“The Library” has always seemed to me a kind of oasis: wholesome, welcoming, tranquil and – importantly – free, removed from the implicit or explicit commercial agenda that defines so much of the modern landscape. As a kid I’d while away hours in my modest local library brushing up on ghost stories, or loiter at university libraries looking at all the baffling classical and jazz LPs that felt like big alien tablets dropped from the sky. The dorky love affair never really died down: I’ve since worked in libraries, written songs about libraries, articles (besides this one) singing the praises of libraries, paid special visits to libraries overseas and absorbed myself in short stories about libraries in books I’ve borrowed from libraries. A part of me probably likes libraries more than I like books – that intersection of space, peace, collected knowledge and seemingly infinite potential.
Of course, not all libraries are created equal. Some are magical and some are stinkers and seemingly minor things can make a big difference.
I started working for the City of Perth Library back in September. We were upstairs in the 140 William building (itself a really interesting, admirable bit of architecture) and by no means was it a stinker; it was good. Natural light spilled in from floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the train station, the collection was good, we were surrounded by busy streets and coffee and bagels. Tourists and regulars came in and seemed at home. But this housing was temporary and we knew it, so it could never feel entirely like home, not in the sense of the building being synonymous with the institution. As Lisa Scaffidi said recently, “We have always rented spaces and been in a few basements.” We were eager to uproot and settle in the walls that were being built for us and only us, a few short blocks away, on Hay Street.
As of the Tuesday just gone, we’re in. The relocation of a library might not sound like especially riveting news but this is a special building, one I’ve literally been excited about for years. The striking circular structure, designed by Kerry Hill Architects, contains five levels plus a mezzanine auditorium, a terrace looking out onto the streets and the river, a 14-metre green wall and an indoor Weeping Fig tree (“If you have a garden in your library, you have everything you need,” said Cicero.) From the grand ground floor entrance you can climb the stone perimeter stairs to Level 1 (fiction) or Level 2 (non-fiction and the History Centre) and gaze up at Andrew Nicholls’ ceiling art, which reimagines a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest by way of Western Australian flora and fauna. The construction itself is characterized by its generous use of WA-granite columns and bluegum timber, laid out in steady rhythmic verticals like the pages of a book. Further up, kids get their own level (which includes the aforementioned tree) and young adults have free rein over the “attic” on level 5, complete with free study rooms and gaming consoles.
If I’m starting to sound like I’m advertising the place, that’s probably because I genuinely like it – the library certainly haven’t asked me to write this and they don’t need me to. What I think is worth considering, however, is the role that a new space like this can play in the Perth city community.
Like I said earlier, it’s a non-commercial space and – more so than in any previous iterations – this new site emphasizes the experiences of simply visiting, stopping and being. While it’s certainly a place to research or be entertained, it could just as well be described as a sort of secular counterpoint to the neighbouring St. George’s Cathedral, both employing beauty and space to engender a sense of stillness and reflection. It would be naïve to suggest that churches and libraries don’t have agendas, but it’s important to note that they’re spaces in which the visitor has agency over their engagement, and can linger as briefly or as long as they please. This is an increasingly rare quality for interior spaces in urban environments, which typically encourage you to keep purchasing if you want to hang around, or attend designated (usually ticketed) events.
Another notable development is the scope for this building to interact with other facets of local culture. Already there’s talk of events taking place on the terrace and in the auditorium. 2016’s Commonwealth Observance will feature the Cathedral Consort singing from the library roof. As has been seen in other cities around the world (and more recently with New Music concerts at the State Library), there’s plenty of potential for this distinctly modern building to shake off any antiquated perceptions of stuffiness and engage with local music, film and other cultural scenes.
My perception from day one of this new space being open is that, despite a widespread myth that physical books and browsing are endangered, people have been hanging out for it. They come in starry-eyed, champing at the bit. They’re enthusiastically churning through books, movies, electronic resources, newspapers, or else just exploring the building. Libraries are special things – when run properly they’re egalitarian, community-oriented havens and soothing temples to knowledge and diversion. An idea like that deserves a good home. With its first civic building commissioned since the Concert Hall in ’73, the City of Perth has certainly provided one.