Moving it

I’ve mentioned that I am participating in a study being performed at ACU into the effect of exercise on the mental well-being of prostate cancer patients. I am a bit over half way through that study, and expect to be finished with it in early February. So I was interested to see a story in The Age about research into the effect of exercise on mental well being. This study, conducted by University of Southern Queensland and Deakin researchers, isn’t specifically targeting prostate cancer, or any cancer patients. The researchers were  looking at the effect on mental well being of adding a strength training session to your regular exercise class. They found that adding only one strength training session enhances the effect of that class. In other words, “combining the two is more beneficial than doing either alone”.

The USQ project was a cross-sectional study, that is, it wasn’t original research, but one that sliced and diced previous studies. The authors looked at four previous US health surveys, with a huge number of subjects — nearly 1.5 million. The size of the combined data pool, plus the fact that the USQ researchers were examining four successive studies, further improves the potential reliability of their conclusions. You can read the story from the Nine Media/Fairfax sources here, and the NLM abstract is here.  

I am finding participation in the ACU study is generally very beneficial. I feel good, and only really feel flat when I am tired — nothing new there. My oncologist definitely wants me to keep exercising. I intend to, but it is just a matter of finding the appropriate level. Zolodex does make me a bit fatigued in the afternoons. I do want to go back to doing everything that I was doing before I started the study, while continuing to do more exercise than I did before. Just what exercise is another question. The ACU folk are upping the intensity of my class, adding interval training in the cardio section, and increasing the weights in the resistance part. This is all part of the progressive resistance idea, and I get that. The Zolodex, again, makes it more difficult for me to put on muscle as I normally would when lifting bigger weights. So I am finding it tiring! The ACU researchers (as with my regular exercise physiologist) are all very careful only to give me exercises that won’t aggravate any of the metastases from the last scan.

There is a nice social side to the classes as well — I often meet the other guys for a coffee beforehand. One of them has a beehive, and gave me a wonderful jar of honey last week. So that is all very enjoyable as well, and something that I hope continues after the classes are finished. I don’t know if there has been any research into this, but if there ever is, I would be happy to volunteer for it!


Time of reckoning

I thank my lucky stars that, to date, no-one I know has been directly affected by the bushfires. Of course their effect is not just people losing their lives, homes, or livelihoods, as has already occurred. I know some family members are affected by the environmental conditions, including smoke. We will all be paying more in higher produce prices and insurance premiums. The relationship Australians have with the bush will need to be re-thought. There will be places where people live where it will no longer be viable for them to live, either without major adjustments, or at all. All this will need to be considered.

I think there are psychological effects, too, and not just for those directly affected. We may have thought ourselves immune to nature, or at least able to make a bargain with it. The thinking has been: we’ll contribute so much to efforts to reduce global heating. This means we can go on selling coal and using cheap fossil fuels. The stupidity of this attitude is more obvious than ever. As someone on the ABC recently commented, the atmosphere doesn’t care about our spreadsheets. It only cares if we emit fewer molecules of carbon. Nature doesn’t care about our bargains and trade-offs.

I’m not attributing the bushfires directly to climate change. Even our PM, though, a denialist at heart, acknowledges global heating to be a factor in the current bushfire season. There’s no change, however, in government policies on carbon emissions. The Labor Party isn’t any better. I do feel despairing that the two major parties have their heads in the sand about climate policy. Are our current pathetic and largely symbolic efforts really the best we can do? Global heating seems a failure of politics as we know it.

It is fantastic, of course, that so many people have contributed to bushfire relief appeals. Extraordinary amounts — I read $30 million dollars — have been raised for fire fighting and relief funds. Many of these appeals would not have been possible without the internet and social media, so these technologies can obviously have a positive side. Of course huge amounts of money are going to be required to rebuild homes, bridges, schools and other infrastructure. But people’s willingness to pitch in and help is both amazing and encouraging.

