The public library – a festival of knowledge and ideas, every day of the year

If you’re lucky enough to visit Sydney when our many festivals are on, such as Sydney Festival, Art and About, Vivid, Sydney Writers’ Festival, Biennale of Sydney and Sydney Film Festival and so on, you will be immersed in ideas, ideas and more ideas!

We’re all loving Vivid at the moment, it’s an 18 day celebration of ideas, music and light. When a friend wondered the other day, “why isn’t Vivid on all the time?” I thought yes that would be awesome, but to be fair Sydney is a city of ideas all the time, and one of our key sources of ideas is our large network of public libraries.

When was the last time you visited a library? One of my favourite memories as a child is my mate and I being dropped off at the local library after school so we could raid the racks of trashy teen Sweet Valley High and Babysitters Club novels. During my undergraduate years group cramming sessions at the State Library of NSW were rewarded with happy hour shots at the seedy Criterion pub up the road. These days I frequent the library for a number of different reasons, a few of which are outlined below.

The State Library of NSW’s famous Mitchell Library Reading Room. Image by A Certain Slant of Light

The State Library of NSW’s famous Mitchell Library Reading Room. Image by A Certain Slant of Light



One of my favourite writers and visionaries Ray Bradbury was self-educated, and a huge promoter of the library, having begun going to the library three nights a week for almost ten years after graduating from high school in 1938. He went on to write the brilliant collection of short stories set on Mars, The Martian Chronicles, which was published only three years after “graduating” from the library. The award-winning novel for which he’s best known, Fahrenheit 451, was published six years after his library “graduation” and is set in a future world where books are banned and firemen drive around burning books.

Bradbury is quoted as saying “I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college…I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library…” He believed that colleges were “a very bad place for writers” because teachers have prejudices and think they know more than students, whereas libraries allow for independent thought and interpretation: “The information is all there for you to interpret You discover it for yourself[1]“.

One of Australia’s best loved poets, Les Murray, laments the lack of access to a library near the rural home where he grew up in the 1930s and 40s. He describes his seven years in school as “too many”. I should have had access to a really good library instead”. As a Sydney University student Murray was less interested in the prescribed reading list, and instead recalls his “serendipitous exploration of the university’s library stock” at the Fisher Library.[2]



In a study by the Library Council of NSW, people listed the top five outcomes of public library use as:

  • Enhanced quality of life
  • Enhanced enjoyment from hobbies
  • Ability to obtain information not available elsewhere
  • Facilitation of lifelong learning
  • Support of children’s education.[3]



Whether it’s access to a safe, quiet space, or out of print books, or book clubs, or research databases, everyone gets something different out of public libraries. For me the library is a space that supports local culture and the arts, and facilitates community involvement and the sharing of ideas. For out of town visitors, public libraries can be a great source of cultural information, and for this reason I love visiting local libraries whenever I can while on my travels. One of the libraries I visit most in Sydney is the State Library of NSW, as it’s close to work for lunch breaks and after work events. But there are 266 libraries in NSW alone, so wherever you find yourself travelling to, be sure to pop into a library and see what’s what.



The State Library has an impressive exhibition, workshop and event calendar – some upcoming highlights are listed below.

Inspiration by design – exhibition – 8 July to 27 September 2015

A stunning exhibition from London’s beautiful V&A Museum, which celebrates 150 years of collecting by the V&A’s National Art Library – showcasing some of the world’s finest book art, graphics, photography and illustration, including original hand-drawn illustrations by Beatrix Potter, a Pablo Picasso artist book, fashion sketches from Dior and Comme des Garçons and rare medieval manuscripts.

Photos1440 – photography exhibition on now until 21 June, talks on 28 May and 16 June 2015

There are 1440 minutes in a day. In these minutes photographers capture a moment. These moments make up a day. Photos1440 features photography and multimedia works by Fairfax photographers from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review from 2014 to present.

Out of the vaults series – monthly

An intimate viewing of our most iconic and intriguing items. Each month, rare items from the Library’s world-renowned collection are taken out of the vaults. Their stories and secrets are revealed by the library’s experts. Upcoming events include:

  • Sites unseen – 8 July, 6pm. Share the stories of significant Indigenous sites and celebrate the preservation of Indigenous documentary heritage (part of NAIDOC Week).
  • Monsters – 27 August 2015, 6pm. Dedicated to the fascinating mythological beasts and monsters that decorate the rare books, manuscripts and maps in the library’s collections.

