The presence of books

Last week I was in an inner-city cafe, gathering my thoughts before an important meeting. Without thinking, I did what I always do to calm down. I quietly began studying everyone and everything else around me.

There were the guys behind the counter; the people lining up for coffee; local office-workers at other tables, having meetings over laptops; two young men hovering around out the front, smoking quick ciggies; the hints of traffic movement and light in the busy street outside.

Mio Mia cafe, in Ultimo, Sydney (from the cafe's Facebook page)
Mio Mia café in a quieter moment, Ultimo, Sydney (from the cafe’s Facebook page)

It was a small, noisy place. My eyes lingered on the delicious food on display. But what really stood out was the wall beside me.

It’d been completely covered with wallpaper depicting trompe-l’oeil shelves filled with old-style hard-back books, from floor to high ceiling.

The ‘book shelves’ brought an unexpected sense of calm and size to the space. They seemed to anchor it. And that bookish theme’s been turning up in bars, cafes and even shops everywhere in recent years.

Some of those obsolete atlases
Some of those old atlases!

A little while ago, a friend was telling me about clearing out many of his old books. The charity he donated them to was happy to take almost everything.

They knew they could sell all the books except his old atlases, encyclopedias and the like. They can’t find buyers for those printed texts anymore. The info they contained is now so easily accessible online.

Recently, I was in a waiting room, pre-appointment. A little girl was completely taken by an old illustrated book from the kids’ books pile.

‘Look at the whale, Mum! Look at the dolphins!’ Her enthusiasm was fantastic. Her mother said they had shelves at home filled with children’s books, which they’d found in second-hand shops all over.

How great for a child to absorb stories from different eras, countries, writers and styles, as all kids love to do. And to understand from an early age that imagination has no boundaries. Culture, status, money, age, gender, ability … imagination’s way more powerful than those definers.

Anyhow, the time for the important meeting drew near. I put my notes away, got up, started walking up the road to the address. There were streetworks galore along the little hill, all super-signalled and cordoned off. But still a voice rang out.

‘Don’t fall down a hole, love!’

Old books by Sharon Lapkin, Getty ImagesIt was an old man on the front verandah of his little terrace along the way. We had one of those brief, funny conversations strangers-who-like-to-chat have.

I was going to one of the educational organisations in the area, and he told me he wanted to learn ‘about computers’.

I had to tell him I wasn’t a teacher.

‘Oh well,’ we shrugged, and I went on to my meeting.

When I started writing this post, I remembered his greeting, no doubt made to all passers-by.

‘Don’t fall down a hole, love!’

All very Alice in Wonderland, but his true words, I swear!

And his jaunty warning’s led me down another type of rabbit hole.

It’s a peaceful place the Mad Hatter hasn’t discovered yet, where we can take another look at that wallpapered rendition of bookshelves; the charity that knows old books will always sell; and the book being devoured by a child’s huge imagination. To me, it all says we still very much want the presence of books in our lives. We still love the idea of them. We still want to experience them.

Clearly, this doesn’t rule out enjoying and using e-books and digital publications.

But what happens to those obsolete printed atlases and encyclopedias, and the other types of old books that’ve now been superseded? Do they still have value? Or is this all just about trends in wallpaper design and recycling useful books, and nothing more than that?

Here’s one beautiful response. A favourite blogger and tweeter, The Library as Incubator Project, posted this week about a whimsical project from the UK: The Library of Lost Books. It was curated by Susan Kruse for the Library of Birmingham, and could’ve arrived straight out of Wonderland.

You can read more about The Library as Incubator Project here. It was founded in the US by Laura Damon-Moore, Erinn Batykefer and Christina Jones, when they were doing their Masters at the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies (they all graduated with their Masters degrees in 2012). The project is now produced collaboratively by the trio and a dedicated team.

Do you know anyone – groups or individuals – doing amazing things like this with all or any types of old books? Are you involved in any large or small projects like this? Let me know, I’d love to celebrate and trace some of those great ideas here.


Daisies. Photo: Theresa Willsteed, copyright 2013

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