Maybe these things are part of why I have felt so distracted and weird in general. These dreadful events have overshadowed Christmas and my recent birthday. I don’t mean to sound world-weary about it — any anniversary is worth celebrating. And I was given some lovely presents. One worthy of note (because it was so unexpected) came from our local greengrocer. When we dropped into his shop a few days ago, I mentioned that my birthday had just occurred. So he gave me a beautiful purple orchid from his shop. It was such a sweet gesture. He and his wife are lovely people, and I like to support young people having a go. But all the gifts, cards, and good wishes were very much appreciated. We can all make someone feel valued and appreciated with these small gestures.

Exercise classes have resumed at Hawthorn Aquatic Centre, and I am dragging the now 65-year old bones along for another six weeks. It has been the season also for getting things fixed, and the air conditioners have been high on that list. Both have required service calls. The split system is working normally now; it had been very noisy, sounding as though a leaf had gotten caught in the air intake. The evaporative has been problematic to get going reliably. After being switched on, it either just pushes out hot air, or air that is half cooled. A third service call is going to be required before the problem can be escalated. (Of course Christmas has gummed up the works, taking longer than normal to obtain parts and so on.)

There have been two problems. First, one rings the manufacturer for customer service. But those folk just pass your details onto the contractors, who carry out the actual servicing. Second, the contractor gives you only half an hour’s notice before rolling up, and — of course! — no-one can give you even an indication of whether they will be around in the morning or afternoon. Moaning about this to the customer service people gets you nowhere, because they don’t do the servicing. (One of them actually said “I’m not a service man”.) No-one’s accountable! I don’t like to play the cancer card, but I pointed out that having potentially to be at home all day would mean I may have to miss one or more exercise classes, something that is part of my treatment. All the right noises were made in response, promising they would work with me, etc. We will see.  I do hope everyone stays safe. 

Scoreless draw

My beloved and I went along for my final appointment with Dr Parente for the year. All was as if had been the other times — PSA undetectable — everything good. Of course, this is something we never get tired of hearing! Herself and I had a celebratory coffee in Hawthorn before went to my exercise class.

The week before each appointment, I have a blood test, leaving enough time for the lab work to be done and delivered to Dr P. Around then, I start getting testing anxiety; I am more irritable, although I try not to be, and my sleep is worse. On the morning of the appointment, I feel quite neutral — there is almost a relief that it is here.  On the morning of the appointment, we drive to Box Hill, hoping to get a spot in the practice’s car park. This is quite contested. To keep non-patients out, the practice has had to hand out passes each day to display on the top of their vehicle’s dashboard. If there is a spot, my beloved parks the car while I nick in to grab a pass. I bring this back to her and retrieve my backpack. Necessary things contained therein are my notebook, and a book to read. If I don’t have the notebook, I just don’t remember anything much of what is said in the appointment. I just sit and read my book until my name is called. 

We have found morning appointments are best; I am usually a bit more alert, and there is less chance of the good doctor running behind. Dr P goes through the results from the blood test. This is usually straightforward; everything is over in about five minutes.  It is strange how, after I get this news, I feel a bit scatty and distracted. I never expect the results to be the same as they were last time, even when they have been good all year, or remember how I feel from one time to the next. We have gone through this cycle eight times this year. In saying this, I am very conscious that everything is the best that it can be.

Every other time I see Dr P, all being well, I have another Zolodex. (This is the estrogen treatment that is keeping the cancer quiet. It is delivered in the form of an implant about the size of a grain of rice.) I just walk up the street from the practice to the Epworth Box Hill oncology ward. One of the nurses there checks the dose, and what side it went in on last time. Then they swab the other side of my tummy, and shove it in. This is one of the situations where being a bit rounded is actually quite a good thing! One of the nurses said that they have to hunt around on really lean patients to find enough fat into which to put the implant. Even with my moderate spare tyre, the injection still leaves a fair size bruise.

Dr P told me to keep up the exercise, which I intend to do. I am about half way through the three months of exercise classes I am doing for the university study; three classes a week for the next six weeks, with a break for Christmas. The classes are all supervised by PhD students in exercise physiology. They are lovely young folk, radiating fitness and endorphins, who implacably raise the bar on us old roosters. The aerobic session I do first has gotten longer, and now features high intensity interval training. (This is where you go flat out for a minute, then ease back to the original speed. I do this three or four times, then have a cool-down.) In the resistance training part, the weights have gotten heavier, and the number of sets has gone from two to three. I am feeling better for it all, and even putting on some muscle.  On Sunday, two days after my last class, I felt restless, and found it hard to concentrate. I think I am getting hooked on this exercise caper!