Walkley Media Talks – monthly

The Walkley Foundation, in partnership with the State Library, presents a series of monthly Media Talks featuring some of Australia’s most respected and experienced journalists in conversation. Upcoming talks:

  • The Power of Voice: using radio to tackle sensitive issues. A panel of radio and audio journalists and storytellers tease out just why radio documentaries, podcasts and serials are so powerful – and how they harness that power to engage their audience – Thursday 18 June 2015, 6pm
  • The Art of Opinion. Today anyone can self-publish instantly via the internet, and it’s abundantly clear: opinions are like arseholes – everybody’s got one. The panel explores the best – and worst – of opinion – Thursday 16 July 2015, 6pm.

Censorship, free speech and public discourse. What price democracy? – 11 July 2015, 1pm

If John Adams is correct and liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people then how can censorship in its many guises be justified? Is the freedom to say what others question or reject without repercussion under threat? Will free speech become a privilege and not a right as we move into the 21st century? In this seminar distinguished speakers will include Gillian Triggs, Lucy Taksa and Meredith Burgmann.

Sydney suburban borough maps – now until 1 September 2015

The library has a collection of more than 180,000 maps and charts, documenting 500+ years of exploration and settlement in the Australasian and Antarctic region. As part of International Map Year 2015-2016, the library is celebrating maps and their unique role in our world.

Yeats: illusion and disillusionment – 13 June 2015

William Butler Yeats is one of the most quoted poets of the past hundred years and one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. In honour of the 150th anniversary of his birth (13 June 1865) we revisit his best-known works, both as poetry readings and as musical performances. As a poet he was inspired by mythology and mysticism. We will learn of how his youthful idealism was transformed into disillusionment through his experience of living through World War I and the Irish War of Independence. Join us for an afternoon of discussion, poetry and music.

The simple act of reading – 25 July 2015, 2.30pm

Writer and editor Debra Adelaide and panel discuss The Simple Act of Reading, a collection of essays and memoir pieces on the topic of reading — in particular what it means for writers to be readers and how that has shaped their life. Contributors to the collection include Joan London, Delia Falconer, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Kate Forsyth, Gail Jones, Malcolm Knox, David Malouf and more. The Simple Act of Reading supports Sydney Story Factory by emphasising the importance of reading in shaping an individual’s future.

Biography week – 4 to 10 August 2015

A series of events exploring the art of biography, autobiography and memoir. Highlights include:

  • Presenting the National Biography Award shortlist, 6 July 2015
  • National Biography Award, 3 August 2015.

The real thing – 14 August 2015, 10am

  • A glimpse at the exciting material the library has acquired over the past 12 months as it continues to add to its intriguing and significant collections. The library’s collection documents early European exploration in the Pacific and the search for the Great South Land through to contemporary life, recording the peoples and cultures of NSW, Australia and Oceania.

Honouring Australian writers – 29 August 2015, 2.30pm

  • In its annual Honouring Australian Writers series, the NSW Writers’ Centre pays tribute to writers who have made an important contribution to our literary culture. In 2015 we turn to the West Australian writer Randolph Stow. Perhaps best known for To The Islands, which won the Miles Franklin Award, and The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, he was also a poet and reviewer.

Free film and documentary screenings – every Thursday at 12pm

Regular film screenings, including Bran Nue Dae, a musical about an Aboriginal boy’s journey home from Perth to his homeland at Djaridjin, and Buried Country, which traces over six decades of the rich musical tradition of Aboriginal country and western music.

Lifelong Learning series

A range of courses, talks and workshops designed for learners of any age and stage of learning are available. Upcoming sessions:

  • Exploring Colonial Sydney – 16 September 2015, 10.30am
  • Reliving the 60s – 19 June 2015, 10.30am
  • Reliving the 70s – 10 November 2015, 10.30am
  • Starting family history research at the State Library – 23 July 2015, 10.30am.





[1] The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 203, interview with Ray Bradbury by Sam Weller in 2010

[2] The Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 89, interview with Les Murray by Dennis O’Driscoll in 2005

[3] Enriching communities: the value of public libraries in New South Wales, Library Council of New South Wales, March 2008


IMAGE by A Certain Slant of Light