One of Sydney’s most underrated treasures: our incredible libraries

The Mitchell Reading Room is one of numerous impressive public spaces within the State Library of NSW. Photo: The State Library of New South Wales/Facebook.

In the course of his journalism career and while writing his first book, Gary Nunn has utilised many of Sydney’s public libraries. We’re lucky to have some of the best in the world, writes the London-born Sydneysider.

In one of my healthier lifetime obsessions, I have, in recent years, found myself becoming borderline fanatical about public libraries.

And I’ve come to appreciate that Sydney has some of the best in the world, each with its own unique character and vibe.

Did you know, for example, that the Double Bay Library has a secret slide that transports you between floors? 

It has a clandestine little door, which opens up onto a slide hidden within the structure of the library, so many visitors don’t realise it’s there. And in a wonderful piece of library quirk, the slide only currently opens for two hours a day: one in the morning; one in the afternoon.

Libraries like Double Bay stay open all the way till 8 pm.

For a freelance journalist like myself, this is the equivalent of being granted entry to the Berghain; a building full of awe and wonder, which shuts later than you imagined possible.

Rather than fork out hundreds of dollars a week for a co-working space where the fridge reeks and people get inordinately excited by ping pong, I get to work somewhere quiet and peaceful, with ample plug sockets and free WiFi. Membership is also free and entitles me to book private rooms to conduct phone calls and interviews. This, my friends, is why I pay my taxes. 

I can write surrounded by books, inspired by the osmosis. The library is where I wrote my own book. And many contain exhibitions or displays which provide both intellectual nourishment and a welcome respite from my laptop screen.

Children returning books at the stunning Double Bay Library. Photo: Woollahra Libraries/Facebook.

We have it good here

Libraries are, as Neil Gaiman once said, “one of the few remaining public spaces where you’re allowed to exist without the expectation of spending any money”.

One of the ironies of my personal library love is that I’m an avowed Kindle reader. In spite of this potential threat, libraries – in Sydney at least – continue to thrive, pivoting to places where people can read online, in addition to hiring books.

“Sydney’s libraries are unlike any I saw growing up in Britain, which were mostly dingy, unremarkable, cold and somewhat forgotten.”

– Gary Nunn

It’s not the case everywhere. A 2019 report found that Tory austerity saw the closure of almost a fifth of the UK’s libraries – nearly 800 of them.

We have it good here. A recent post from the City of Sydney reminded us that our libraries are great for rainy days, a boon in this La Niña year.

As the UK closes libraries, we’re opening them in Sydney. And they look unlike any library I saw growing up in Britain, which were mostly dingy, unremarkable, cold and somewhat forgotten buildings.

Darling Square Library “looks like looks like a cross between an exotic bird’s nest and a giant circular water slide covered in kindling”, writes Gary Nunn. Photo: Aspect Studios.

Sydney glamour and sparkle

Sydney has turned on its trademark glitz for two of its newest. 

Green Square Library is an architectural wonder, with half the library underground and the other half jutting above ground in different places and in different geometric shapes, as if some modern submerged palace. Each floor of its six-storey glass tower contains a surprise, such as a baby grand for hire. This one is a hub of connection, particularly for families with younger children, but also for musicians, writers, readers, creatives and all community members of one of Australia’s biggest, fastest-growing, urban precincts

The rainbow wall at the Green Square Library is not only bright and colourful, but very Instagram-worthy. Photo: trentvanderjagt/Facebook.

Then there’s the other new kid on the block: Darling Square Library. It looks like a cross between an exotic bird’s nest and a giant circular water slide covered in kindling; a beautifully unique creation that adds gravitas and aplomb to Darling Harbour. 

Kings Cross Library – temporarily closed whilst it has its floors redone – is an oasis of calm on one of the city’s most frenetic streets, its top floor filled with light and containing nooks in which to get comfortably lost. 

