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Flowing Words: The State Library of NSW

The sandstone, the history, the free lockers... there is plenty to love about the NSW State Library. For the literary minded, the state’s official book and reference depository on Macquarie Street is a true beacon in Sydney. This is especially true to those who write – while they may come for the books, they soon discover that the ambience inspires words to flow just like they have in everything that surrounds them.

Author/playwright Van Badham started coming to the state library when he was about 14. “It made me feel really worldly and experienced to travel into the city after school every day,” he reflects. After he finished High-School, it took a few years and the National Young Writers Festival to remind Van of the State Library’s awesomeness as a writing space. “I'd heard John Birmingham speak about how he wrote out of the Mitchell,” Van explains. “It just hadn't occurred to me that the library was somewhere I could use as a workspace for my writing.”

Just over a hundred years old, the state library is practically an ancient monument in Sydney. The building’s eclectic architecture ranges from Classicism, 1970's Brutalism to present day renovations. It is a fantastic resource, filled with century old books, microfiche and papers – touchstones of our past, if you will. Many writers, students and academics spend quiet industrious days here, such as Bron Lee, who writes her academic papers in the Mitchell Library, the most classic section of the State Library. The oldest part of the collective library, it looks like a church for books; pure white light pours in from the sky onto a wide bright marble space bordered by stories of books and antique ladders.

“You feel like you've gone back in time,” says Bron, “but back in time to a miraculous world where there are spots to plug in your laptop.”

For Van, the more modern State Reference Library is her spot of choice. “I love that it's quiet – heaven – clean and has lots of natural light,” she says. Van sits under the windows facing Macquarie Street, soaking in the ambiance of the plant life around her.

The State Library seems to bring some kind of Zen focus to people who go there, and both Bron and Van agree that its filled with helpful staff and respectful patrons. “The reason I like to work out of a library is that I have no habits, apart from getting on with my work,” explains Van. “In a library it seems stupid to waste time checking emails or screwing around on Twitter.”

Like most of us, Van finds working out of home impossible: “I'll help myself to a yoghurt, make a tea, eat an apple, collect the mail... all of a sudden I'm blocked and working in squalor,” she grins. “Visual order is vital in helping me to get my thoughts organised, and staying focused.”

Van now splits her time between here and London, and according to her, The British Library's got nothing on us. “There is NO natural light,” she grimaces. “I think the excuse is that the books are sensitive to light – but the overwhelming majority of its collection is stored up in Yorkshire, and you have to order your books days or even weeks in advance.” Take note, British Library – you’ve just been served.

The State Library is a bit of a reference system hoarder; PC search engines sit next to library stock cards who in turn sit next to giant microfiche viewers. Velvet ropes section off people reading frail antique books while people in the corner download e-references in PDF. It's the best kind of time travel that Sydney has to offer, quiet, filled with resources and with all the mod-cons.

It may even inspire you. Van wrote a particularly gruesome scene for her play The Sameness of Days, under the windows at the State Reference Library, thinking to herself, “‘Yep, Van, that's nasty. Nasty, nasty.’ And sitting back, quietly, very pleased with myself.”

“If I need more creative inspiration I can take a short walk to the gardens or the Art Gallery of New South Wales,” she reflects, grinning: “Oh my god, I want to be there NOW!”

words and photos: Angela Aldred


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