bear any sensible resemblance to the future tense of publication and reading. Instead, this has become a story about the possibilities of what libraries have to offer us as writers, in the hope that they will re-open before long; and a story about how this crisis has revealed what they mean to us.

1. Marrickville

Over the last few years, several local libraries in Sydney have renovated or built new spaces featuring stunning design elements that make these places into beautiful havens for readers and writers: Green Square offers a tranquil sunken garden, and Double Bay makes spectacular use of greenery including an interior wall of living plants where leafy ferns fringe the slots for returning books.

The newly built Marrickville library and pavilion in Sydney’s inner west is a celebrated example of conceiving of a library as a centre of community life. Built on the site of a former hospital, the gleaming new structure incorporates the old hospital building and uses repurposed bricks from other buildings in the area including the former nurses’ quarters. The site is now named Patyegarang Place in honour of a local Aboriginal woman of the Eora nation, believed to be one of the first Indigenous people to teach their language to colonists. The new library also embodies the gentrification of Marrickville: when the local council was unable to come up with the necessary cash, the entire project was funded by property developer Mirvac in exchange for a chunk of the site upon which they constructed towering apartment blocks.

The interior offers multiple spaces to sit, read, write, browse and drink coffee: low tables and comfortable armchairs, window sills wide enough to rest a laptop while sitting on a tall stool, benches, cushioned steps, beanbags, balconies and a large room with high ceilings and rows of long communal desks. In addition to space for writing groups and workshops, the real treasure for writers is the six study rooms that can be booked for up to two hours a day, all named for local, living women writers including Bronwyn Bancroft, Charlotte Wood, Nadia Wheatley and Mireille Juchau. A wide, generous balcony is named for the late author Georgia Blain. Caroline Macready, a library worker and manager who was closely involved with the design and rebuild at Marrickville, explained to me that these spaces were inspired by an event the library organised for International Women’s Day a few years ago, at which she noticed a recurring refrain. ‘The problem for a lot of women writers is they don’t have space,’ she says. At the event, writers described the limitations of the familiar situation of ‘getting your laptop out on the kitchen table.’

These small rooms at the library can be the ‘room of one’s own’ for writers envisaged by Virginia Woolf, for a little while at least. The room named for Nadia Wheatley is called ‘My Place’ and like the rest of the study rooms has a quote emblazened on one wall. ‘My Grandmother says, “We’ve always belonged to this place.” “But how long?” I ask. “And how far?” My grandmother says, “For ever and ever.”’

The room named for Charlotte Wood is called simply ‘The Writer’s Room’ and features a quote from her 2016 Stella Prize acceptance speech: ‘To create is to defy emptiness. It is generous, it affirms. To make is to add to the world, not subtract from it.’

2. Cabramatta

Further west, Cabramatta Library has been flourishing as a creative space for local writers, filmmakers and artists, individuals and organisations. Inside the unassuming brick building across the road from Cabramatta train station is a trove of impressive technology including a Virtual Reality studio and teaching space, 3D printer, and Studio 2166, a digital audio and video editing and production suite complete with green screen.

I met local artist Maria Tran, head of Phoenix Eye production company, in a cushioned booth in The Workary, a versatile space adjacent to Studio 2166 with desks, computers, free tea and coffee, and a little room that looks like an old-fashioned phone booth designed for making distraction-free phone calls. Tran depends on the library’s resources for many aspects of her work including cast and crew reading/ writing groups, development meetings, green screen effects, editing and more. These resources are vital, she explains, in a context where small community arts organisations and independent companies like hers struggle to get funding, space, and necessary infrastructure.

In the aftermath of the shutdown, she tells me, she has turned the sunroom at her father’s house nearby into an improvised set and green screen for shooting short videos. ‘The library provided a physical gathering point and an expectation that you are going to learn something whether with another person or by yourself,’ she writes over email. ‘The home space-turned-creative is inconsistent.’

3. The closing of the commons

In a world where so few of us have ‘a room of one’s own’ in which to write, libraries provide precious material space and infrastructure — fast internet, databases, computers. Those study rooms in Marrickville were always booked days in advance when I was using them. This sense of space and belonging extends beyond the physical walls: writer Tess Pearson described to me sitting on the grass outside her local library when all the inside desks were full, feeling by proximity that this was legitimised in a way that sitting around in public just writing never otherwise is.

Writers don’t only write in libraries; we rely on them in other ways too, especially to augment our individual book collections. Reading is an essential part of our work and few writers have a budget that allows us to buy all the books we need and want to read. We badger librarians to buy copies of things that aren’t on the shelves; we inter- library-loan the obscure out-of-print stuff. We discover inspiration by browsing the shelves, finding a crucial new literary voice in conversation with our own when we’re searching for something completely different.

In a privatised world, libraries are a precious space of “the commons” that belongs to us, the writers and the readers. Writers struggle to articulate to me the devastating, incalculable, metaphysical impact of knowing that this space is closed, a loss that is not redeemed by access to the digital collection.

One writer described to me showing up at her local library after the pandemic struck but before the closures to find the entrance blocked by a desk; the librarian would not take her card but instead wrote the number down, and another librarian went to the shelves and retrieved the item she had requested, and returned it with her gloved hands. The writer took the book back to her car and cried.

So many aspects of public intimacy have been compromised or disappeared by this crisis. Writing and reading are profoundly solitary activities, but the closure of libraries makes me appreciate how much they are also communal and social. We have yet to discover how they will be transformed when the world comes out of isolation.

By Kirsten Tranter, originally published in issue 246 of Newswrite.

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