There was a time in my distant youth when we had no municipal libraries where books could be freely borrowed. It was 1935 before a law was passed in New South Wales allowing local councils to establish libraries for the benefit of those who lived in the district, a transformation that evolved slowly for the demand for borrowing books had until then, been a private venture. In the 1940s and early fifties most people paid to borrow books at sequestered libraries.
When my wife and I first met and it was difficult to earn income as a writer we borrowed money, (500 pounds), and started one of these small libraries in Queen Street, Woollahra. Today it is the location of antique shops and expensive boutiques, but in 1940 it was a rundown district and rentals were cheap. Across the road was a fish and chip shop, where we learned it was best to buy two small packets of chips at 3d each, than a slightly larger one for 6d. Our library was a single room with bookshelves on all sides, and a small table for one of us to sit waiting for customers. We took turns at this tedious job, waiting for clientele who came to borrow one or two novels, the cost of this being sixpence for most books and a shilling for new ones. There was no demand at all for non-fiction, and it was not a lucrative business, the cost of stock rarely meeting these transactions, but recent love stories of the Ethel M Dell variety were essential to keep the faith with customers. There were rival libraries poised not far away, but we survived almost a year, until I managed to break into radio writing, then we sold it and promised ourselves to never run a business again. (Two years later we teamed up with a friend, attempting to start a suburban newspaper against the Mosman Daily, but that’s lunatic adventure for another day.)
As a young writer I spent many hours at the Mitchell Library before leaving for London, as there were no municipal libraries in our area north of the harbour. But when we returned after many years, what a transformation. In particular, for me, there was The Stanton in North Sydney. My eight novels published by Penguin are available here, and I use the facilities extensively. But it is far more than that to me, for it was The Stanton where I did much of the research for the main programs I wrote for the ABC.
“Captain James Cook” was filmed in Tahiti, Balmoral, and on the Sydney waterfront, where a camera miracle turned the harbour into London’s 18th century Thames architecture. It was shown over five successive nights on the ABC, as its bi-century celebration. My entire research was accomplished in just two places—the Tahitian Island of Moorea, and The Stanton library.
The second historical mini-series “Tusitala- The Teller of Tales”, was made for the ABC and CHANNEL FOUR in England. Again I researched in just two places—Western Samoa, where Robert Louis Stevenson spent the final years of his life, and again The Stanton, where I spent weeks finding out about his youth, the years spent in Scotland where he returned with a much older American wife, and where I was able to gain access to the thoughts and letters of his friends and enemies.
Today, The Stanton seems a busy place. It is full of students, as it should be, for in my opinion it is a splendid library, one of the best in the state. Not the friendliest: that accolade goes to the Tuggerah Library, after the years I spent on the central coast. I come and go at The Stanton without anyone knowing me, while at Tuggerah I am met with smiles and greetings, and since moving back to Sydney, with camaraderie by email and Christmas cards.