Photo of Don Watson, Marion Halligan, and Omar Musa.
Recording date:

As part of their 25th anniversary celebrations, the Friends of the National Library of Australia invited several of Australia's best writers to speak about why supporting libraries is important and why libraries matter to them personally.

Speakers include writers Don Watson (Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language; Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: a portrait of Paul Keating PM), Marion Halligan (Lovers' Knots: A Hundred-Year Novel; Goodbye Sweetheart), and poet/rapper/writer Omar Musa (Here Come The Dogs; Parang).

Audio transcript for Inspiration and Information: Why Libraries Matter

Speakers: Dennis Pearce (MC), Don Watson (D), Marion Halligan (M), Omar Musa (O), Robyn Oates (R), Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (A)

Location: National Library of Australia, Canberra

Date: 17/0420/15

MC:     Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome, welcome, coming out on a most unusual event of a wet night in Canberra, isn’t it? My name is Dennis Pearce and I’m a member of the Friends of the National Library Executive Committee and it’s my lot tonight to try to keep the things running and in order. On this really significant moment in the life of the Friends of the National Library. Twenty-fifth anniversary is something really quite remarkable and worthy of celebration, I think. Few of this type of organisation have this sort of longevity. And we like to think that Friends have become an integral part of the National Library which is a really great Australian institution. But I’d like to give you a quote from an earlier era. This is from Copenhagen in 1813 when they’d just been bombed to bits during the course of the Napoleonic wars and the ... there was a proposal from the Minister of Finance, and you’ll see that Ministers of Finance haven’t changed much in 200 or so years, and his proposal was to cut the spending for ... of an equivalent body to the National Library. And the President of that body said we may be poor and wretched but if we are to be stupid too we may as well cease to be a state. It’s got a certain ring about it that’s still current, hasn’t it? Disturbingly. Now the Library needs friends for just that sort of reason and all the friends that it can get and the Chair of the Friends Committee, Robyn Oates, will talk to you about the Friends’ contribution to the Library over the years. That’s ... be a little later on this evening but to be able to continue the role that the Friends have followed up until now we need more friends. The more friends we have the better because the Friends’ membership fees are about the primary and almost only source of funding that Friends of the Library can depend upon. And so what I’d like to persuade you to do is to find a friend of yours, small F friend, and persuade them to become a Friend of the Library because there is strength in numbers.

Now we wondered, that’s the Friends’ Committee, wondered how best to mark this 25th anniversary of the Friends. It seemed obvious that we should make a gift to the Library and Robyn will be talking about that shortly and we thought we should also have a party, I mean every 25th anniversary warrants a party, but we thought it should be a Friends type party, not just an ordinary party where you stand around and talk and drink and eat although we think perhaps it would be good if we did that too. But we thought it should be a party in our more traditional format where there was some intellectual stimulation first. And so we have tonight three distinguished guests to talk about what libraries mean to them. They’re three people from diverse backgrounds and interests, Don Watson, Marion Halligan and Omar Musar. Each will speak and then Robyn will say some words about the Friends over the years and talk about the presentation and then the Director General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, will conclude the formal side of the evening. Now these three speakers are classically of the ... you don’t need ... needed ... they don’t need any introducin ... any introduction to a gathering like this but I will say something about them because they’re great people and one tends to .. can easily overlook the contribution they have made.

Our first speaker will be Don Watson. His account of his time as Paul Keating’s speechwriter, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, which won several awards is perhaps what he’s best known for and even though that destroyed his friendship with Paul Keating it’s still one of the significant books of political writing in Australian history. But he’s then written many other books but most notably perhaps the one called The Decay ... Death Sentence, the Decay of Public Language and that makes it always a bit frightening to speak in front of Don because you just wonder if you said the right words at the right time and in the right way. So that’s a test. And Don has also written for stage and screen, most interestingly perhaps the ... for that feature film, The Man Who Sued God with ... which starred Billy Connolly and Judy Davis and if you didn’t see it you should try, it’s wonderful. His most recent book, The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia, was published last year and in that book Don invites readers to ponder the bush and its place in the story of Australia and Australians, both indigenous and post-1788 arrivals and their descendants, of those of the past and those of today. So I have much pleasure in inviting Don Watson to talk about his thoughts on libraries.