I have been pondering what to do around the end of January, after the study finishes.  I don’t think I will do three sessions a week on my own dime; two, however, is quite a possibility. Meanwhile, Christmas looms into view again. I had the end-of-year party for the Museum last week. This week there is the party for the physio practice I was going to before starting the university program. The same day there is a coffee morning for former RMIT people; everyone kindly rearranged this from its usual day to accommodate my exercise class. This week we will also be getting a visit from an air-conditioning installer, fortunately the day before a heatwave. We will have gone from fifteen to thirty-eight in the same week, an impressive range even for Melbourne. 

It’s here again …

Yes, folks, my most un-favourite time of year has rolled around again. (Is un-favourite a word? It is now.) I went with my beloved to Chadstone last Saturday. Ay caramba! That was it for me for shopping centres this year. With every bit of Christmas muzak at the supermarket, every lame decoration around signposts down the street — those shiny ones which form a kind of skirt around the pole are new to me — and every inescapable catalogue and promotional email, ghosts of Christmases past are crowding around. I thank Old Harry I no longer have to run the gauntlet of the Salvation Army brass bands at Melbourne Central Station, honking out carols to the bleary commuters, the shaken money tins providing an ad libitum percussion obligato.  

Family Christmases in years gone by were mostly pretty OK. We all got along well enough to avoid it becoming the kind of ordeal, thick with recriminations and the airing of ancient grievances, as portrayed in Absurd person singular by Alan Ayckbourn. (In one act of this play, Eva decides to end it all one Christmas Eve. She is repeatedly interrupted in carrying out this project — when she removes the bulb from its socket in order to electrocute herself, a guest thinks she is trying to change the bulb and insists on doing it himself . Eva then tries to gas herself, at which another guest imagines the former is trying to clean the oven, and shoves her aside to do it herself. You get the picture.)

Christmas as an adult is another matter. To give might be more blessed than to receive,  or however the saying goes, but the giving involves a fair amount of getting. What I really detest, apart from the relentless commercialisation, is the way everyone becomes so tense and aggressive in shops and markets, as they hunt down all the extra stuff they somehow just to have. Boxing Day seems a lot more relaxed. The main event is finished with for another year, and one can start in on the leftovers and thinking about how to regift the unwanted stuff. Christmases these days, however, are pretty cruisy. We take a Kris Kringle and dips and nibbly stuff to one or another of the ever-obliging sisters-in-law. They do all the hard work, and it is just an excuse for a family catch-up. Everyone gets on, just as they did in my family of origin.

Okay, so Christmas is a big soft target, affording many easy laughs and satiric scenarios. How about this for a plan? (I am recycling a suggestion made ages ago by a family member, so props to them. They know who they are.) It would be rather hard lines for the kids not to get presents. But what if the adults skip the presents for one year, pool what they would have spent, and make a big donation to a bushfire appeal? Among our lot, I am happy to do the donating. (I am thinking of the Christmas Drought Appeal, via the Commonwealth Bank. But I am happy to donate to other good causes, as requested.) Family members can reimburse me as and when convenient.

Whatever doesn’t kill you …

I went to see Dr Parente for my six weekly checkup on Monday, and all was as last time; PSA undetectable, everything as it should be. Following this I went to the Epworth Eastern oncology unit for another Zolodex implant; this was delivered with their usual aplomb.

Apologies to my faithful readership for the belated notice! I have, it’s true, become a tad more casual about these appointments: which is not to say that I assume that the good Dr will always deliver this message. Another reason for the radio silence has been that, after a week away, I started as a participant in an ACU study. (Apos also to those to whom this is old news.) The study is looking at the effect of exercise on the mental well-being of advanced prostate cancer patients. To this end, subjects do three exercise classes a week for 12 weeks, a mixture of resistance exercises and cardio. Classes are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; I am almost at the end of week two. The study should conclude around early February. (While this is going on, I have wound down my museum days to one each week.)  

