Monday, 26 July 2010

Made to Last

I love working at the National Library of Australia but I love working at the State Library of Victoria even more. Both institutions embrace the public and demonstrate an eagerness to help us use the collections we have helped pay for. This is in stark contrast to the British Library, which, despite being funded by the nation's taxpayers, seems so keen to prevent citizens accessing its reading rooms you begin to wonder if it is run by the committee of Brooks's Club.

The reason I prefer the State Library of Victoria to the National Library has nothing to do with the service or the collections available though. The thing that makes it my favourite is simply the fact that the building it is housed in was built before 1960. Even though the National Library is one of the nicer late twentieth century buildings I know of, it still does not contain the things I most love about pre-industrial/pre-Modernist/pre-Niemeyer architecture: the countless little signs that the edifice was put together by highly-skilled individuals, who made things carefully, by hand, with the intention that they should last.

The desk I am sitting at, for example, is constructed from solid wood. Its surface has tooled green leather insets. It has a flat, brass-hinged central panel with a flush brass handle that you can pull up so that the main part of the desk becomes a slope. The lamp that shines above the desk is protected by green glass, to match the desk's leather, and set in a gleaming brass collar which hangs from a decorative carved wooden pole topped by a redundant but aesthetically pleasing wooden globe. My chair is also wood. The seat is wide enough to fit the most obese of today's readers and has been planed to slope at each side, with a slight rise at the middle of the front. Its arms are formed from a semi circular piece of wood which has been carved to form a shape a bit like a minim at each end. There is a pretty wooden back rest with a pattern cut into it and an attractive backward curl, and there are two P-shaped carved supports for the arm rests. The whole thing is set on four legs, which form two semi circles, meeting underneath the seat, at its centre, where a heavy cast iron mechanism provides springiness and allows the user to move the thing up and down.

Everything about these objects reminds you that someone - an unknown but living person who cared about doing their job well and took pleasure in getting things perfect - was engaged in every moment of their making. This, it seems to me, establishes a connection between us today and the people who created this place, thus giving us a link with the past in which they lived as well. Somehow the mass-produced formica and chipboard tables and tubular alloy and foam padded chairs of today do not manage the same trick. All human connection is absent from the streamlined sleek chrome and glass structures we are erecting in our cities now.

But clearly not everyone sees things my way. The La Trobe reading room in the State Library of Victoria was once thought of as a sort of poor man's version of the reading room at the British Library in London, whereas now its rival has been swept away. The shell remains in Norman Foster's Great Court at the British Museum, but nothing of its interior is left. This strikes me as vandalism. Aesthetically, no-one could argue that the exhibition space that now occupies the old reading room is an improvement. Furthermore, a place of historical significance - the room where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital - has been destroyed. After all, whatever one may think of Marxism, his work is without any doubt the single most influential piece of writing in the whole of the last century. While the workplaces of other writers - Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset - are now places of pilgrimage, Marx's has been systematically destroyed.

Before I descend into whingeing and grumbling, however, I am reminded of a report I saw where some of the surviving old fellows who had worked at the reading room when Marx was a habitue were interviewed. When asked if they remembered him, they frowned and scratched their heads. They'd never heard of him or read anything he'd written. But then one of them remembered: 'Oh yes, he was the one who always wanted the really heavy books from right on the top shelves. We always had to get the ladders out for him. He was a real nuisance.' Now I think about it, that's not a bad description for Marx really - a real, real nuisance.


  1. ps. never been in a proper library before, but I would like to! (before they all disappear)

  2. They must have been very very old - or else it was a very old report. Karl Marx died in 1883, (far too soon to witness the misery that Lenin would create out by taking his ideas to their logical conclusion.
    I am heartbroken at the loss of the Reading Room at the British Museum - it was a majestic and hallowed place.

  3. Worm - The Sydney state library is pretty nice too
    Mark - It was a v old report - and they were v old (and the journalist probably made the whole thing up - typical of that profession [joke])

  4. Wonderful description.

    If you'd like your Marx library experience straight up you could visit the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green:

  5. I like Customs House library in Sydney too. It's got so many good books. You might think that goes without saying but the new Surry Hills library has a very poor selection. And they don't even have a reference section.... they said the demographic doesn't require it ;-(

  6. Nurse - what on earth could the demographic be that doesn't need a reference section?
    Gaw - shall have a look