D:        Thank you very much. Not a trace of management speak there so nothing to worry about. It’s an unusual sort of honour to be here next to a patriotic bouquet and makes me feel terribly Australian for a change. I realise when you were speaking that I’ve been coming to the National Library nearer to 50 years than 25 years so that’s a ... I don’t thank you for that. I had a friend once who worked in the State Library of Victoria when you got a book by filling out a call slip and putting in a box which was picked up if you were lucky by a grey ... an attendant, usually a man, who was a different kind of man after lunch generally, it was best to get your slips in before lunch. Either that or join him ... who wore a grey dustcoat and would disappear into the stacks and return via a spiral staircase calling out the name of the book from your call slip. I made the mistake of once ordering Katherine Susanna Pritchard’s Why I Am A Communist. And I got one of the more articulate and ironic members of the grey dust-coated tribe who called out Why I Am A Communist. Why am I a Communist? He said. I’m not a Communist, I’m not a Communist, he said. And anyway this friend of mine worked there for a while and ... when he was young in a grey dustcoat ... and he went on to become the Mayor of Dunkeld so his word is to be taken seriously. And he said that one of the unknown facts about working in the stacks of a great library is there is a sort of ... he said it’s a seat of simmering romantic tension. He didn’t know why but he said there was this enormous energy which after the late patron had left the domed reading room, the last patron had gone, exploded in a sort of volcanic torrent of lust all through the stacks, he said. And I said he became the Mayor of Dunkeld and I think we shouldn't discount that. Anyway there are strange energies in libraries which I think we should take account of. I’ll come to that in a moment.

But the State Library of Victoria was my .. has been my library, I suppose, over a long while but I remember it ... I was just saying to Anne-Marie you know without wishing to sound at all curmudgeonly or steeped in regret for days gone by but I ... these were days when attendants did wear grey dustcoats and attendees generally wore gabardine overcoats, the homeless and the well-heeled alike who went in there for shelter. And they ... there was a smell to it, a sort of damp smell for three or four months of the year and damp gabardine in Melbourne, damp scarves and dampness. It was before central heating which I think killed off a lot of that sexual energy that I was talking about before. And anyway the ... there were days when libraries did probably more than any other institution in a city, defined the city where they were sited. And I think you know if you went into the La Trobe Reading Room in Melbourne you would see everyone from Geoffrey Searle and his various ... I was going to say clones but Jim Davidson used to call ... he had a word Searlish which was ... which he said described a lot of Victorians, particularly historians of that generation. And you know so you could either be Hawthorn or you could be as I said homeless and there was a man in there who used to everyday come in and with incredible freneticism trace his finger across whatever he’d taken out of the stacks and utter great exclamations of discovery every five minutes or so. Ah ha, he’d say you know and you’d .. if you’d snuck around and looked at what he was doing he was just looking at print, there was nothing going on there at all but he was having a marvellous time. And making the rest of us jealous as we weren’t having those sorts of discoveries, I suppose. But anyway that was ... the La Trobe was quintessentially Melbourne with Reddin Barry out the front with pigeon crap all over his head you know which they would clean off every three or four years. And now it swarms where once you know you really had it to yourself and a few others, it now swarms with students, it’s part of the great sort of educational precinct of Melbourne University and RMIT.

A lot of stuff goes on in there, one habitué of the place which was around when I first went there tells me that a lot of money changes hands, he says in the library, selling essays goes on there a lot you know solving maths problems, thank you very much. Anyway I don’t know about that, I’ve never watched it. But I remember not ... at one point I went to Scotland and the Glasgow ... the Mitchell Library in Glasgow is a marvellous place. And in a way defined by its own dysfunction, how marvellous libraries can be. Glasgow then was a dysfunctional city in every sense, a violent and unpleasant place for the most part and if you went into the Mitchell ... everyone seemed to be as drunk as they were at the football match including the grey dust-coated attendants. And you never knew what you were going to get as though you could order a pamphlet by Cobden on free trade and get one by Cobbit on immigration and that was probably ... that was probably closer than normal, you know. But this was the point, that actually because you weren’t getting what you actually asked for very often you followed different you know you traced different paths into the past and you ... and I have made much use of Cobbit’s essay on immigration, it’s stuck with me forever. And I’m still vague about free trade but ... and haven’t made up my mind actually. But anyway so there was that sort of Glasgow one and then over ... just only 40 miles away in Edinburgh basically, a half-hour train ride, there was an entirely different set of standards. The first thing that they said to you when you entered the Scottish National Library was that the public library was across the road meaning that you didn’t look up to scratch, you know. Very Anglophile place, Edinburgh, in those days. And you’d have to present your credentials whereupon they would tug every forelock within range and treat you like a king until the next day when they’d forgotten who you were and life was back to normal and you were meant to go to the public library. So there were these sorts of places and then I went to the ... I remember going to the Library of Congress and immediately wanting to emigrate to America where the standards of service were just extraordinary and you were treated royally.

