Cherishing the local library

Picture of Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein

Tracey is the former editor of Aurora magazine in the Newcastle Archdiocese

French author Victor Hugo (1805-1882) wrote, “A library is an act of faith.”   I joined my local library at about the age of ten. I clearly remember walking into the children’s section, which was something like a large walk-in wardrobe, and being overwhelmed by the floor to ceiling books. I chose two; one was by Eleanor Farjeon.

I was a keen borrower throughout school and university days. Of course, there were school libraries and the (pre-digital) university library resembled a small suburb! During my days of full-time work, there seemed (other than during holidays) less time for recreational reading. There were books to read in order to teach them, research, and eventually, further study.


I loved to buy books – some might say too many! – and books were a welcome gift. I was happy to lend books and to borrow them. In short, the local library – which had occupied a succession of buildings, each one larger and better equipped than the last – loomed small.


When travelling, in Australia and beyond, I often visit libraries. While of course I can’t borrow, I find that libraries provide a window into a community. National libraries – like the stunning white-columned National Library, Canberra – can capture the soul of a nation. The New York Public Library, while not a national library, is an elegant monolith with vast public spaces that facilitate learning and inspire reflection.


On a more mundane level, libraries – and librarians – are marvellous sources of information about the local area, upcoming events and community services. No longer bastions of silence, libraries host movie sessions, board games enthusiasts, guest speakers, workshops for adults and children and book clubs. Sometimes there is background music. Who would have thought?


Since I’ve returned to being a regular visitor and borrower, I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for this humble facility that exists in most Australian towns. Less an institution and more an extension of your own home, my ‘local’ boasts tasteful and comfortable lounges, a bank of desktop computers with ready assistance from staff, printing facilities, daily newspapers and a huge range of magazines catering to every interest, DVDs and CDs.


Oh yes – there are also books; thousands of them, regularly updated and enticingly displayed.

No longer working full time, I’ve taken to enjoying the welcoming air-conditioned library that’s within walking distance of my home.


I can take my laptop and spread out or relax on a comfy sofa with my favourite magazine. Often I meet people I know and it’s no longer unacceptable to have a chat. As a regular visitor, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the library staff. Unfailingly courteous and obliging, their work is, I’ve decided, a very worthwhile ministry.


The library is a microcosm of the community.


Every day the young and the old, students, parents of young children, people with a disability and people who just need a friendly face stroll through the library’s doors.


It’s easy to assume that these days, everyone has access to a computer, but this is not so. Or perhaps some have a computer but there isn’t a young person in the house who can assist when they get stuck.

As the deadline to ‘opt out’ of the My Health Record approached earlier this year, I couldn’t help but overhear a library staffer assist a customer who was quite distressed by it all. He was obliging but dispassionate.


During term time, students come to research assignments and complete homework in an environment conducive to study. It’s a treat to see parents bring small children who, as soon as they arrive, career off to their favourite section – the games area, picture books or perhaps the DVD collection. At such a young age, these children have developed a sense of ownership of their local library. I love to see it!


Recently I enquired whether a particular book was part of the collection. I knew that if it was available at another branch, a loan would be easily arranged and I would be notified when it was ready to be collected. The book wasn’t at any of the branches, but the librarian requested that a purchase be considered. Now that’s service! A few weeks later, it arrived and I was ‘first borrower’.


As I visit regularly, I see more and more examples of quiet helpfulness, anticipation of needs, a recognition by the staff of the privilege of service and pride in one’s profession. I can’t help but wonder how the experience of visiting our library compares with the experience of visiting our parish as a new or prospective member of the community?


I have lived in the parish my whole life, so I don’t know what it’s like to be ‘new’.


I hope that ‘newbies’ feel welcome and appreciated.


I hope they find us hospitable.


I hope they find parish staff, as well as parishioners, helpful and obliging.


I hope they find opportunities to offer their gifts in the service of the parish and wider community.

In these days when parishes bear the burden of the scandal of sexual abuse, numbers are in decline and one might hesitate to admit that one was Catholic, it’s ironic that the local municipal library offers a model of ministry. 


Sometimes looking beyond the obvious for encouragement and inspiration brings rewards. Remember Victor Hugo’s words: “A library is an act of faith.”


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