It is too early to say what the effect of this participation is. I was doing a similar exercise class each week for about the last twelve months. Once a week, though, is a different ball game from three times! I have been feeling pretty tired on the off days. There’s no doubt, though, that exercise is a great tranquilizer.  Each class is supervised by an ACU PhD student, all very agreeable young folk, and I often meet the other participant for a coffee beforehand. So the social aspect is a  bonus. I need to watch, though, that I don’t overdo either the exercise or the interaction. As an extraverted introvert, I need to allow myself enough solitary time. Otherwise, I suffer from what I saw aptly described as the introvert hangover: feeling a bit overdrawn at the bank. A little bit of what you fancy does you good, as the saying goes, but more is not always better, and one can have too much of a good thing. Still, it is a good problem to have.

The weather was exceptionally weird last week — much colder than it had been in Hobart — but that seemed to lend itself to doing some more work on my memoir. This is something on which I have been working very intermittently for about a year. As a kind of preview, I am pasting in below the section I wrote last week. It grew out of a memory I had of getting my hair cut in my early teens. I have been trying to capture these little episodic memories to put in italics at the head of a chapter. This one, however, turned into a chapter in its own right.



I am in Sydney, aged somewhere in my early teens, and having a haircut. The place is opposite my first secondary school, North Sydney Technical High School. The hairdresser is maybe in his twenties, and has a British accent. I must have been there before, because he asks “Just the usual today, sir”? I agree; just the usual. We make some banal conversation. I try to act casually, but I feel as though I have suddenly been admitted to some secret society. Is this because someone older than me is calling me sir? Or is it because my preferences have been remembered, as though they matter? Maybe this is what being grown up will be like.

Haircuts signified a lot in the 1960s and 70s. Those with long hair were poofters or troublemakers. Those with crewcuts or shaven heads were army cadets or skinheads. I lined up with the longhairs at North Sydney Tech. There was a fair amount of pushback from the short-haired establishment. In the 1969 film Easy Rider, the redneck who shot Billy asked rhetorically “Why don’t you get your hair cut?”. Fortunately the major hostilities at school were verbal. One of the science teachers used to refer to us as “long-haired louts”. My English teacher used to provide a running commentary on my hair, with remarks such as “It’s getting a bit long, Guy”. A friend of mine was roughed up by older kids at lunchtime for having long hair. (He and I occasionally used to play up to this general hostility by engaging in mock-effeminate dialogues.) Long hair was also associated with being opposed to Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war. A boy with long hair was therefore also a commo. 

As a child, haircuts had required the presence of your father or (humiliatingly) mother. When the high chair was no longer needed, you became qualified to undertake the mission solo. At that time, people who cut your hair were barbers. They were inevitably male, to the extent that this seemed an unspoken requirement for entry into their ranks. When ordered off to get a haircut, a visit to the barber therefore plunged you into an unconsciously masculine world. The chrome and vinyl chairs around the walls were stacked with tatty soft porn magazines like Pix and People. An assistant swept up the loose hair from the vinyl or linoleum floor. Talkback was yet to come, so the radio was tuned to a pop station. Mysterious preparations such as brilliantine and Brylcreem were stacked on the shelves. Scissors were stored in tall jars of some whitish solution. Clippers were suspended from cup hooks screwed into shelves, allowing them to remain plugged in until required. Everything was as functional as a garage. In an industry devoted to maintaining appearances, there was something faintly paradoxical about this.

Communication was by way of signals; a glance from the barber called you to be seated when your turn came. With its padded arms and built-in footrest, the barber’s chair was obviously built for a specific purpose. It only required arm straps and a head clamp to closely resemble those used in American prisons to deliver millions of volts to bad guys. (Electric chairs were a humorous trope in popular culture; Luna Park had a mock-up of one allowing someone to pose as the prisoner and their companion as executioner. A black and white photograph captured my brother and me in these respective roles, both grinning maniacally for the camera.) As a signal that the haircut was imminent, a sort of cloak was flourished around your shoulders, and fastened behind the neck with a press stud. A piece of paper torn from a roll, always with ragged ends, was tucked inside the neck of this garment. (This never prevented a few hairs falling scratchily inside your shirt.) The barber gave a few pumps on a foot pedal to elevate the seat to a convenient height. Then the negotiation began as to how much he should take off. Comb and scissors were wielded on the top and sides, electric clippers on the back of the neck. (At the latter point, the practitioner would push gently on the back of your head to signal that you were to hold it at this angle.) A hand mirror was held up for you to inspect the rear treatment, first on one side, then the other. At the conclusion of the business, a soft brush was used to remove most of the clipped hairs. You had to close your eyes when this implement was whisked across the hairline, eyebrows and nose. Finally the cloak was theatrically whipped off, the corners pinched together to avoid getting the hairs on your trousers or bare legs. The payment was always made in cash. 

