In my last few posts I discussed how libraries inspire a tremendous sense of promise, but without it being clear what exactly is promised or what libraries need to do to fulfil their promise, whatever that may be. The relationship between what libraries promise and what they actually do has become problematic in a way in which, only about twenty years ago, it wasn’t. Before that what libraries needed to do was more or less what they’d always done; now there’s uncertainty, even though the promise continues to burn brightly.

In these posts I’m giving my own perspective on the great untethering of the promise of libraries from inherited practice over the last twenty years and libraries’ struggle to reinvent themselves, to reconnect with the promise in a stable, enduring way. I want to convey a sense of how that struggle has been lived by people who work in libraries, particularly those who remember the time when there was no cause for struggle.

My first post included the epigram to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1964 film, Before the Revolution.

He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.

Talleyrand’s remark is generally considered to ooze nostalgia and I suppose it does. But it also tends to be taken as reactionary, backward looking; wrongly I think.

I acquired a videorecording of Before the Revolution for the State Library soon after moving into the library’s film unit, which had been established only a short time previously. The film unit no longer exists, but Before the Revolution is still in the collection, although the oxide may have started falling off the videotape by now.

People used to come into the library to watch the films I selected and enough of them would leave sufficiently transformed for me to feel I’d done something good; that I’d contributed to the fulfilment of a promise. It’s not clear whether such motivations and pleasures are any longer important to the success of a public library like this one, if ever they were. It’s not clear whether, any longer, it makes sense for libraries like this one to acquire films like Before the Revolution. It’s not clear what libraries should do these days, or even what defines a library. It’s not even clear that libraries remain essential to the fulfilment of their own promise. Nothing much is clear.

Sometimes people would watch films together, couples often, especially on weekends. Film is inherently a social medium of course. More immediately than writing it creates the sense that the imagination is not a lonely place.

When I was a child I used to go to an island on the Great Barrier Reef with my mum, who was a marine biologist. She would spend part of the day walking out over the reef collecting the creatures she studied and part looking at them through a microscope in the laboratory at the research station on the island. One afternoon, tired of me hanging about, she suggested I snorkel along the reef’s edge. Open to the sea, but also affording protection against storms, the edge of a coral reef teems with life.

At its closest point the edge of my reef is about four hundred meters off the island shore. It falls away, quickly into a depthless channel, about two kilometres wide, bounded on the other side by another reef, along which currents run back and forth with the tides. I was twelve years old; it was madness, but I went alone to the edge of the reef, every afternoon for a week.

Each day I walked out over the reef, drained by the tide, through the sandy bottomed maze running between clumps of exposed coral. The first time I plunged in I was terrified. I could breathe in but not out. I couldn’t help spinning around to see what was behind me, round and round, panic stricken. I told myself that if I swam in a definite direction then what was behind me would always be where I’d already been – not an entirely convincing line of reasoning, but consoling enough.

I swam along the reef’s edge, taking my bearings off the deep on one side and the glassy underside of the surface breaking against the exposed coral on the other. I swam steadily, reconciled to the monsters trailing in my wake, finally happy. A shark swam across my path and, on noticing me, or whatever was behind me, streaked off into the deep. After a few hundred meters, at a point where the reef dropped in even steps down to the edge, I got out and walked back to the island through the still, silent afternoon.

I came back to the same place every afternoon until my mum and I went home. It’s widely believed that beneath the surface of the sea nothing much is certain, that everything is more or less continuously falling apart. But you don’t have to spend much time there to know that it’s not like that at all.

It’s a shame when coral reefs suffer bleaching, and the coral dies and the water empties of life, but they recover miraculously quickly. At first coral organisms, the few that somehow survived the bleaching, and others carried in on currents from afar, begin to reinhabit the interstices of the bleached coral and soon a general recovery is underway. Coral is an exceptionally adaptable organism.

Each time a reef, or a part of a reef, dies and comes back to life again it’s not really the same reef. My mum always maintained that phenomena like coral bleaching, Crown of Thorns starfish infestations and so on are natural phenomena, in the long term vital to the health and vitality of the reef because they open up space for different things to happen. But towards the end of her life she dreaded that the reef’s capacity to adapt and rejuvenate was being overwhelmed.

When people watched films together it always seemed to be because one of the group had something to share; wanted the other, or the other ones, to see something; often something they’d seen before. Giving somebody a book you’ve read and felt was important is the same kind of thing. It’s a way of seeking a connection, and can be fraught because of this.

A lot of the time we don’t read the books others give us to read, or we take our time, sometimes a very long time. You can’t force these things. Sometimes it seems necessary to hold on to a book forever.

When people watched films together there was always a moment, when the film ended, when the person who had made the gift glanced fleetingly at the other one, or the others, for a sign that it had been received.

