The first library I worked in was the History of Medicine Library, which is part of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. It was in every way an “old school” library, and this was reflected in the space. It was all dark wood, floor to ceiling shelves, lots of small nooks and crannies, and contained many old books. What it didn’t contain was many people, particularly clients.
The library was housed in a building that had been built sometime around 1890 by the Fairfax family, an influential family in Australian media. It had at one time been the home of a surgeon, Herbert Maitland, and while I was at the library we were able to purchase a large collection of Dr Maitland’s personal correspondence; to bring it home, as it were. The history of the building was an integral part of the library, and all through the building were signs of that history: portraits, plaques, etc.
The library collection was spread over several spaces in the building. The main area and the rare books collections in the function rooms were well looked after, but sprawling through the basement were the, well, less rare books. They were kept in rusting compactus shelving, subject to damp and mould. It was a bad environment for such a special collection, but that’s often what happens when you put a library in a space built for something else. While it was a challenging environment, it never lacked for ambience! The simple act of moving a book cart through small old rooms designed as servants’ quarters was a challenge.
If I could have asked the designers questions, they wouldn’t have been about the library – they weren’t designing the space for a library. I would have asked them about the people they were designing the building for, the elite of Sydney society at that point in history. Who were these people, and how did they see the space? How were they planning on using it? Which rooms were their favourites, and why?
I’m sorry to say that I have no copyright-free pictures of the library to share here, however some images can be found on their website. I left that library several years ago now, but it was one of the most remarkable jobs that I’ve had, and by far the most charming space I have ever worked in.
Alyson Dalby, ILN Program Coordinator