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about in this except that I mean libraries ... you can say this much about a library when it works well. Whether it’s working well dysfunctionally or functionally it is a sort of ... an immersive experience from which you always emerge changed. It’s not only that you gather knowledge which may turn you into more of a know-all than you already are or someone genuinely learned, it’s just that we ... if you go into a library you go knowing that if it’s a good day a different person will come out of it. That sounds perhaps exaggerated but I think it’s actually true. And there’s no other institution anywhere in any city that does that. And how anyone can you know discount the values ... the value of libraries just seems extraordinary. They obviously have never been into one. And I think that it’s not only that it ... I know that there have been all sorts of systems and libraries and changed dramatically and ... over the last 20 years or so so that I hardly recognise the State Library anymore and I ... one of the things that’s gone from them is silence. People seem to talk all the time there whereas once you just sort of didn’t dare speak above a whisper. I don’t know that it matters that much, you can work with noise. But it’s just one of the changes.

And if the stuff’s good well it’ll change you anyway. But I do think that it would be a great pity to lose ... well it’s a great pity to lose libraries. If you go ... travel around you know regional United States all those Carnegie libraries that were built, all these beautiful generally art deco buildings in what used to be towns of 60 or 70,000 people are generally not inhabited anymore but they are by people who have no interest in libraries at all. They’ve just gone. Which is a sad thing but then so is most of the downtown of all these cities so everything’s gone, really, they’ve been mauled. Be awful if that sort of thing happened here and I don’t think it is. But it’s worth looking at what libraries used to be like, I think, and have some experience of how libraries work often in ways as I said sort of alietary [? 17:38] ways that lead you down paths you didn’t intend to go. And even to consider the ... what my old friend said was the tremendous reservoir of sexual tension in libraries only to remember that y ... when you alter the place, when you modernise the place, when you change the way it all works, you shouldn’t throw everything, every baby out with it. There are other things that can probably be kept by ... with very little effort. Just make sure you don’t cut the tendons as well as you know a few pounds of flesh off with the place because they have ways of working which are not immediately knowledgeab ... visible and don’t really give in to management theory. They actually defy it. And I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea even in this national library which used to be new when I first came here, to sort of have a kind of working museum with museum pieces like myself and others to work in there, you know, just to get the feel of the place again and bring us the wrong books from time to time and go back to the ... let the ... let us work on the Dewey system again for a while. So that we actually know that if a card’s missing the card’s missing, it doesn’t mean that it might be missing or it might not be missing.

And ... I mean it was one of the greatest privilege ... I’m going to get off now you know to actually read newspapers in hard copy was the most .. I was just old enough to do it before they put it all on microfiche. ‘Cause if you read it on microfiche you’re never sure that you haven’t missed something but if you read you know 10 years of The Melbourne Herald, not one of the world’s great newspapers, but nevertheless often you would find what you most needed in what you weren’t looking for if you can understand what I’m talking about. And these things you know cement themselves in your head in a way that ... well I still remember headlines from The Melbourne Herald of 1934 or something and it gave me an insight into ... well it prises your imagination open and actually that’s what changes you, it forces you to sort of think about what actually might be going on in a way that that sort of pedestrian I’m looking for that, I’m looking for that doesn’t do. So I mean my advice, which I’m sure Anne-Marie will welcome enormously, is to you know to keep a little bit of the old thing alive so that we can sort of poke around in there and see what happens. When we’re dead you can do what you like but tell them.

MC:     Thank you, Don, for those reminiscences. Made me remember when I was very nearly thrown out of the State Library of Publi ... of South Australia for making noise. Ooh, they were the days, weren’t they? Our next speaker is Marion Halligan. Now if ... Marion is just one of those people about whom Canberra knows, she writes and writes some more and then writes again and it just keeps on coming. And it’s all wonderful. Her most recent book was published only last month, that’s Goodbye, Sweetheart and was launched this week by Carmel Burt and we got Carmel here tonight, welcome. But Marion of course has not just written, Marion has made a huge contribution to literature in Australia because she’s been Chairperson of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and Chairperson of the Australia National Word Festival which are two you know really magnificent contributions to literature in Australia and as a result of that and not surprisingly she was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2006. Marion was on the very first committee of the Friends of the National Library and she served on that beyond her allotted time because they didn’t know that they were supposed to stop after three years and so everything that was done for two years was invalid. That probably didn’t matter very much, really, yeah. Now may I introduce ... welcome Marion Halligan.