For a time a man with a care worn face would come to the library with three or four other men, different each time, to watch a documentary film about life in an Australian maximum security prison. The men would stand around the counter waiting to be allocated a viewing station, silent and still, and then when the film was over they would talk quietly amongst themselves. I never discovered their motivation.

Once a gravedigger from Tully picked me up off the road when I’d been knocked off my bicycle by a car while returning to work one lunchtime, on the roundabout that used to be outside the library. I knew he was a gravedigger from Tully because he talked to me while I sat dazed and bleeding in the gutter by the side of the road. He came to the library every day for a long time. He spent a week working slowly through all of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s dreamy, nostalgic films before vanishing.


I have sat on this post for weeks, afraid that it may be considered obscure or overly personal, not what any library needs at the present difficult juncture. It begins soberly enough, setting out the premise that while the promise of libraries burns as brightly as ever it’s increasingly less certain what libraries need to actually do to fulfil it. Once libraries could fulfil their promise by doing more or less what they’d always done, but over the last twenty years the relationship between promise and practice has become increasingly uncertain under pressure of massive structural change.

Uncertainty naturally gives rise to nostalgia and, when it is deep and pervasive enough – structural in character - to revolution of one kind or another. Nostalgia and revolution are deeply implicated, as Talleyrand recognised.

One way of dealing with uncertainty is to forbid it; another is to resolve it, and so nostalgia comes in two forms, one reactionary, hostile to anything new, but the other creative, because it’s about searching for a lost thread.

Reflexively identifying change with loss, the destructive form - conventionally taken to be the defining form - craves the restoration of the old order where it has fallen, or its endless perpetuation where it hasn’t. It leads either to melancholy, born of resignation to change, or otherwise fierce defence of any threat to the status quo.

The creative form harks back not to a foregone order or set of practices, but to a lost unity between promise and practice, when the gap between a promise and its fulfilment was familiarly navigable. Far from being hostile to change, it embraces the transformation of practice as the condition of restoring that unity.

The tragedy, repeated over and over gain in the face of structural change is that the two forms of nostalgia, radically opposed in their consequences, are either confused with each other or otherwise not distinguished apart - so that nostalgia comes to be seen as the problem.

In a previous post I described a meeting of the library’s staff to discuss what to do, which is difficult amidst massive structural change, because, typically, something precious has been rendered vulnerable, exposed in the no man’s land between the old and the new, yet to be secured. How tantalisingly close the other side can seem, glittering with possibility, and so far! First you have to get there.

Always the enormity of the moment strikes you dumb; what would be the point of trying and failing, of the words coming out in an emotional, incoherent torrent, of betraying a nostalgia that won’t let you go. So, again, you sit in silence, helpless, burning with shame.

At this meeting the group I was in spontaneously started talking about parks. What parks are the best kind – curated or wild? Would there be water? What would a wild library be like? The words poured out in a jumbled but not incoherent torrent. Then someone said they liked New York’s High Line park.

The High Line is a park created from a disused rail line winding for 3 km through the Lower West Side of Manhattan. The line fell into disuse when the industries it served closed or went somewhere else, a symptom of deeper, global structural change. The final, ‘most unruly’ part of the park opened only a few months ago.

Future third and final part of the High Line, in June 2011

Future third and final part of the High Line, in June 2011

Everyone knows that metaphors, fables, stories are a way of getting under the surface, down to whatever needs to be brought up. Libraries are full of all kinds of stories. The High Line Library would be a fine library, worthy of the promise of libraries, but it’s not so much the metaphor I remember this discussion for, but the relieved, hopeful way people talked, because the pleasure had been unexpected and because, if only fleetingly and in a small way, something had been grasped, something precious, and brought just a little closer to the surface.

Self sown plants on the High Line, from seeds blown in by the wind, or dropped by birds, or enduring from another time

Self sown plants on the High Line, from seeds blown in by the wind, or dropped by birds, or enduring from another time





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Tim, this is a wonderful post, and I look forward to reading your others. I admit that I've been haunted by my own efforts to make sense of the place of nostalgia for as long as I can remember. However, it has never struck me, until now, that libraries are, at this particular historical moment, perhaps the best microcosms in which to examine how experiences of nostalgia take form, and how we can listen to them. It's interesting to see how this might take place on several levels at once - we are compelled to make meaning of our pasts and futures through imagining-into-being certain narratives (which, as you point out, can never be fully reconciled to the giddy abyss of meaninglessness that is always our present moment, given the tragically impossible relationship between promise and practice). So we're confronted with a complex relationship to nostalgia in terms of the narratives we make about libraries, just as libraries are themselves considered to be storehouses for the very narratives through which we make sense of ourselves. So how do we make stories about the storehouses for our stories? Thanks for opening up the pandora's box.