Sunday, 12 August 2018

down to earth

The building which houses the National Library of Australia commemorates 50 years today, although the mission was established as part of the 1901 Constitution. It's an inverted iceberg, with more storeys above ground than below. 

I worked in the building for more than half of its life, a milestone which will cease in five years' time. It wasn't and isn't uncommon for staff to exhibit this loyalty, not just because the place represented a career pinnacle, but because it underpinned commitment to the belief that the Library, like all other libraries, was an essential service to the public. I remember making the decision 10 years in, when asked by a more senior colleague, "are you a stayer?" after a large project failed. By that time the Library and I had invested significantly in each other, so I stayed.

The original concept drawings showed the possibility of three separate buildings, later reduced to one to save money. That happened in the short term, but with a relentlessly growing collection, the Library is now utilising a third warehouse. Another construction cost-saving measure ensured that staff and researchers focus inwards - each long side was reduced by one column, effectively blocking the view from every window except for a narrow sliver.

My first visit there was as a university student in the late 1970s when the Main Reading Room on the ground floor was a very quiet place for contemplation, unlike the keyboard-punctuated silences now. 

When the building caught fire in 1985, bibliophiles and historians around the country looked towards Canberra in horror. They included a prospective Director-General, the late Warren Horton, who felt compelled to move interstate to assist in the Library's recovery.

The fire started on the fourth floor in the computer room. More damage was caused by water from fire hoses than actual burning, and when I started work at the Library the year following, thousands of books were still laid out on metal shelves along the long third floor lakeside corridor drying. This continued for several years. The mainframe was moved to a specially sealed room in the middle of the second floor, with collections further away. 

IT staff sat outside the computer room, in an area where air-conditioning controls had been set for the preservation of books. We were often plunged into extremes of preservation-friendly temperatures, usually cold. For a while, the smaller programming team sat in the Amazon Room, named after a film poster on the wall showing "Amazonian" women. 

All of the windows in the Library were able to be opened with an allen key, and this proved useful when a large piece of mainframe had to be removed from the second floor through the Amazon Room. It was more efficient than trying to squeeze it around corridors. The scratch on the marble lintel did cause some consternation. 

Some 10 years later, the windows in the fourth floor conference room had to be opened when a water pipe was broken in the ceiling and flooded the carpets at the front of the building. The hosepipes went straight to ground. 

Ironically, contrary to expectation almost all water damage seems to have come from within the building, fortunately infrequently. After three successive droughts in the early 2000s, the floor to ceiling windows next to the front door cracked - the result of a complete lack of moisture in the air. By that time, the glass airlock which surrounded the front doors had been removed - its double-sliding, painstakingly slow opening no longer necessary.

Before earning a job at the Library, in the early days of my genealogical passion I had to visit the first floor Petherick Reading Room, named for one of the Library's significant collection donors. It was sited in the middle of the building and closed off in its beautifully-panelled, glass-fronted and book-lined shelves to serious researchers using rare materials. The Room was moved to the ground floor, and a few years ago moved back to the first floor again. 

Eventually reference volumes made their way to LG (Lower Ground) 1, where they shared a space with newspapers from around the country. Despite being below ground, the light-filled lower Reading Room gave a generous view of the inside of the moat. 
Pippa and Dee fly handmade kites outside the National Library's moat, 18 July 2001
The Library sits on its own island. Now appreciated by amateur rockwall climbers, the moat was built to protect the collections from the one-in-100 year Molonglo River flood. Although that flood has not happened yet, the River has combined with occasional downpours to fill Lake Burley Griffin with dead trees.

A lot of paper rests behind the very effective moat, especially Australian monographs and journals. While most project records were stored electronically, some were kept on paper just in case. In 1997 I stood looking at the cold bare earth, beneath the LG2 floor, while filing the records. 

As projects finished I moved to other spaces, working on the first, second, third, and fourth floors. During downtimes, I enjoyed the rare privilege of browsing the bookshelves and cabinets below ground. The office I retired from was moved from the long side facing Parliament House to the lakeside. The floorspace has been given over to the collection. Much architectural change occurs on the inside, but the responsibility at the heart of this collecting institution is immutable.

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