Hair was something about which many of my contemporaries were highly conscious. Pocket combs were widely carried; one boy even had a mirror in his inside blazer pocket. Having the wrong haircut attracted ridicule. In fact, having had a recent haircut was a sure fire way of standing out. This was not a good thing in a boy’s school, where the ridicule could well take the form of a few cuffs or punches. Any retaliation in like manner was greeted with shouts of “Fight! Fight!”; everyone nearby would form a circle to encourage the combatants. There were more wrong haircuts than right ones. This was particularly so for members of the army cadets. Warnings were published about sideburns that reached below the top of the ear; these were to be removed on the parade ground with a razor and cold water. (The shame!) The headmaster of the Tech, Mr Hornibrook, was a forbidding character with a crewcut. He was particularly inclined to ask boys with hair any longer than his own whether they needed bobby pins or ribbons. The character forming effects of education thus relied on verbal and occasionally physical abuse. 

As the sixties gave way to the age of Aquarius, hair salons joined the ranks of barber shops. There was much discussion among my contemporaries of the virtues of the former establishments. One favourite was in the Menzies hotel in the city. A surprisingly good one was in the Town Hall station; this was notable for playing the ABC radio. Cuts started to involve initial spritzing of the hair or even a shampoo, finishing with blow drying. Females began to be involved in the administration of these treatments, and even the cutting. (Reflecting on a haircut in my early twenties, I kicked myself to realise that the attractive young lady hairdresser had been attempting to chat me up.) Requests to leave a bit more length, and generally adopt a flattering style, were indulged. Razor cuts started to come in, and sideburns were sported more generally by public figures such as Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam. The porn star moustache began to adorn the faces of sportsmen. Colours and perms were just around the corner.A brand of hairpiece was marketed under the name of the Sir’s Undetectable; this became known in our family as the Sir’s Detectable. The premiere of the musical Hair seemed to signal the end of the macho, uptight, short back and sides era.   

My hair started thinning in my twenties, particularly at the front. What remained mostly fell out during chemotherapy in the later half of 2018. It grew back at the end of that treatment, but the colour became iron grey. Now, when I get up in the morning, and my hair is sticking up at the back like a cocky’s crest, I know it is time for a cut. 

Barber shops have come back in. These recreations seek to revive the untroubled masculinity of simpler times, while offering contemporary styles and treatments such as hair waxes and beard oil. My modest requirements are easily met at an original three chair joint in Camberwell Junction, next to a shoe repair shop in an arcade. My beloved looks quite peeved when I tell her, in mock outrage, that I was charged $22 for a haircut! Her much more elaborate ‘dos cost several multiples of that sum, and take several hours. I can be in and out in twenty minutes; I am now officially low maintenance. All I need to request is a 2 and 3. (The numbers refer to the grade of clipper attachment; 2 all over is a bit severe, so I have a 3 on top.) This has become my new usual. Reassuringly, no-one calls me sir.



Music is one of the biggest things in my life. I need it as much as love. If I don’t listen to about an hour of music each day I get twitchy, and float loose of my mooring somehow. That listening has to be proper listening — not just having it on in the background while I am reading. (Listening while I am cooking or gardening somehow lets more of the music through.)

After nearly fifty years of listening to classical music, I have about seven hundred CDs, and maybe a dozen DVDs and Blu-rays. At a rough calculation, this equates to about 1,000 hours of listening. As if this were not enough, I have also resumed buying vinyl, mostly from op shops. (I bought some from a record fair recently — I drove most of the way, then walked, to limit what I bought to what I could carry back.) I only have a few dozen LPs, and am trying not to buy too many more. When am I going to get to listen to it all? This is particularly the case, considering that what I switch my amplifier to most often is the FM tuner: ABC Classic or 3MBS.

