A Librarian Remembers

A Librarian remembers... Paddington Library

By: Robyn Cook, May 2022


Although we always had books, they were mainly second hand from op shops, fetes and jumble sales and those special new books received for Christmas and birthdays. There were subscription libraries and book exchanges for the adults but there was no school library. There were no local libraries for children. The public library movement changed all that.

1956 Discovering a treasure trove.

The security grille is still there on Oatley Road between the Ambulance Station and The Chauvel. This was the entrance to Paddington Library (aka The Frank Green Library) which I joined aged 9 in 1956 when we lived in Queen Street, Woollahra.

As my father took me up the entrance steps (at the top of which was a photograph of the eponymous Alderman Frank Green), we turned to the left and entered the children’s section. The library itself was a rectangular shape with the children’s library formed by the area divided off to form the L-shape of the larger adult library. It was very quiet and the librarians were very friendly although strict and we were supposed to be on our best behaviour.

The library seemed huge with its pastel green/blue walls and grey/beige linoleum floor covering. The lighting was very bright with framed prints on the walls and dark brown furniture. The whole place smelt of polish and that special aroma which I came to recognize as belonging to books. The slightly curved circulation desk, which served both sections of the library, had wooden panels on the sides and a lighter top. Later I was fascinated by the borrowing cards which were in little pockets and could be used for three books (supposedly two non-fiction and one fiction) that could be borrowed for two weeks.

The shelves were grey metal and it was here that the library’s treasures were stored. Such a wonderful range covering subjects I was interested in as well as introducing me to things I’d never heard of before. The non-fiction was arranged along the outer wall and the shelves on the partition between the two libraries held a treasure trove of stories from Enid Blyton to children’s classics and everything in between.

There were also reference books - useful for making notes for school projects (no photocopies in those days) and magazines. As I got older, I was allowed to borrow from the adult folio collection – mainly archaeology, art and animal books.

The visits to the Paddington Library were always special and we continued to use the library until we moved from Paddington in 1976.

1961 How do I become a librarian?

In 1957 we moved to Paddington and lived close to the library. After school and during the holidays I would spend hours reading and choosing books to take home. When aged about fourteen, I decided that librarianship was the career for me. As Paddington Library was my main source of knowledge about libraries at the time, public library work was the logical choice and I was persistently asking the Paddington staff about the steps necessary to become a librarian. I found out later that I was a topic of conversation in the staff tearoom for a while.

The advice from the Paddington Library staff paid off, and after completing high school, I started work in 1965 as a library assistant at the City of Sydney Library which was located at the Market St. end of the Queen Victoria Building.

Bliss! Thousands of books, interacting with the public every day and learning the mysteries of filing an endless supply of cards (catalogue, shelf register, circulation etc.) as well as shelving, statistics and anything else that had to be done. There were several branch libraries and we were sent there to relieve staff on leave or for longer periods.

1966 Samurais and Skating Dogs

In 1966 I was transferred to Paddington for about a year. The décor was still the same and the rather faded reproductions of works including those of Hans Heysen and Albert Namatjira were still there. The Paddington Library hadn’t changed much since 1956 but now I was Library Staff.

Library tasks were still all manual and if the junior staff filed catalogue cards (according to very strict rules) they were placed on top of the security rods which held the cards in place. The rods would be pulled out after the filing and checked by more senior staff. Sometimes the local children managed to remove some of these rods and when a Samurai series aired on TV, they made great swords for play. If they were ever found again they were so bent that they were totally useless for their original purpose.

Another great game was using the polished linoleum as a skating rink and not only did we have to control over-excited children but also occasionally have to catch a panicking dog which had wandered in and was unable to get a firm footing.

Shelving was from heavy wooden trolleys, art work for displays was done on cardboard with powder poster paints that had to be mixed with water and there was endless filing, record keeping and shelving.

On the first Tuesday of each month a clerk from the Main Library would set up a film projector in a room in the Town Hall. The films were mainly educational with the odd cartoon and it was a popular free night out.

1960’s The Regeneration of Paddington

One of the best things about public library work is the interaction with people. At the branches in particular we got to know our readers who included a wide range of people.

In the mid 1960’s there was a great deal of interest in preserving the heritage of the inner City of Sydney. The Paddington Society was formed with the aim of saving Paddington from over-development. Many of the original members belonged to Paddington Library and their work led not only to the preservation of many important sites but also the gentrification of Paddington from an inner-city working class area to the suburb it is today.

1999 Back to Paddington

After pursuing a career in public librarianship and working in a couple of special libraries, I started work as a casual at Woollahra Library January 1999. I was seconded to Paddington Library for about three months and was even there during the night of the 1999 Hailstorm which wreaked havoc across much of the Eastern Suburbs.

By now the Paddington Library was on Oxford Street and it was still a dynamic part of the community. Some of the old dark wooden tables and chairs were still being used, as were the ungainly wooden trolleys. Since 1999 the Paddington Library has undergone two upgrades to provide a modern dynamic service.

By 1999 technology had completely changed the way libraries operated. The internet was increasingly being used instead of reference books and many of the old tasks were automated. After becoming a permanent staff member of the Woollahra Library, I relieved at Paddington quite often until 2015.

The use of technology expanded the libraries range of services and many digital resources are now available off site. The connectiveness with the local community still remained (and remains) as an integral part of the Paddington Library service.

Robyn Cook May 2022

About the author

Having loved books and libraries since childhood, Robyn first started work as a Library Assistant in the City of Sydney Library service in 1965 after leaving school. During a long career in public librarianship Robyn held positions at South Sydney Municipal Library (Librarian 1968-1972 and Chief Librarian 1972-1981) and was Branch Librarian in the City of Sydney Public Library (Waterloo Branch) from 1982 to 1987. She later worked at the Woollahra Municipal Library (1999-2015) including Double Bay, Paddington, Watsons Bay and the Local history Centre.

Robyn Cook holds a B.A and M.Litt. and is an Associate member of ALIA.