Surry Hills Library has those five coveted bar stools where you can watch the world go by on Crown Street as you work. Even if you don’t, the wonder of its glass façade filled with flora is enough to inspire you as you work, read or rest. 

The Surry Hills Library is filled with flora. File photo.

You can also disappear into the understated debonair environs of the Customs House Library Reading Room, with its view of the Harbour Bridge from the window befitting of the classics.

But none of these truly compare to the State Library of NSW, a building which I could write 1,000 words about alone. It outshines any public building I can think of. It’s my paradise, my spiritual home. Every time I walk through that grandiose entrance into the extravagant yet classy splendour that is the Mitchell Reading Room, I sigh a happy sigh. 

The library itself is a metaphor for all libraries; a microcosm of both the past and the future of the institution, for it contains two wings: one young and one old.

With its sophisticated design, the Mitchell Reading Room at the State Library of NSW is a popular destination for book lovers and writers. Photo: WINYA/Facebook.

The older wing is the Mitchell Reading Room, where the ingenious idea of having the books floor-to-ceiling around the circumference of the gorgeous hallowed room, rather than in rows through the middle, gives you a sense of occasion and heft. It’s as sacred as any church: quiet, full of contemplation and complete with stained glass windows. All hot drinks, food and anything except water and the faintest whisper, are banned – enforced by security guards who thrive on calling out contraventions.

Then there’s the modern part, the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room, which has its own computers, for those who can’t afford one, and allows in hot drinks or cans. It’s symbolic of the evolution of libraries. 

The State Library is evolving: it recently opened a stunning rooftop bar, which opens from Wednesdays onwards. Premier Dominic Perrottet has been spotted there sipping wine and discussing matters of importance as the sun. A grand piano was crane-lifted inside.

The State Library of NSW now has a rooftop bar, featuring panoramic views of The Domain and Sydney Harbour. Photo: Yusuke Oba.

Now, an underground 500-person auditorium is being built, making this elegant, warren-like building even more excitingly delicious. 

Not everyone, though, has afforded our libraries the respect they deserve. 

In a now-notorious piece for The Sydney Morning Herald, which I can barely believe was commissioned, Mandy Sayer, who describes herself as a “good Catholic girl”, attacked all of the wonderfully diverse characters you find in these, our public libraries. 

“No, we’re not in a psychiatric unit or a Centrelink office, but on the first floor of my local library,” she harrumphs upon seeing “a man in filthy jeans and t-shirt reclining on a couch, [where I] am suddenly hit by the ammoniac stench of stale piss”.

She goes on to complain about an “overweight man [who] huffs down beside me, also reeking of stale piss”. 

“He presses a few buttons and is soon watching an Abbott and Costello clip on YouTube. Fortunately, he is wearing a headset and I can only hear his roars of intermittent laughter,” she writes. 

“But then his laughter sets off coughing and sneezing fits and he keeps wiping snot from his upper lip with his fingers, and returning them to the computer keys.”

There’s only one smell worse than stale piss, and that’s the stench of superiority.

A society that creates buildings that make me catch my breath with awe – then welcomes all stratas of society into them, whether homeless and uneducated or even illiterate – is the kind of society I want to live in. Not one that sneers at people less privileged, who may have nowhere else safe to go, or who come to the library to improve their cultural understanding and literacy.

Libraries are for everyone, no matter what class they’re from, whether they own their own home or what clothes they can afford.

Described as “a big, generous, open plaza”, the Green Square Library is a popular destination for residents and workers in the burgeoning Green Square urban development precinct. Video: INDESIGN/YouTube.

He always makes me smile

In the State Library, one long-haired, bearded man with a huge backpack and another carry bag, sits in the same seat daily.

Every now and then he lets out a wild howl of laughter which echoes across ancient books, reverberates from the stained glass windows and elicits a “shooosh!” from the librarian. 

It always makes me smile. 

Even in my oasis of calm, order, seriousness and quiet, this man – part of my local community – reminds me every day that libraries are places of pure joy. 

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney SentinelTwitter: @garynunn1.

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