M:        Yes, that was certainly a good time, the original ... the original Friends and in fact if somebody hadn’t actually happened to look at whatever it is, the standing orders or the regulations or whatever we’d probably still be there because we’d settled in happily and were doing things and then suddenly somebody said we’re only supposed to be here for three years and so we hastily all retired. I don’t know what happened in that two years that was illegal but it seemed to cope. Was a great pleasure to be a member of that inaugural Friends. I remember Warren Horton asking me would I do it? And I thought oh that’s interesting, yes, I’d like to do that because I’ve been a great fan of libraries for a very long time. I grew up in Newcastle and I used to take the tram to the children’s library, not dead certain what year trams finished but I think it was about 1947 and I used to go down Derby Street and you’d get off and there were demountables that were used for the children’s library, a lot of books in it. The librarians were very fierce people and look at you very crossly. You had two cards, you had a pink one and a blue one and on the pink one you could take out fiction, on the blue one you could take out nonfiction. On the pink one you could take out nonfiction too but ... so you could take out two nonfiction books but you couldn’t take out two fiction books which irritated me like mad, I didn’t want to read nonfiction, I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in nonfiction, I wanted to read stories, novels, that kind of thing.

But I did work out a way of subverting which was great fun because under nonfiction were all the fairy books, all the Grimm, Hans Andersen, the Andrew Lang coloured books. Remember those? The red fairy book, the blue fairy book, the yellow fairy book, things like the twin stories, remember the Finnish twins or the Chinese twins? They were all a bit moral, those books, the twins books were but I also had a go at various accounts of ... things like Ian Idris but I found those a bit dull, no, I didn’t like those. It was fiction that I wanted and stories and I had a wonderful time doing it. It’s kind of an interesting little kind of peephole into a world because when I say the trams stopped about 1947 and I was going on the tram on my own as an extremely small child. I’ve got a six-year-old granddaughter and the idea of sending her anywhere on public transport around the place is just something that nobody would ever think about. It was a different world when you could do that. So off we went and into our demountable. I remember one day ... I was a bit older by this time, perhaps 11 or 12 ... I got a book out and it was a very interesting book and I loved reading it and I went back and said to the librarian have you got any more books by this writer? I can’t remember who it was now which is very bad but it is a very long time ago. And she said oh I don’t know, I don’t think so, no, why? And I said oh it was a very good book, I said, I think it might be actually from the adult library. Well, talk about, you know, child of Satan. There I was wanting to read adult books. What ... she actually told me off at great length that this was very improper, I was a child and I was going to read children’s books from the children’s library. But somebody got a good idea shortly after that and said children could go to the adult library and I remember getting a book out and my father looking at it and saying "mmm" and then he read it ‘cause he used to go to the library and take out a stack of books every week, could take as many books as you wanted, really and so he came and looked at this book and said oh I don’t think you should be reading this book and I said oh don’t you? Alright, I said, I’ll take it back to the library and I did. What I didn’t tell him was that I’d already read it. I knew why  he was saying I shouldn’t read it, it was full of rather weird sex. But I didn’t let on that he wasn’t saving me from this unfortunate setup.

 But ... so libraries have always been part of my life and when I came to Canberra and decided to try to turn myself into a writer it was the National Library that I came to and I thought I’d read you a few bits from this book called The Golden Dress where I did the research in the Petherick Room to find out what I wanted. The bit that I’m going to talk about is to do with two boys who are about 12, I think, or so and they’re doing ... or perhaps a bit younger and they’re doing a project at school about sharks. So in order to do ... have my boys do this project I had to do a project at the National Library about sharks. The two boys are called Ray and Step. After school on Monday they went to the library and there were certainly some good books about sharks. There was one about the great white shark, a picture full of dark blue water and in it a great pale rearing shape. When you looked carefully down in one corner was a small black figure of a diver. The captain said the swift, smooth passing of death itself smiling his joyless smile. Isn’t that good? Then of course the boys find a bit about what sharks have inside him. They get another book. It talked about a shark caught at Bondi which had inside it a full grown spaniel complete with collar as well as some seabirds, the skull of a porpoise and a whole lot of fish. Another had half a boxer dog in its stomach, the head and front legs with a rope tied ‘round its neck as well as some ham and legs of lamb and horseflesh. Another had three overcoats, a nylon raincoat and a driver’s licence. Do you think the overcoats used to have people in them? Asked Ray. But the book didn’t say. That was good, wasn’t it? I like that.

