Sexing up the library

The title of this post might be taking it a bit far. However, libraries might just be getting a bit more frequently into the public eye of late. This article In The Guardian goes behind the scenes at the NSW State Library. The intrepid reporter is Caroline Baum, their first reader-in-residence. (Should the link not take you there, try a Google search on “Secrets of the library: ‘magic with livestock’ and Patrick White’s nanny’s trunk”.  “Secrets of the library” will probably do the trick; the longer your search string, the more chances to make a typo. You don’t need the quote marks.)

Does a library really need a reader-in-residence? That’s what librarians do all day, isn’t it – read? (You wouldn’t say that, of course! You know that’s a bit like saying “people working in supermarkets must eat a lot”.) Personally, I think it is a darn good idea of NSWSL to make someone reader-in-residence, particularly if that someone is Caroline Baum. Library lifers such as I used to be, until early release for good behaviour, can stop noticing the extraordinary things they work with. An outsider can come in and say “You’ve got what?”, and write about it, for the general public, in a readable way.

This is a particularly valuable thing to do when the library has archival materials. These can be a massive time and resources sink, requiring special treatment galore. If they are unbound, the boxes you put them in, need to be acid-free. The cataloguing is much more elaborate. And you can’t just slap a label on the spine and stamp the thing. But these documents are unimaginably precious. Imagine not having Cook’s journals from the Endeavour, or Watkin Tench’s narrative of the establishment of Botany Bay. Somebody, some day, will want to go through Patrick White’s nanny’s trunk, too.

There is an unstated conflict for those working with rare books, special collections, or whatever they are called this week. You want people to know you’ve got them, and you don’t really want people to know you’ve got them. After all, the people who need to know about these things, like researchers, will already know, right? No need to put it too widely about. Nowadays, however, I think rare books specialists really do want to tell people about all the great things they’ve got. (Put this down to a win/win  combination of professional ethics and needing continuing funding.) They certainly put a lot of effort into cataloguing and digitising them, for everyone who has a web browser to read.

Caroline Baum’s article takes in a few of the fabulous treasure troves in NSWSL, like the Robbins collection about stage magic. Some of the cookbooks sound familiar from my Special Collection days. There was an eighteenth century one all about puddings, jellies and confections; the jelly moulds looked exactly like the ones used today. There is something very touching about holding a cookbook that has notes scrawled in the margins.  The exercise books of handwritten recipes, or ones clipped from yellowing newspapers, are even more intimate. People in a hundred badly-lit kitchens actually scribbled on, peered at, and sweated over these things. All to feed those they loved.


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