A skinny little kid rummaging through rotting vegetables, broken furniture and rusty engine parts in search of books, that was me.
When I was growing up in Orbost, East Gippsland, in the 1950s my library was the local rubbish tip, now euphemistically, ridiculously called a ‘transfer station’. We lived several kilometres out of town, which is a long way for a large family with little money. It would have been financially impossible for my parents to buy books for us kids, or even for themselves. There were usually a few comic books floating around the house, perhaps given to my older brothers by school friends. It must have been through these comic books (and perhaps newspapers) that I learned to read at an early age.
There wasn’t a library in Orbost then. That precious institution, the local library, was not established until the 1960s or later and Orbost would have been too remote to have a library even then. My only other access to books was the annual book gifted at Christmas by my aunties in Albury, bless their cotton socks. (Update 18.1.2012. Apparently there was a library in Orbost then. The first library in Orbost was opened in 1885, in the Mechanics Institute Hall in Browning Street. However, I am not sure when it started to function as a free lending library.)
However, when I realised that books could be found at the local rubbish tip my home library grew. The tip was an easy bike ride from our place and my two older brothers went there regularly. They would sometimes, after ‘encouragement’ from my mother, allow me to go with them. Oh, boy, was I excited when I arrived at the rubbish tip. I could not believe the treasure trove of books that were there for me. Imagine people throwing away perfectly good books! I searched under whatever rubbish was there. If there was a book there I had to find it. I did not want to miss a single book. Sometimes my brothers grew tired of waiting for me and left me to it. They were smart enough not to go home without me; they simply explored other areas of the bush on their bikes and came back to fetch me later. When I did get back home I was so eager to explore the literary treasure I had found that I went straight to the hayshed, climbed up over the stacks of hay to my special hiding place, curled up like a wombat in a burrow and escaped into the world of print.
There were no librarians at my first ‘library’ and when I found out that there were people who ‘looked after books’ I was astounded. I couldn’t think of a better job. The concept of buildings where books ‘live’ was another eye opener for me. I wanted to live there with them and often imagined myself living in a library. Even now, when I walk into a library and see shelves and shelves of books I feel a sense of awe (even though I now realise living there might be impractical).
In general I find that librarians have a generosity of nature and a sense of calm that allows them to attend to my queries fully, with unhurried courtesy. I wonder if this quality springs from the deep knowledge brought by books or simply from ‘living’ with so many books.
The generosity of librarians (and many other Australians) was overwhelmingly demonstrated to me when book donations poured in for my Books for Indonesian Kids project which continues to grow. When those looking after our community libraries in Indonesia tell me how the Indonesian kids’ eyes widen in wonder when they see the donated books, I know exactly what those children are feeling. JB 🙂