Of course the reason I wanted to find out about sharks was that growing up at Merriweather which is about 100m or so from the beach I was very aware of sharks because you could hear the shark alarm from our house that would sound and it was a very mournful sound and very frightening because everybody’d have to rush out of the water when the shark alarm sounded and you imagine people being taken by sharks and in fact a boy was taken by a shark I think in the ‘50s. And we used to go to the Dixon Park Surf Lifesaving Club when I went back to Newcastle with small children and visited my friends, we’d go and have fish and chips for lunch. The kids used to love that and there was a big plaque in the foyer of this place in memory of a boy who was taken by a shark and so I wanted that to put in my novel and I found a book in the library that had an account of this. The alarm sound and the left behind racers faltered, trod water then turned back. Behind the place where Step had disappeared a wave began its lift towards the shore and the watchers saw it rise in a trembling green crest and at that moment, that angle, the sun shone through it and silhouetted the body of Step in the mouth of a shark. The shark’s long pale body and Step’s held in its jaws inside the wave, tall and shimmering, translucent as a vast glass marble. For a second the shape of them looked like a hammerhead, people might have persuaded themselves for a moment that it was a hammerhead and the boy nowhere to be seen, free of it, escaped. But even as they hoped they knew it wasn’t true, the boy and the shark hung there in the luminous green water for another moment then the wave turned and they disappeared from view. Well Ray goes out on a surfboard and tries to rescue Step but he fails. He was ... he’s still alive when they get him to shore but they ... he dies. They wrapped him in a blanket and the doctor says don’t do that, the warmth doesn’t help, better to keep him cool, let the body shut down.

Statistically said the newspaper, and I found this in the library, that account was exactly in a book, the greenness of the wave and all that. You know as a writer I imagine things but if I find something really good that somebody else has imagined for me I just pinch it. Statistically, said the newspaper after its detailed account of the carnival shark attack strategy, statistically it might seem odd that a shark should attack on a sparkling sunny day given their supposed predilection for overcast skies and sluggish waters but it seems that carnivals, regattas or surf races attract sharks like dogs to a circus and not all attend to watch the races. Nevertheless, the article went on, it should be pointed out that more people are struck by lightning than die from shark attack, more people are killed by spiders, more die on the roads in one month than in 200 years at the teeth of sharks. You’ve got better odds of winning first prize of the 130 lotteries in the country than to suffer death by a shark. So you can see what fabulous things you can find in the library if you want to go searching for them.

In fact after my husband died and you know I’ve sort of lived in Canberra for a long time now and had often thought of going back to Newcastle and I thought perhaps this is the time to go back and live by the sea and I thought no, I’d have to leave the National Library behind, I like living in the same town as the National Library so I think I’d better stay here. I think that’s probably enough from me on the subject of libraries. I could go on and on and on but I won’t, just to say that they are wonderful things and we need them and there’s so much to be found in them. Google’s quite a handy thing, you can Google things but somehow getting things in a library and looking at them like that, there’s nothing to be beat it. We were just recalling how Gough Whitlam used to come and talk to us at the library and he’d always, whatever his speech was, and he gave very many, very different speeches, he’d always mention the fact that the Library’s proportions weren’t classically Greek, they didn’t get it right, he’d always tell us about that and everybody’d be sitting there and thinking oh yeah, there’s the bit about the proportions not being right. Considering I heard it so often I don’t remember it in much detail but there you are. But I don’t think that alters the fact that the Library is so very close to our hearts. Thank you very much.

MC:     Thank you, Marion, and do keep coming back, we need you. One ... there is a tendency of course particularly of people who are a little ... of a certain age to think of libraries only in terms of their books and that’s all they’re for and that’s all they’ve got but of course the collection here is vast and covers a whole array of items beyond the standard book format. And it was that wider role of the library which induced the Friends last year to make a grant to the Library for the creation of a creative arts fellowship because we could see that it was desirable to broaden the range of people who could use and could be encouraged to use the facilities of this wonderful institution. And it’s against that sort of background that our third speaker should be introduced because Omar Musa is a poet, a rapper and a writer, and not many of us can think in terms of having that array of attributes, I just think it’s wonderful. Omar has won the Australian Poetry Slam that was in 2009 and then he was the winner of the ... if my notes will come to their rightful place ... the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam which sounds fascinating just in its very title. He’s released three hip-hop albums and two poetry books and in 2014 he ... his debut novel, Here Comes the Dogs, was published which I notice is there for sale over in the bookshop and the remarkable thing is that that’s been included on the long list for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award. And not being content with that Omar’s currently working on a play called The Bone Gatherer. So Omar, thank you.

