Guest Post: A Tour of Biblioburbia

Vanessa Berry is a prolific zine maker (Vinnies, I Am A CameraDisposable Camera) published author (Strawberry Hills Forever), artist (Firstdraft) and blogger (Vanessa Berry World). 
We are very excited to welcome her to the Art Library Crawl as Guest Writer, reporting on her truly splendiferous project Biblioburbia, which saw her explore and document Sydney's suburban public libraries and those libraries publics, culminating in an exhibition at Firstdraft Gallery in 2012.

Welcome to Biblioburbia! In this guest post I, Vanessa Berry, will be taking you on a tour of a few of Sydney's public libraries, based on the Biblioburbia blog. I started Biblioburbia in April 2011 to document my visits to suburban libraries. I'd done a similar project way back in 1999, in which I travelled to all of Sydney's St Vincent de Paul op shops. I made them into a zine, Vinnies. I don't plan to visit every one of Sydney's libraries - there are hundreds of them - but to date I have visited about forty.

The first library I visited was in Dural, in Sydney's north west. It is a small branch library, the first library I have strong memories of going to as a child. Everyone has childhood memories of libraries, and my memories from here were how much I liked my books being stamped when I checked them out, and of borrowing many hardback children's classics from here, books like The Water Babies. When I revisited Dural Library, it was naturally much smaller than it was in my imagination.

At this point in the project I wondered what exactly I would discover visiting public libraries, and if in fact it would be interesting enough to write about. But Dural library was more than interesting enough, in particular, people of all ages seemed to need books about Ancient Egypt urgently.

While some libraries I visited were familiar to me, others I chose at random, like Padstow, or Sans Souci. These were place I'd seen on the map but had never visited. As I was visiting "undercover" (I didn't inform library staff of my project or ever speak to anyone about it while I was on my missions), it was a somewhat unusual feeling to be sitting in the library of a suburb I'd never been to before, browsing through books and taking notes. I had chosen a good place to be inconspicuous with a notebook, however, libraries being one of the few places you don't draw attention to yourself writing in a notebook.

Sans Souci Library

Padstow Library

Many branch libraries were built in the 1970s, and have a similar brick appearance, although some were more unusual. The more I mentioned Biblioburbia to people the more library stories I was told, and some people recommended particular Sydney libraries. One man suggested I visit Greenwich library, as it is an octagonal building accessed via a bridge. Well, I had to check it out after this curious description.

Greenwich Library had a very cosy interior, classical music radio was playing, and the librarian quietly shelved books. It felt almost like being in someone's parlour, rather than a public library. 

Although I have a fondness for branch libraries, with their 1970s architecture and quirks - some, like Padstow, had many indoor plants, others, like Greenacre, are a curved building that made me imagine  I was inside a ship - I visited plenty of central libraries also. Often these were much newer buildings, such as Merrylands or Blacktown, pictured below. 

I developed a method for my library observations. I'd spend about 2 hours in each library, taking notes, browsing books, observing what was happening. There were plenty of library characters that I encountered, my favourite a man in Campbelltown library who was peering out from behind a large biography of Dennis Lillee, also observing everyone in the library, like an alternate universe version of me. 

After almost a year of writing Biblioburbia, I started work on an exhibition based on the blog. For this I made a map of Sydney, with each of the libraries I visited on it, as well as a detail from the blog post I wrote about each. I spent many nights at my desk, drawing the libraries, and noted that the older the building, the longer it took to draw. Waterloo Library, in the old town hall building, for example, took a particularly long time. 

I had chosen to visit Waterloo Library out of the ten City of Sydney library branches, as it was the one I knew least about, and I like the Addams Family style building it is housed in, even if it did take a long time to draw.

For the exhibition I made a large wall chart displaying all the libraries I'd visited. Each was marked with a coloured library card, and related to the relevant section of the blog, which I'd printed out and made into a book (on the plinth in the photo below).

I also made a print of the map with the Big Fag Press, a Sydney printing collective. 

The exhibition is now over, but Biblioburbia continues, exploring the suburbs and collecting library details, browsing the shelves and making all sorts of library discoveries. Many people have asked me which library is my favourite out of all the ones I've visited, but it's impossible to choose. I liked Avalon for being the only public library still to use date stamps and for having a puzzle section, I liked Burwood library for its book lined mezzanine, Engadine for its pink walls, Chatswood for its large collection of quarto books, Double Bay for its harbour view, Ashfield for its large biography section... every library I have visited has had something distinctive about it.