What is it about radio that I find so addictive? For one thing, I love the unexpectedness of it. ABC Classic, in particular, seems determined to keep listeners in the dark about what is to be broadcast. I have had extensive correspondence with them about this, in which I have also bitched about the shortcomings of their web site. The latter comments were acknowledged, and things improved after a lengthy and no doubt hideously expensive redesign. (This was in progress when I began bothering them. There are still, however, plenty of links that lead nowhere.) From this correspondence I learned that their research indicated — I am paraphrasing — publishing music listings on the web site was not a priority for listeners, at least for breakfast or afternoon programs. ABC Classic conceded that there was interest in having advance access to listings for concerts, which are mostly broadcast around midday. The entire programs of a week’s worth of selected midday concerts can therefore, now, be read on the ABC Classic web site.  3MBS-FM, by contrast, publishes a monthly guide for subscribers, available in hard copy or as a .pdf, for $85 a year — including postage for those who select the hard copy. This guide lists almost everything they broadcast in their daytime programming. (Students, concession card holders, musos, and other impecunious folk can subscribe for about $55 a year.)

Both stations, ABC Classic in particular, post programs on their web sites. These can, for a time, be played back on demand. Being the owner of a vintage stereo, this is not a lot of use to me. (I have tried various Rube Goldberg-type arrangements, which work, but the results sound unpleasantly processed.) However, I have progressed from battling ABC Classic about their inscrutability, to embracing this new and austere universe. I have learned to keep an ear out for hints from the more humane presenters, who actually tell the scattered and huddled listening hordes what is coming up. Audiences Australia wide must be keeping an ear out for a hint of a complete symphony or concerto. Quick — put on a coffee and warm up those valves!

But there is also something about radio broadcasting that I have become really attached to. It is the aural equivalent of seeing a film at the cinema. If you watch the movie at home on the DVD player, you see and hear the same program, but the experience is different. Having everyone who is tuned to a particular station listening to the same program at the same time is similarly different. A radio audience is a kind-of community; a special thing in our fragmented times. Being able to send in SMS comments is a great enhancement to this sense of togetherness. Listening to these comments makes you realise that other people like classical music too, and they tune in while doing their gardening, driving tractors and trucks, walking the dog, or just to listen. 

I also love how radio broadcasts can remind you of music that you know, but has gone off your playlist somehow. ABC Classic has copped some stick in this post, but props to them for playing big chunks of Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, and even Wagner, amidst the everlasting Mozart. (Just not the Clarinet Concerto again, please! For about six months! And enough of the Mannheim School already.) Further kudos are deserved for giving Australian composers past and present, and local ensembles and performers, a platform. There is more music out there than one can ever hear, just as there is sitting on my study shelves. But the familiar galaxies and constellations are not dimmed by new stars.

Librarian chic

The Nine Publishing Good Weekend papers that came out last Saturday featured a story about libraries. It was a good read, with a number of personal interest stories. Any librarian, past or present, who objects to that story must be a curmudgeon, right? Well, count me in — to a point.

There was a lot to like about the story. Props to Jane Cadzow for wanting to write something positive about the institution which is a synonym for dowdy and boring. It was only recently that I saw an outfit of (I think) skirt and jumper described as “librarian chic”. Actually, I have just had a through-the-looking-glass moment when Googling this phrase. There was an entire session devoted to exploring “librarian chic” at the IFLA conference last year in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not making it up, you know! Here is the session abstract: 

“Have you ever made a quick judgement about someone because of what they’re wearing? Sure, we have all done it. Does this mean that the way we dress at work influences how we are perceived and categorized in society?
The topic of Librarian Fashion opens a myriad of questions: Should librarians wear a uniform? Can we wear tattoos? Should we dress with dignity – and what does dignity mean? What about piercings? Jewels? Religious or political symbols? Does it depend on a personal choice, on the country we live in, or on the position we hold in the library? Should a library director dress like a librarian or like a director? Do you believe in enclothed cognition?”

Go to the conference web page, scroll down to session 142 — it’s near the top — and click on it. Six papers are supposedly in English (I haven’t checked this out — no pun intended).