O:        Thank you, thank you all for having me, it’s very good to be here. I’ve got very fond memories of this library. I won my first ever poetry slam here that led to me getting ... finding a career as a writer travelling the world and then leading me into the literary scene and writing a novel. So firstly I think it’s really important that I acknowledge the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people on whose land we stand today. When I was researching my book in Queanbeyan City Library I did a lot of research into the history of this region and I saw very vividly that it’s a lad which resonates with feasts and corroborees, meetings such as this, of mind and spirit and soul, of painting and story, of axe-making and resilience. The local people looked after this land and continue to look after this land with a combination of care, creativity and effort, a library within the people and a library within the land. There are countless good quotes about libraries, one of them’s already been said today from Copenhagen but one I particularly like is by the audacious scapegrace that is Germaine Greer and it says something to the effect that a library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity. And to Don’s point before, maybe there are reservoirs of sexual feeling going on because I actually know a bloke who lost both his innocence and his virginity here in the National Library of Australia. I won’t tell you where, I won’t tell you what room but next time you peruse the magazines or get yourself a latte or you’re reading a book on pre-Copernican astronomy think of that.

So of course the library’s primary function is not as a venue for such salacious activity despite the fantasy of numerous schoolboys and amateur pornographers and small town mayors as well, however I do think that a library is a safe space for thought that is as unruly, resistant and dangerous or as serene, soothing and contemplative as one wants it to be here.

So here I’m going to be a bit wanky and paraphrase Flaubert and say that a library is the type of orderly regular space that allows our art and our thinking to be violent and original. And so I guess as clichéd as hell to say but a library is a place where you can grow wings, you can travel the world in a room even as small as a dozen square metres. In fact sometimes when I go into a library, which I do wherever I travel, and I walk down a narrow row of books running my hands over their spines, it is as if I’m moving down the streets of a magnificent city. I always kind of perceive it as such where our world has been reconfigured in some way so that every single window holds within it a very ... a very mysterious and enticing type of incandescence. So as I mentioned I spent a lot of time in Queanbeyan City Library growing up and also the Forest Primary School library under the watchful eye of the librarian, Lyn Fletcher. Years before my mother moving as a broke student from country New South Wales to Sydney saw the State Library of New South Wales as a kind of sanctuary. Similarly my father when he moved to Australia from Malaysia saw Queanbeyan City Library as a haven and indeed it has always been very advanced in providing resources for non-English speakers.

I was talking to a librarian there the other day and she’s worked there for 30 years. I mean that shows you how passionate many librarians are. Thirty years and she said that when she first started alongside the main collection it was providing a lot of resources for Macedonian migrants but then over the years she has seen the collection grow and grow to accommodate wave after wave of migrants to Australia. And so I guess here the point of that to me is that it’s not just about finding new worlds but it’s also about connecting with worlds and homelands that you thought you may have lost. It was here in Queanbeyan City Library ... there, sorry, across the border ... that I went from reading Grug to reading Goosebumps, Choose Your Own Adventures to Jurassic Park and so on and so on until one day I wrote large chunks of my own novel, Here Come The Dogs ... available for a humble price over there ... in that very library. I suppose this is a very privileged and naïve thing to say but I ... I truly believe that I’ve learned way more about literature and history by having a library card and a thirst for knowledge and reading widely than I ever did at university or at a private school. And I say that carefully because my Year 7 English teacher is in the front row. I don’t mean it as a dis, I think you understand what I’m saying.

So as I’m wont to do in these kinds of situations I put the question what do libraries mean to you to Facebook and Twitter? In the hope that I might harness the much maligned power of social media for good. And there were some incredible stories that came back to me, dozens and dozens of stories, I couldn’t believe how passionate people were out there. There had ... there were stories from poor kids in western Sydney or east Oakland in California where I used to live talking about studying hard in public libraries in the hope that one day they might provide a better life for themselves and their families to people finding solace in foreign libraries as lone travellers to a lady seeking refuge in a library from an abusive relationship because her partner was more intimidated by the library than by the pub. When framed like this libraries take on an air of almost religious solemnity but a word that came up often was fun, a fun place for kids to hang out, a fun place for poetry slams, a fun place to peruse CDs and even just to check your email. Another word that came up again and again was free. Of course this wasn’t just the idea that you were free to explore ideas but of course that public libraries are free. They are an equaliser, they are a hope for egalitarianism, they are a place where every strata of society can intersect because a library to me is a shapeshifting shimmerer, it is a treasure chest, it is a centre of community, it is a playground for creators and it is a repository of dreams. So thank you for having me here tonight.

MC:     Thank you, Omar, that was wonderful, wow. We should have got you reading some poetry, I think. It was near poetry. I shall now introduce Omar’s Year 7 teacher who clearly did a pretty good job with him despite what he said. May I introduce Robyn Oates who is the Chair of the Friends’ Committee and Robyn will speak about the Friends and make a presentation to the Library.

