Almost every week of my childhood, my mother took my three brothers and me to the Toowong Library in Brisbane’s west. We returned the books we'd taken home the week before and found new ones to take home. Afterwards we always played in the park outside the library or on the steamroller around the corner.
The twelve-sided library building looked like a flying saucer - it was designed by an architect - and the librarian looked a bit like Judy from Lost in Space. The library had no Superman comics, my first love, but Judy often had good suggestions. This was the place I first found The Cat in the Hat, the place where Enid Blyton and Ivan Southall will forever live for me.
The steamroller is gone now – they’ve been removed from parks on health and safety grounds like so many fun things – and the old library building is a heritage-listed clinic of some sort. There’s a new Toowong library, in the tower shopping centre up the road. I’ve been there with my ten-year-old son. The staff are as helpful as they can manage to be and sometimes they run fabulous workshops and storytelling . But you can see they have too much to do. My son can never find the books he’s looking for, or they are out on loan, or, more often than not, the library doesn’t have them. There’s not enough money to buy enough books or employ enough staff to offer the old library experience. It's not their fault.
Actually, when I want a library experience for my son, I take him to Avid Reader in West End. It’s a bookstore not a library. They have a special corner with cushions for children. My son wants books about drawing skill at the moment and Avid staffer Chris Currie is every bit as good as Judy in understanding what's needed. It’s more expensive than a library, having to buy not borrow books, but I share my mother’s belief that you could do nothing but read your whole life and it would be enough of an education and so we read instead of eating vegetables.
Anna Fienberg wrote a great piece this week in the SMH about teacher librarians and the role they can play in developing children’s love of stories and books, or not, given funding cuts. Increasingly, governments are deciding taxpayers shouldn’t subsidise writing, reading and even literacy development and many taxpayers agree with them. And they may be right. If I had to defend my Toowong library childhood and how it’s equipped me for life, I’d be hard pressed to do so. I only know it was everything.
Publishing has long been a strange mix of big business and the bespoke. Libraries and bookstores are struggling to stay afloat in the current environment and I worry for them. I worry for them because even if it doesn't equip him for life, I want my son to love reading even more than vegetables.
I know reading is solitary and the internet has introduced worlds of possibility. I know that. But physical collections of artefacts in physical space where people can interact may also be central to the reading experience. One of my friends – whose hometown of Melbourne has lost all her favourite bookstores – says those of us left who love books and places to gather about them need to form co-operatives that fund bookstores and libraries, like we’d fund a food co-op. I'm in.
Whenever she’s asked about e-books, Margaret Atwood says she wishes the debate would move on. There will always be people who tell stories to people who want them, she says, and how that happens is less interesting than that it happens. I hope she’s right. I’m just not sure what will happen for people who want vegetables as well as places to browse and talk about books. I want that too in the bright future we're racing towards.