Dragging myself back to the Good Weekend article, the author set a few hares running, but failed to follow them to their burrows. Take the quote from Michael Moore about librarians being dangerous revolutionaries. This was just plonked out there with no explanation, for shock value. (Those nice librarians, dangerous! Ooh!) But what makes librarians dangerous? Providing books and other materials that are communally owned, for people to take home in an orderly way, is actually quite an anarchistic thing to do. It would be much more profitable for publishers if all of us had to buy our own copy. This arrangement would probably be better for authors too. (The Australian Lending Right schemes are intended to compensate authors for sale income that they have lost because libraries have been lending out their books. But that’s a story for another time.)

The article stressed the egalitarian nature of public libraries, which of course is all well and good. The same applies to university libraries — everyone is supposedly equal at the enquiries desk, whether they are an undergraduate or the vice chancellor. Partners in a law firm, however, definitely get preferential treatment over the paralegals and other lesser breeds. I remember hearing a law librarian, at a conference explaining how she had learned the art of the “elevator pitch”, in case she came to share the lift with a partner. Hold the boring memos requesting funding — just front them directly! Requests from those who make funding decisions tend to get priority.

Egalitarianism is a fellow traveller with co-operation, and libraries are intrinsically co-operative institutions. If your local library doesn’t hold a book (or whatever) in its collection, staff will get hold of it from another library via the inter-library loan system. (There may be a charge to the end-user for this service.) In Australia, this is facilitated by Libraries Australia, which is a kind of national union catalogue. The co-operative ethos of all this obviously runs contrary to that of free market capitalism.

This kumbaya stuff has its limits, though. It’s stretching the point, as the article does, to say that borrowing books from a library is something that “runs on trust”. There is no covenant without the sword, and libraries have fines for late return. (Some librarians, as the article pointed out, think these should be done away with.) Library fines these days are fairly nuanced in their application. It is a well kept secret that in many cases, if books are returned one or two days overdue, a fine will mostly not be levied. This is based on research that found that most delinquent loans are returned soon after an overdue notice is issued. Lose a book, though, and you have to pay the purchase cost, plus a processing fee. (This happened to me, after I left a library book that I took on holidays, and left in the pouch in front of my airplane seat. After calls to the airline lost property didn’t get it back, I just went to my local branch and ‘fessed up. Oh yes, I’ve done that, said the librarian who processed my payment.) Don’t just hope the library will forget about it, though: you might have to pay the accrued overdue fines as well!

The article, as the author acknowledged, only looked at municipal or public libraries. It is encouraging to read that these are doing well, in Australia at least. Of course, libraries come in many other flavours. Universities and higher education institutions largely still have them. Ditto for schools, law firms, museums, government departments, and research institutes — the last four coming under the umbrella term of special libraries. I suspect newspaper libraries are a thing of the past, along with many other special libraries. Survivors are under threat from managerial types who think that everything is now freely available, in full text, on the web, so what do we need libraries and librarians for? (This ignores the question as to why publishers have suddenly become philanthropists, happy to give content away online that they charge for in hard copy.)

Special library work allows staff to acquire expertise in the topics featured  in the collection. This expertise is a bit like topsoil — slow to form, easily lost. Its loss is one of the worst aspects of the closure of special libraries. Collections that have been painstakingly built up are also scattered to the four winds. With luck, a library somewhere else in the world will have these titles. If it is a back run of a really specialised journal, however, it is probably only available in hard copy. Articles and conference papers can be tough to get hold of; most libraries don’t lend these materials out. If it is available in a database, libraries which have a subscription are often forbidden by their user licences from using the database to fulfil interlibrary loan requests. The more specialized the request, the harder it is to fulfil, and the really out-of-the-way stuff can only be delivered by a librarian who knows the nooks and crannies of that topic area. Just hope that one of those is on your case!

Politicians are happy to bang on about the knowledge economy. The special library, however, continues on the endangered list. This is particularly the case in a place like Australia, where managers are rewarded for closing down expensive and outwardly unproductive things like libraries. So, yes, celebrate your local library! Use it or lose it! Would you rather have that, or Amazon?