Wow! Our library remains!
WATERLOO: Once upon a time, seemingly light years away, the Waterloo Library, like many libraries and schools, had a live-in caretaker. Dennis Jobson resided in a flat on the first floor, and, like the caretaker at my school who kept a supply of both black and white shoelaces for our school shoes or running shoes, was indispensable to the wellbeing of the building. However, on the grounds that his unit had no back door, Jobson was moved out and a cleaning company took over duties, but not his role.
Recently, the City of Sydney decided that the Waterloo Library was no longer necessary, and that the future Green Square Library could take over its collections but, as it proved, not its role in the Waterloo community. WOW (Women of Waterloo) spearheaded a campaign to prevent the library’s closure aka “relocation”. Councillor Kerryn Phelps vigorously supported the campaign from the start.
On June 18, WOW members Kate Epstein and Lara Merrett, and local resident Rebecca Reddin, attended the City of Sydney Council meeting to speak against the passing of the budget without reconsideration of the proposed closure of the Waterloo Library. They were well supported by other WOW members – Connie Anthes, Pratichi Chatterjee, Karyn Brown, Aelwyn Richards – who watched from the gallery. Prior to speaking, the campaigners were advised that the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, was prepared to amend the budget and keep the library open for another year.
On June 25, when the amended budget was put forward, Professor Phelps presented the Waterloo community’s petition to the Council and both Professor Phelps and Councillor Linda Scott spoke in support of the petitioners. The amended budget was accepted but not unanimously. Success for the time being: stay tuned.
The threatened closure of the library touched many, and in collecting the signatures for their petition the campaigners from WOW heard and recorded many of their stories. One regular borrower, bustling away with a bag of books on cooking, said that she wouldn’t be going to Green Square because it was just too far away. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said, “many of the locals don’t have a car and there’s a lot of elderly people who can’t even walk to the bus stop … a big flash library over a kilometre away is not going to cut it with the locals.”
Her observation is borne out by an older local resident. Until 2015, one of Yvonne’s greatest interests in life was line dancing. When a crippled knee meant she could no longer dance, Yvonne turned with renewed passion to another of her interests, politics and economics. Yvonne now relies on the Waterloo Library, reachable from her home on the hill in Raglan Street, to provide her with reading material, much needed exercise and contact with other people as she lives alone. She manages to get to the library at least once a week and often twice, and she also attends the reading group at the library. “I don’t know what I would do without the library,” she says, after she’s given me a brisk analysis of neoliberalism and its genesis, “It’s a lifeline.”
Children are another group who would be negatively impacted by the library’s closure. A former librarian and local resident was outraged by news of the closure. “Libraries,” she said, “don’t just introduce children to the pleasure of reading but story hours and early childhood programs often result in success in learning.” A youth worker from nearby George Street commented that disadvantaged children would be furthered disadvantaged by the proposed relocation. “A library needs to be accessible, not too much trouble for a parent to get to, otherwise they won’t bother.” He nodded, and then added, “A local library is a shared area, and helps kids feel that they are a part of their community. It may be the only place they can get this feeling.” For the children of Waterloo-Redfern, Green Square is not their community.
Referring to her own experience, a retired teacher recalls that when her daughter was young she valued the library “intensely” as it provided “a sense of connection and some sanity”. These sentiments are echoed by Clare, a busy young Wellington Street mother of two boys. Both she and her husband work, and with her mother and siblings living overseas Clare needs a space where she can feel her children are safe while she replenishes her energy. Like many modern young parents of the e-book and TV age, Clare wants her children to have a love of books and of reading books, so for her this space is Waterloo Library, a short walk from her home. She describes the library as “an oasis”.
Both Clare’s “oasis” and Yvonne’s “lifeline” provide a vital service for many but at the same time the library is very reticent about its existence. A borrower recalls that once as she was leaving the library a passer-by approached her and pointing at the library asked, “Do you know what they do in there?” While it is reasonable that the exterior of such a charming example of heritage architecture should not be marred by signage, nevertheless there must be a solution. While various suggestions have been put forward over the years, apart from the small sign on the Kensington Street side indicating the out-of-hours return slot, the library remains incognito. Perhaps this is a situation that could now be remedied as in the course of campaigning we met local residents who were pleased to find that Waterloo had a library, and they no longer had to tramp to Surry Hills.
A final point made, and one strongly felt by the Women of Waterloo, is that communities in Sydney need more public spaces. The library in its role as an accessible and free gateway to knowledge and ideas, to the nurturing of imagination and a prompt to innovation, is an indispensable service offered by a healthy democracy. As the NSW budget released recently cuts library funding by 18 per cent, it is important that councils invest in the future of children and creativity by continuing to maintain our local libraries.