R:        Well good evening everyone and welcome. My name is Robyn Oates and I’m the Chair of the Friends’ Committee for 2015 and indeed I did teach this wonderful young man when he was in Year 7. And as I listen to him I thought well he’s actually stolen some of my ideas that I was going to say but I think that’s symbiotic and I’ll just say them again because it reaffirms what we both believe. A special welcome to Marion and Don and Omar and thank you for sharing your own thoughts and experiences on why libraries matter, serious thoughts and experiences as well as the more amusing and salacious ones. You have very different backgrounds, each of you and you’re from different generations and yet you have so much in common with each other and all of us. For each one libraries do matter. May I expend ... extend a special welcome also to previous committee members here this evening? Our inaugural Chairperson, Vanessa Fanning, and Marion who was not only on the inaugural committee and on the ... in the early years on the committee but she was also in the Steering Committee, I believe. Is that correct? Yes. So a special welcome to you again. To Gary Kent and to Geoff Burkhart and to Claudia Hyles ... I have the wrong glasses on but I know you’re here ... who’ve all been committee members or Chair of the Friends in the past. We’ve come a long way since our first member, Gough Whitlam, launched the inaugural Ken Myer Memorial Lecture on the 5th of April in 1990. I bet libraries meant a lot to him. He was honoured by ALIA, the Australia Library Information Association, for his outstanding service to libraries and the information profession. The citation identifies his philosophical commitment to the right to know and therefore the importance of providing equality of access to information for all members of the community. No matter what our political persuasion now I think we’d all agree with that right to know.

Recently I came across an article by New Yorker, Joe Queenan. Now he says that people congregate in libraries in a way that they do not congregate elsewhere, as Omar was saying. The public library is the only fully democratic institution I know of, said Joe. The Library is the only place where people of all colours, creeds, ages and political beliefs freely, easily and inadvertently intermingle. And I like to think that the Friends are much the same. We’re an eclectic bunch but we all have one thing in common, we’re library users and library advocates. An advocate speaks in favour of something or someone. The Friends of the National Library was envisaged as an organisation that would advocate for this library and I wonder how do we do this? Well I think when we visit regularly we’re accepted among our ... sorry, when we visit regularly the things that we see and hear and do become part of our personal patter and our general conversation. We’re accepted among our friends and family as a library person and we tell people about our library hours and as we do this we become an advocate for this institution which is in fact the largest repository in the world for material to do with Australia and Australians. I wonder when in your life did you begin your love of libraries. We’ve heard from Don and Marion and Omar and I also have strong memories of this. I was a pre-schooler and at least one evening a week all ready in my pyjamas and dressing gown I’d walk to the local library with my father and both of us would choose a pile of books. Of course mine were picture books then but the love of libraries and books has continued all my life. Now here we cannot borrow but we can read all day. I’d like to know just how many items were requested or read in this library in the past year or even in the past month.

But it’s more than books here. Look around you and you can see Australian architecture influenced by the classics and just minus some of the important dimensions that it should have had according to Gough but designed by Australians. There’s the Lennard French stained windows, the glass windows, the Mategot tapestries, we have here with the iconic references to things Australian. Over behind us there’s a little chunk of marble or should I say the Patinos stone which symbolises a link between our modern Australian library and the ancients who also valued the collection and sharing of knowledge. And jumping forward about 2,000 years we have  a National Library that’s a world leader in digital preservation techniques and maintains an internet-accessible archive of selected Australian websites called the Pandora Archive which I think is a superb name for such a thing. So the Library serves many purposes for many people in many, many different ways and tonight I speak on your behalf to add to this great collection of things Australian. It gives me great pleasure to announce the Friends’ gift, our gift to the National Library of two Australian artworks which will be hung in the refurbished main reading room. Sadly we don’t have the canvases here tonight, some things are beyond our control, alas. But Sharyn O’Brien, our Executive Officer, has copies for you to peruse. Of course an A4 printout is not the same thing and I do encourage you to seek out the real works when they are hung but in the meantime may I tell you about them? The first work is a natural ochre on canvas by Mabel Juli and it’s called Garnkini on the Hill 2013. Juli’s an East Kimberley Warman artist, she’s one of Australia’s most revered painters. She’s also an important figurehead in law, culture and ceremonial practices and she has received numerous rewards and accolades. In this painting she’s used precious natural earth pigments which she digs from secret places. The painting depicts a hill with the moon sitting at the east. It’s a story about the moon and a star and forbidden love so perhaps appropriate in the reading room. Is this a human universal? The second painting is Sugar Dreaming 2009 by Minnie Lumai. She’s in her late ‘70s now and she lives in works in Kununurra in East Kimberly. Her country, within the Keep River National Park, is abundant with sugar bag and wild bush honey and wax. There are three levels of meaning in this work, it portrays the sugar bag which is a refreshing and nourishing and bush tucker, it depicts rock coun ... the rocky country and the Bullo River and it tells the dreamtime story of how this country of stone ... stony hills and flat plains was created. So I’d like to invite the Library’s Director General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, up onto the stage to present her with a cheque for these magnificent works of art as our birthday gift to the Library.

