The Bassendean Library held a call for submissions on “what the library means to you” as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations of operation from their “new” facilities.
I’m delighted to announce that I was one of the winners – also worth mentioning is that fellow Bassendean Writing Group member, Punito, was also a winner.
Here’s the full text of my submission:
As a small child, the side room at Bassendean Library where the children’s collection was housed was a treasure trove of stories waiting to be read, somewhat akin to Aladdin’s cave. While my Mum fossicked in the main library, usually hunting for the latest Wilbur Smith novel, I was free to explore and make a choice about which picture book I was going to take home that week.
Growing up with Cystic Fibrosis, I soon discovered that I could take a book with me while I waited at the hospital. I could read while I did my many treatments, and if I felt tired or short of breath, I could sit and read. I was different to other children, marked by a progressive illness, but books didn’t judge me. Instead, they took me on adventures and to places that my wonky lungs would never allow me to go.
Midway through primary school we moved to a semi-rural area. I no longer had access to a public library that I could walk to, and the school library was just a shelf at the back of the classroom. My Mum, who read but wasn’t a “reader”, couldn’t see the problem. You can after all, only read one book at a time, she reasoned.
I solved my problem when, every second weekend, I stayed overnight with my Gran in Bassendean. On a Saturday morning, I would trek back to Old Perth Road and head to the Bassendean Book Exchange. I was without doubt the worst customer they had. Each Saturday I managed to scrounge a small bag of Gran’s Mills and Boon books or Secret Confession magazines that I exchanged for the pick of their children’s books. There was a wonderful lady who ran the book exchange, and she never once complained that I treated her shop as a library when I sat and read all morning. Each week just before noon she would remind me that the shop was closing soon. I would carefully make my selections, always maximising the use of any credit I had. Clutching my bag of swapped treasures, it was time to hustle back to Gran’s. I always slowed down as I passed by the library, staring longingly through the door towards the books that were out of my reach. It never occurred to me that instead of reading at the book exchange, I should have been reading at the library. Living out of the district, my focus revolved around the loss of my precious pink library cards and the flow on consequence that I was no longer entitled to take library books home.
In high school, I continued to stay with my Gran, still on a fortnightly basis, but by now I’d found a solution to my library card problem. One Saturday, I dragged my Gran down to the library and got her to sign up. I immediately relieved her of her library cards. Having both out-read and outgrown the children’s section by this time, it was fortunate that her four yellow cards allowed me access to the main library. Initially I crept through the library, making my selections rapidly, trying to borrow before any of the staff realised that I wasn’t “Mavis” and sent me back to the children’s section.
One Saturday as I skulked through the stacks trying to be inconspicuous, Wendy, one of the librarians, placed a book in my hand and told me to try it. The following fortnight, she had another suggestion for me. She carefully cultivated my reading after that, pointing me towards books that challenged my thinking, that pushed me as a reader but were always age appropriate. Two authors that I distinctly remember her placing in my hands are still among my favourites today. Dean Koontz (back when he was still clinging to his middle initial) and Anne McCaffrey with her grand tales about the Dragonriders of Pern.
At the end of Year 10, I approached Wendy and asked if I could do some volunteer work at the library over the summer holidays. I was so fortunate that not just Wendy, but all of the ladies working in the library, took me under their collective wing and showed me the ropes. Eventually, my volunteer work became more permanent, and I volunteered every Saturday morning. Each week I hungrily absorbed everything they showed me. Here was a world that revolved around books and information, I absorbed everything I could, eager to learn. I couldn’t imagine a better place to work.
Throughout my life, one of the messages that was repeatedly given to me was, “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t”. Therefore, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when my Year 11 Guidance Officer told me that due to my health, I couldn’t make a career out of a love of reading. ‘Libraries are too dusty,’ he told me, ‘they’ll make you cough. Books are too heavy, you won’t be able to carry them.’ So he sent me off to do an accounting course. Account books were definitely NOT the sort of books that I was passionate about.
After high school, I studied an accounting course at TAFE while I worked part time. My heart wasn’t in it, I kept thinking back to my happy Saturday mornings, flicking through the card catalogue, checking for inter-library loans. Still it took me another seven years to shake the message that I couldn’t make a career from my love of books. By now, libraries were starting to go digital, and as I studied librarianship, I realised that the background the Bassendean Library ladies had given me had been priceless.
When I graduated, my chosen career path within the library industry was never in doubt. I intended to work within the school system. The first time I placed a book in the hands of a child and saw their eyes light up with delight, I knew my instincts had been right. My core values have always been moulded by how Wendy treated me as a teen. That the right book in the hand of a child at the right time can change their life. That you shouldn’t judge or devalue a child’s reading tastes and that they should be given the freedom to explore the world of literature.
In my mid-30s I returned to reside in Bassendean. The library building had changed, and so had some of the faces, and this time my son joined me on my Saturday jaunts to the library. Around this time, the prophetic words of my Year 11 Guidance Officer started to come true. My health was rapidly declining. Books were now too heavy for me to carry home from the library and I was forced to change my organic browsing habits into consolidated searching with the use of the online OPAC. With a Herculean solo effort, my son somehow managed to carry home all the books I’d selected, not to mention his own. Although I had never neglected the friendship I had forged with books in my childhood, while I was on extended sick leave they became my lifeline. On oxygen and virtually housebound, I wiled away the days with my faithful dog at my side and a library book in my hands.
Now, I’ve been given a second chance at life, with the gift of a new set of lungs. This gift has meant that not only have I returned to managing my school’s library, but I now have the energy to pursue my love of books in a different way. No longer on a Saturday morning and not always as a reader, now my Bassendean Library routine centres around Monday evenings in meeting room 2. As a children’s writer, I attend the Bassendean Writer’s Group, perfecting my stories. Stories that reflect a lifetime love of books and reading. Stories that will one day reside on the shelves. The circle will be complete when my stories are ready for another child to take off the shelf and begin a love affair with books. A love affair, that for me, began at Bassendean Library.