Posted by: bluesyemre | August 31, 2020

In a #pandemic, the #library is our great social leveller by #SarahMalik

Growing up, music and visual art required a class passport I didn’t have, but all you needed to get into the library was your card, and your mind.

“She had these little lights fastened to the wall,” my friend recalls from her Zoom meeting. 

“Then I realised the lights were actually used to light up the art work. Individual lights for each canvas! And don’t get me started on the bay windows.”

We looked at each other in wonder and sighed. My friend was musing on the worlds she zoomed into during chats with her superiors, under work from home arrangements imposed by COVID.  

We were both western Sydney working class gals who had acquired law degrees, travelled overseas and had careers in professions where we were often only public school educated people in the room. But a house with bay windows and little lights for art in Sydney? That seemed like a dream.

“Oh my god, one day I want to be that rich,” I exclaimed.

As the traditional divide between work and home becomes more permeable, and video conferencing offers us a glimpse into each other’s living spaces, pets and casual clothes, there’s a sense that some barriers are coming down. But in other ways, the barriers remain more stark and obvious than ever.

Not only are working class and young people more likely to be forced into work that doesn’t allow the luxury to work from home; for those who do, they are also least likely to have the kinds of homes that make remote working arrangements possible or comfortable.  

The embarrassment of this can be so pointed that there are custom tools offering fake backgrounds for those who want to hide their home backdrops, shielding cramped workspaces and private bedrooms-turned-offices from prying eyes.  

Personally, saving on the expensive tolls and commutes from western Sydney has been a boon. But I’m also a restless person who likes to be on the move and surrounded by people. Living near a mosque emitting a slow melodious Adhan is nice, but my interviewees hearing an intoning “Allah hu Akbar” during filming might feel otherwise.

When I was a freelancer, cafes and co-working spaces offered me refuge from the monotony and isolation of home. But they were also corporate spaces, accessible only if paid for and for brief periods of time. 

I jogged through my mind for where else I could go. The library! Why hadn’t I thought of it? I had loved libraries growing up, but that love had given way to trendier bookshops and cafes as an adult. 

Now more than ever, the great leveller that public libraries offer highlights the importance of public services.

Now more than ever, the great leveller that libraries offer highlights the importance of public services. From health, housing to education, these resources don’t just offer economic relief but a place of community and information. Libraries are used for everything from health information, migrant classes, or just to check in on the locals –  a place, the Guardian reports, social workers can detect for domestic violence and homelessness, as people flock to them as an affordable and safe alternative to staying at home. 

As a child, libraries were were the ultimate means for social mobility, offering free access to books beyond the syllabus of low expectations.  Music and visual art required a class passport I didn’t have, but all you needed to get into the library was your card, and your mind.

Music and visual art required a class passport I didn’t have, but all you needed to get into the library was your card, and your mind.

One of my first jobs, which remains high on the list of favourite gigs, was working as a university student ‘rover’ library assistant – a title helpfully emblazoned across a bright orange shirt. I couldn’t believe I got paid to roam through the five story building. The comfort and calm I felt weaving through the journals, historical texts, fiction and newspapers made me giddy with happiness. The local suburban library had helped me upgrade to library 2.0 and, effectively – a new life – and I was grateful.  

Revisiting the local library, I was surprised to see it transformed into a kind of high tech hub – humming with English and computer classes, health notices, films in different languages and kids’ reading areas. Retired Asian men pored over Chinese newspapers and the elderly and those living rough sat with some dignity in a warm space with wifi.  

Space is a prized commodity. In the absence of public squares and domains like good libraries and parks, there is nowhere but McDonalds, Starbucks and shopping centres – corporate spaces to fill the void of absent or overrun public services. There, you’ll find clean toilets, wifi, and a place to sit if you can make the drink last, and maybe even a job. And that precious feeling of being able to afford something small but nice for yourself. The various Maccas of western Sydney has offered me a front row seat to life – divorced couples exchanging custody of children, an overdose, conversations with kids with rapper names like ‘Trigger’, teens breakdancing and congregating in  carparks. Midnight runs with friends that attract catcalls followed by ashen faced apologies when we give them that ‘Aunty look’. 

But an inner west pavilion style library remains my favourite ‘fourth space‘ –  the fanciest and best, with kitchens, study rooms and soft cushion seats, now dotted with stickers reminding students and freelancers who congregate there to socially distance. But the reminders aren’t needed, because libraries are the ultimate social distance haunts, the camaraderie of company is in the buzz of people like you – like us –  padding through the aisles searching for a place to be alone, together; hushed and cozy in a corner.  

Sarah Malik is a Walkley-award winning journalist and SBS presenter. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahbmalikFacebook or Instagram. Her work covers migration, feminism, domestic violence, representation and cultural diversity. To contact her for engagements, see her website.

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