R:        Director General, on behalf of the Friends, may I present the Library with two Australian artworks by Mabel Juli and Minnie Lumai. We trust that they’ll be important additions to the cultural collections and that they’ll also give pleasure and intrigue to those who pause in the reading room to look. Thank you very much and now I will ask Anne-Marie to speak to you and wrap up our formalities for this evening.

A:        Thank you very much, Robyn, and thank you, Friends. It’s a very special birthday, isn’t it, when the organisation enjoying the birthday is the one giving the present. Thank you. Happy 25th birthday to all of our Friends and thank you for supporting the Library over this last quarter of a century. We are fortunate to have such a magnificent group of Friends and all of us at the Library salute your contribution to the Library’s accessibility, to the creation of knowledge and to the Library’s sense of community. For example your financial support for the Treasures Gallery helped to make that gallery a reality. The Gallery opened in 2011 and has been enjoyed by 315,000 visitors from around Australia and abroad. To celebrate Canberra’s centenary and to support our ambition to digitise all issues of The Canberra Times between 1955 and 1995 you funded the digitisation of every issue published in 1975. Completion of that project saw The Canberra Times added to Trove so that articles can be viewed and searched from anywhere in the world. You've also supported the digitisation of a number of significant Federation documents making them freely available online. Accessibility is a precondition to the creation of knowledge which is why your commitment to digitisation is so wonderful but so too is your annual support for a Friends travelling fellowship. Each year this provides one of our colleagues with an extraordinary opportunity to develop skills, to build knowledge and broaden experience. It can be and it has been career and life-changing. This year we will welcome the inaugural Friends Creative Arts Fellow because you are funding a fellowship which supports creative practitioners to complete a sustained period of intensive research at the Library. The first recipient, the composer, Chris Williams, will begin his fellowship on Monday and we anticipate his arrival eagerly, and applications are now open for the 2016 fellowship. Now with your donation, and I hold up the cheque ... thank you ... to buy the two dramatic artworks that Robyn has talked about for the refurbished main reading room, the Friends will have given almost a quarter of a million dollars to support the Library. It’s an extraordinary legacy and we are immensely grateful. Thank you.

Thank you also to the Friends of the National Library committees past and present. Every committee has wanted nothing but the best for the Library and the 2015 committee led by Robyn Oates and Dennis Pearce exemplifies that grand tradition. Can I say a big thank you to Don, to Marion and to Omar for being part of our celebration? When I thought about this evening I did not think that one of the emblems running through the presentation was going to be simmering sexual tension. You know I always loved Frank Zapper’s quote, that if you wanted to get laid you went to university but if you wanted an education you visited your library. Well it’s obviously not so. Thank you to all three of you for reminiscing and for reflecting and for speaking so beautifully and movingly about why libraries matter to you. We revel in the knowledge that distinguished writers like you continue to derive inspiration, information and succour from libraries. It makes everything we do both in this beautiful building and through our innovative and online services worthwhile. So Friends all, thank you for being with us and supporting the Library. And in closing I’d like to add three things to the one ask that Dennis Pearce had of you, firstly please enjoy browsing in the bookshop and take advantage of the 15% discount that is on offer this evening. Don, Marion and Omar have all kindly agreed to sign books for you this evening. Secondly, please visit us again and do it soon. Our evocative and thoughtful exhibition, Keepsakes, Australians and the Great War, is on until the 19th of July. And from the 22nd of May you will also be able to see the sublime exhibition Revealing the Rothschild Prayer Book: 1505 to 1510, from the Kerry Stokes collection which will include many of the Library’s own medieval and renaissance treasures and I know that a special viewing of it is planned for the Friends. And finally please join us for some light refreshments and inspired conversation. I think this is Dennis’ call to party. Remember that the Friends take as their maxim Yeats’ comment that 'there are no strangers here, there are only friends whom you haven’t yet met'. Thank you.

End of recording