In a residential street in suburban Russell Lea stands a little blue curiosity on the side of the road. It appears to be out of character with its surroundings but close inspection confirms that this oddity in Tait Street is one of many street libraries emerging throughout Sydney and the rest of the country, even the world; a movement that’s gaining special momentum in the Inner West.
Street libraries are charming homes for books of the paper variety, planted in front lawns, parks, outside schools and just about anywhere that’s accessible by the public. Neighbours and passers-by are welcome to stop and browse through a shifting selection of donated, pre-loved popular fiction, children’s picture books, biographies and travel guides. Books are housed on a two-decker bookcase made from reusable items ranging from bird cages, doll’s houses and old cupboards to bar fridges, microwave ovens and even telephone booths. Most street libraries are objects of art in their own right, creatively painted and embellished with trinkets, pot plant holders, wind spinners and other curios. The books are free to borrow and can either be returned to the library or exchanged for another book.
Newtown resident Nic Lowe set up the Street Library Australia organisation in 2015 to help people establish their own pop-up book exchanges. His vision stemmed from wanting to build an Australian-based free library movement that encourages literacy and community. Street Library Australia is a self-sufficient revenue source that sells libraries to people who don’t want to build them. Over 400 Street Libraries have been registered in Australia since September 2017.
Street Library coordinator Cecile Schuldiener says that the communal aspect of the project is particularly important, especially for people who can’t afford to buy books or get to a library. ‘This simple act of exchange is creating community hubs in the Inner West where people come together under a common theme’, she says. ‘Street libraries fill the need of wanting to be connected.’
Unsurprisingly, the Inner West boasts the street library with the fastest turnover in Sydney. Outside the Australia Street Infants School in Newtown sit two window boxes stuffed with children’s books such as Andy Griffith’s The Day My Bum Went Psycho and classics by Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl. Maude, a student of the school, loves to rummage through the brightly painted boxes with her mother for unread treasures, occasionally discovering happy accidents like a stack of David Walliams audio books. ‘We love the street library and think it’s a fantastic initiative’, says Maude’s mother. ‘It’s a great way to get to know the community in a subtle way, namely by the books it reads.’ They prefer to donate their own books to the street library project (rather than op shops) because ‘the street library community thinks deeply about what it wants to read’.
It’s this grassroots support that’s made the initiative successful. Blake and Annika Lowry from the My Inner West Address Facebook page are the go-to couple for Inner Westies interested in establishing a book exchange in their area. Local councils have taken to the movement as well. Canada Bay Council, for example, has collaborated with Street Library Australia to find creative people who are passionate about books and the community to host a library and become street librarians. While there is an obvious level of responsibility – decorating and installing the library, stocking it with books and promoting the service – the most important and enjoyable aspect is to love the library. Judging by the growing number of quirky book nooks in our community, the Inner West is doing just that.
‘Tiny Vestibules of Literary Happiness’
Street libraries are a window into the cultural and social heart of a community. Here are some of Ciao’s favourite Inner West pop-up book exchanges:
- Australia Street Infants School Street Library, Newtown
The first school to set up a street library, the two window boxes enjoy high traffic and usually contain popular children’s titles. Painted and decorated by the school’s students.
- Bundjalung Street Library, Marrickville
Located on Gadigal Land, the artwork is by local resident John Kershaw of the Bundjalung Nation.
- RPA Newborn Care Street Library, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown
Maintained by staff, friends and families, this collection of mostly children’s picture books and young adult fiction encourages children and their families to enjoy reading (pictured below).
My Inner West Address Facebook page
City of Canada Bay Council
Words: Maria Zarro