Reflections: Keeper of Books

Ms Rachael Christopherson, Director of Library and Information Services

The unofficial mascot of the Girls Grammar reading club, the Libellum Society (est. 2001), is a life-sized, black-feathered owl whose eyes flash a menacing red when you flick the switch on its back. This owl was a regular feature at many of the Libellum literary events from 2007 to 2022: hiding in the bushes at the Alice in Wonderland café; perched on the long tables at the Harry Potter Hard Quiz; and peering from the shadows at the ‘Murder in a Teacup’ Year 7 Welcome lunch. It belonged to Leia Kirkham (2022), a long-standing member and sometimes captain of Libellum, whose love of books and sharing the magic of stories was evident in her committed contribution to Libellum events from when she joined the Society in Year 7 to when she graduated in Year 12. At Libellum’s farewell party for the Year 12 members in 2022, Leia handed on the baton to the club members by gifting us the owl. Not long after, I came across a postcard in a bookstore that featured a black owl, and the caption, ‘Keeper of Books’.  Both are now aptly installed in the Libellum Society meeting room in the Beanland Memorial Library.

A ‘Keeper of Books’ is a meaning not lost on the devoted bibliophiles of the Libellum Society, or on its coordinator: me. I learned from a young age the value of books and the rich enjoyment that can be gained from reading. It was my paternal nanna who instilled this love of books in me. On long May and December holidays in the small seaside town of Kingscliff, my siblings and I were left for many weeks in the care of our grandparents. A regular outing for us was a visit to the Kingscliff library. It was a small, one-roomed, demountable building with creaking floorboards, colourful beanbags and just one librarian. But there were enough books to keep us mesmerised for hours, and we always seemed to have trouble deciding on which ones to borrow without exceeding our loan limit. After each morning spent at the beach, we always spent the afternoon resting and reading. My nanna liked books about faraway places, fascinating explorers, artists, designers and chefs. She travelled the world in her books but never left Australia’s shores. There weren’t many books in the Kingscliff beach house—that’s what the library was for—but there were two of nanna’s favourite novels that all of us devoured: M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavillions and The Shadow of the Moon. Kaye’s vivid descriptions of eighteenth-century India, with so many interesting characters, and plots of adventure, romance, and intrigue, captured my imagination. In 2015 when I wandered the passageways of the Red Fort in Delhi, I was transported to those stories that I had read so long ago. For years, I have been giving Kaye’s books to family and friends, wanting to share with them a story that for me, is more than a narrative: it is an experience, a feeling and a memory of my nanna and those sleepy Kingscliff days.

The connection that we sometimes experience with a really good book is hard to capture. Marcus Zusak described it this way: ‘Sometimes you read a book so special that you want to carry it around with you for months after you’ve finished just to stay near it.’ Books have that effect on people. The Japanese refer to this as ‘nutsukashii’, which describes a feeling of fondness or gratitude for a treasured memory—that we return to many times—such as one that comes from a well-loved book.. Whenever I finish a great book, I can’t wait to share it with my students. I want to tell them all about the story, the characters, the writing, and about how it made me feel. I want them to experience the delight of a gripping suspense story, a moving drama, or a laugh-out-loud comedy.

This connection is expanded through the curation of a collection. We all know where the good books can be found—a good bookstore, or a well-resourced library. When I travel, I inevitably end up in a bookstore or library,  for hours. An essential stop in Paris is Shakespeare and Company beside Notre Dame, or the fantastic second-hand bookstores in London’s laneways, and of course the Readings bookshops in Melbourne.  Recently, I spent a few days in Sydney and spent nearly two days in the NSW State Library, and that still wasn’t enough time to do justice to exploring the Shakespeare Room or the Map Room.

You see libraries and bookstores are special places, which house incredible treasures. Our own Grammar collection is no exception. Some of the precious books in the Beanland collection include, The Grammar of Ornament: A Visual Reference of Form and Colour in Architecture and the Decorative Arts (1928) by Owen Jones, an exquisite A3-sized visual publication gifted to the School by former Art teacher, Vera Cottew in 1947; John Austen’s 1922 illustrated Hamlet Prince of Denmark, with its ornate Art Deco designs; or the intriguing illustrated books on Marine Science or Palaeontology. Of course, the vast collection of fiction titles is also a treasure.

A well-curated collection that will entice a many varied reader is essential to a school library. In his poem, ‘Half-priced Hardback’, Les Murray lamented the disappearance of bookstores fearing there would be:

no history…

nothing strange. No poetry.

No local memoirs,

no spirit, no religion,

no theory, little foreign

except tourist guides,

Thankfully, the Beanland Library (named for Sophia Beanland, Lady Principal 1882-1889) continues to grow, and our collection is shaped by our community’s interests and needs, and by the curation of a passionate library staff. From 1884 when Sophia Beanland first set up her bookshelf, books, and indeed the library itself,  have been covered and catalogued, treasured, explored, hidden and found again.

It was a humbling privilege to be entrusted with the stewardship of the Beanland collection in 2022 after Kristine Cooke’s 25 years of meticulous care. To be the next ‘Keeper’ of such a priceless collection is a responsibility I value immensely. Not long after I had moved into her office in the far corner of the first floor of the library, the library team and I were alerted to a ruckus outside our windows. The crows and noisy miners were bothered by something hidden in the shade of the trees just outside the library staffroom. Peering through the glass we were astounded and delighted to see that staring out at us was a beautiful, white, barn owl.

Ms Rachael Christopherson
Director of Library and Information Services