Fisher Library – the death of the book?

On Sunday I went to Fisher Library. As a University of Sydney graduate, I am able to borrow from the university libraries on payment of an annual fee of about $80. It is good value.  In the city, I use the law school library and the Conservatorium Library.  I get to Fisher less often.

I went there on Sunday to borrow:

Business valuation discounts and premiums / Shannon P. Pratt. 658.15 355 

That scintillating title was for my work.

I also borrowed:

  1. Backing into the limelight : a biography of Alan Bennett / Alexander Games. 822.91 B471 Y 1
  2.  Untold stories / Alan Bennett. 822.91 B471 J16 1 
  3. Writing home / Alan Bennett. 822.91 B471 J13 1
  4.  Forty years on ; Getting on ; Habeas Corpus / Alan Bennett. 822.91 B471 E 4 
  5. 漢語與文化讀本 = Chinese language and culture : an intermediate reader / 黃偉嘉, 敖群合著. 495.186421 21

Can you detect a theme there? I owe that to Miranda Devine  (and  here).

I have a long and indeed familial connexion with libraries.  My mother’s Aunty Malvina (in fact, I think, the sister-in-law of one of her aunts) was the first Australian female university librarian, at the University of Western Australia, where she was librarian for over 30 years.  My step mother and my paternal aunt both trained as librarians under her.  My mother and her sister were both teacher-librarians.

All up, I spent about 12 years at the University of Sydney, and especially when I did my first degree there, spent many long (to the point of thirst and headache) afternoons browsing in the stack, chasing down various obscurities, such as the purple-bound slim volumes of Denton Welch  or Ronald Firbank.  Word of mouth had led me to seek out Firbank’s Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, which (as summarized by Wikipedia) “begins with the Cardinal christening a dog in his cathedral…  and ends with His Eminence dying of a heart attack while nakedly chasing a choirboy around the aisles.”

Fisher Library was divided into two main collections.  The Research Collection, housed in the tall metal-clad “stack” at the southern end of the building, was the main  collection.  The name “stack” did not refer (though at first I think I thought it did) to the shape of the building, but to the fact that, up to the year before I started at the university, it was not generally an open-access collection. Ordinary borrowers had to fill in slips which where dispatched to the respective floors by pneumatic tube and wait for the books to be brought down.  The vestiges of these tubes remained for many years, though I forgot to check last Sunday whether they are still there.

The lower-lying northern wing of the library housed the “Undergraduate” collection.  Call numbers were all prefixed by “U.”  This was the teaching collection.  It included multiple sets of often-used books, and books borrowed on this side could only be borrowed for a week.

I conducted my first searches on Sunday in the stack.  As closing time was approaching, I took my choices to the loans desk and effected the transaction.  This was the first change: no longer is the due date stamped on the return slip at the back of the book; you are given a printout of the books you have borrowed.  Actually, I had experienced this already in the city branches but hadn’t quite realised it.

With time to spare, I then wandered over to the undergraduate collection for a little browse. The entrance floor and foyer are on level 3, and on the northern side this also houses an AV and microfiche collection, as well as the catalogue computer area, the reference collection and the periodicals room.  I headed down a level, according to my (lower number Dewey Decimal) chosen browsing range. 

The undergraduate collection had gone!  In its place was a vast bank of computers, called an “Access Lab.”

I went down another floor, and still there was no undergraduate collection.  Here its place seemed to have been taken by a separate “Curriculum Resources” collection – formerly resident within the Faculty of Education.

Finally, I found the old Undergraduate collection, renamed “short loan collection” on level 4.  It seemed considerably truncated. I guess that photocopied course materials and changes in the subject matter taught in the subjects which are covered in this particular undergraduate collection (some faculties still have their own undergraduate borrowing collections) had led to a bit of a spring clean as well as a purging of some of the multiple copies.  It is a sad fact (even if understandable) that there seems to be nothing a modern librarian enjoys so much as throwing out books.

I felt like Rip van Winkle.  I forgot to look to see if the old sign, prohibiting the wearing of stilleto heels smaller than a 10 cent coin (to protect the linoleum) was still to be found at the front entrance.

There are still plenty of books, but it was hard to escape the feeling that the writing is on the wall.

Speaking of which, I forgot to see if the walls of the men’s toilets on the odd-numbered floors in the stack still bore their old mixture of appeal and abuse.  I expect times have moved on in that respect too.

8 Responses to “Fisher Library – the death of the book?”

  1. Adrian Says:

    Thanks for the tip on Firbank. You may have set off a reading trend.

    By the way, the Undergraduate collection was renamed Short Loans just this year. The uni website somewhat sinisterly explains that the SL collection, formerly on Levels 1 and 4, was “consolidated” on Level 4 before first semester. http://www.library.usyd.edu.au/about/whatsnew/

  2. Thomas Says:

    For as long as I’ve been there (albeit that isn’t long at all in the grand scheme of things) the Curriculum Resources have been where they are, in that partitioned off room, but also spread out across that floor used to be the Undergrad collection. Same with the access lab.

    On a side note, tomorrow the library are giving away free books, 9am through to 5pm. It’s probably likely to be the leftovers from all the Dean’s sales that have gone on (that is, copies of books that are so redundant not even Liberals use them anymore).

  3. marcellous Says:

    Thomas, I really am Rip van Winkle – I don’t know when I last went over to that side of the library, but from what you say it must have been a while ago.
    Incidentally, is the photocopy room still staffed (if it is staffed at all) by a certain type of young man who could best be described as looking as though a kindly employer (for whatever reason) had “rescued” them from The El Alamein Fountain or The Wall? For many years, that was one of the oddest things about the place.

  4. ninglun Says:

    I borrowed a book from Fisher in the 1980s. Unfortunately I forgot to return it…

  5. theportmaniac Says:

    I haven’t been to the photocopy room for around two years now, but will endeavor to find out about this strange staff member. Well, strange in that he is stranger than the regular bunch of Sydney Uni employees.

  6. marcellous Says:

    I think the photocopy service was run by an outside contractor. The generalisation I have made refers to the youths who were employed by that contractor, over a number of years.

  7. Marginalia « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] also a long way forward from seeking out the purple-bound Ronald Firbank volumes in Fisher stacks, which was about as much as I got up to, over twenty years […]

  8. Unfit for publication « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] of 20. That’s not a long print run! There’s no copy in Sydney University’s Fisher Library and I couldn’t track down a copy in any lending library at […]

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