The Sketchbook Project

ImageIf the Sketchbook Project Library is popping up anywhere near you, then you have to visit. It’s in Melbourne at the moment and I went to have a look at the weekend.

It’s a travelling library of artists’ sketchbooks. Every artist involved in the project started with the same blank sketchbook which they could then write, draw, paint, paste in, cut out, as they wanted.

The books we saw were absolutely beautiful. Some were travel journals, others filled with preliminary sketches to prepare for a larger work; some had a narrative, others were collections of random images and writing. It was amazing to be able to touch these books and leaf through them, to feel the paper that was almost solid with paint or to unfold pages that had been cut out to make intricate patterns. Getting such a close insight into an artist’s work and being able to interact with it is a very special experience. I went with two friends and we spent hours exploring the books.

Even checking the books out with our personal library cards was fun. We picked up a card at the entrance and registered it, then we looked at the online catalogue and chose a theme (travel, cartography, science, narrative, etc.). One book related to that theme was brought out to us along with a random book. This meant we saw amazing books on themes we might never have considered. We could only have two books at a time each so we went up multiple times to make different selections.  We saw around 24 books in two hours. There are a few thousand sketchbooks currently in Melbourne (the total collection comprises close to 28 000 books) – if only I had enough time to see them all!

I felt really inspired looking at the books. I wish I could draw! But the best thing about the project is that absolutely anyone can take part, regardless of their drawing skills. The next submission date is 15 January 2014 and you can choose to make a basic submission of a sketchbook only (25 AUD), or to have your work digitized (60 AUD). This means that even if you can’t get to The Sketchbook Library in person, you can still have a look at some of the work online in the Digital Library. Do it, it’s great!

The Sketchbook Project Pop-up Library is located at 234 St. Kilda Road, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Building, Melbourne until 9 November.

I Love Libraries

Some weeks ago I went to Brunswick Library looking for Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (it was recommended to me by some members of my non-fiction writers’ group in Edinburgh). The book should have been in the stacks but when a librarian went down to check, he couldn’t find it.

“It’s really unusual for a book to go missing from the stacks,” he said. “There’s not much I can do except reserve it for you and keep an eye out for it.”

Fair enough, I thought, because I don’t have unreasonable expectations about what can and can’t be retrieved from library stacks.

I pretty much thought the book was a lost cause so imagine my surprise when I popped into the library today and the librarian said, “There’s a message here for you: since we couldn’t find the book you were looking for we’ve ordered a new copy.” Then she apologised because that would mean a bit of a delay in me getting it!

I told her not to worry; I thought it was amazing that they were ordering a book for me, just because I requested it. What wonderful customer service!

Book Black Hole Conundrum

I knew it would cause trouble as soon as it happened.

I thought the trouble would come in the form of a bitchy post-it note stuck to the book I’d requested. Something along the lines of This is the second time we’ve had to pull this book for you, written in red biro, of course, with SECOND in block capitals and underlined twice.

Instead I got a phone call just as I was about to board a train into the city. You already had that book yesterday, the voice said.

I was quick to set the record straight. What happened was this: Yesterday I tried to request a book from the stacks but there was a system error and my online request didn’t go through. I asked a librarian for help. He clicked around with the mouse. “There we go. Your book will be ready in half an hour.”

“Oh, but I wanted it tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll just put another request in for tomorrow.” Click click click. “Done.”

I’m afraid you’ve been misled, the voice on the phone said. It’s not that simple. We’ve got millions of books, and get hundreds of requests a day. We took back the book you requested yesterday and haven’t been able to locate it today. I’ve had two members of staff looking for it.

I asked if I could request it again for sometime next week.

No, it won’t work, because we’ve got millions of books and hundreds of requests to deal with each day…

“But what happens if you’ve got someone doing long term research who needs to use the same book every day over a long period of time? Is that not possible?”

In that case you can reserve the book. If you like I can give you a tinkle when we locate it and put it on reserve for you.

“Ah, OK, I understand. That would be great, thanks.”

But I don’t really understand. I don’t mean that I’ve got no sympathy for the people who manage the library’s huge collection, or that I’m unforgiving about the situation. I mean that I cannot comprehend what it’s like to work with millions of books..

A million dollars. I know what that’s worth, but I don’t know how many suitcases it would fill in $10 dollar bills. 10 suitcases? 100? A room full of suitcases?

It’s the same with the books. Are we talking about kilometres of shelving here? Is my book on a long overnight journey in a robotic car through a canyon of shelves back to where it came from? But it can’t be, because it took half an hour to get from its shelf to the library reading room in the first place, so surely only it should have only taken half an hour to get back to where it started? It must be sitting there on the shelf right now, right under the noses of the two staff that have been looking for it; that phenomenon where the very thing you’re looking for becomes invisible the moment it comes into direct eye line.

It’s the physics of the situation that’s so difficult to get to grips with. There must be some kind of variation in the properties of time depending on whether a book is moving in or out of the stacks, or a change in the light reflecting properties of recently disturbed books. A book black hole, perhaps?

It’s a mystery, all right.

The Man with the Evil Eye

I had some research to do for this project I’m working on and I was putting it off and putting it off because I was too lazy to do it and also because I feared that it would take a lot of time to achieve not very much.

Finally, yesterday, I thought, that’s it, you’ve just got to do it, so I signed up for membership at the State Library of Victoria. I go there often to use the internet but this was the first time I’ve tried to access any of their resources.

It was just too easy. I selected two books that I was interested in from their online catalogue, hit the request button, and a sign popped up on the screen saying that my items would be available in 30 minutes. I imagined this whole team of people in the basement being activated the moment I clicked the mouse, beginning to move methodically up and down, left and right, through a grid of bookshelves, combing through rows and rows of books for the titles I needed. It was like playing an arcade game, only better, because I would win every time and the prize would be exactly what I wanted. I could see that this could become addictive.

Shortly after collecting my books, my suspicions that I was not a very effective researcher were confirmed. One of the books was completely useless; my own fault entirely since the main reason I picked it was because I liked the title. Skimming through the contents page of the second book, I forgot all about the focus of my research when my eye alighted on the chapter title The Murder of Margaret Graham.

Of course I had to read it, and it was an interesting case. An attractive, red-headed 18 year old was found murdered in her bed by her husband, sometime in the early 1860s I believe (I’m not such a terrible researcher that I took notes on something irrelevant to my project so I can’t be sure). A casual farm hand who had been camping in the area was arrested on the strong evidence that he had an evil eye. Further damning evidence was the unusual pipe found at the scene of the murder which allegedly belonged to the accused. Or was it taken to the crime scene at a later date? The police investigating the case couldn’t agree on this point. At any rate, a farmer who had once employed the farmhand said he’d seen him with such a pipe. The farmhand was found guilty and hanged. He never confessed to the crime.

Personally, I think it must have been the husband. The victim was alive and well at 9pm and dead by the time he got home from work at midnight. What’s to say he didn’t stab her himself then run out and tell the neighbours she was like that when he found her?

Apparently the murderer entered the house via the chimney and the author of the book I was reading speculated that there would be no need for the husband to enter his own house in such an unconventional manner.

Surely there would be no need for anyone to enter the house in such a ridiculous manner. It certainly wouldn’t be very stealthy. You couldn’t make your escape the same way you came in. You’d have to exit via the front door looking conspicuously sooty and probably leaving a trail of black footprints that would lead the police straight to you. Not to mention the sooty fingerprints you would leave on the body and in the bedroom. I wondered what evidence made the police think this was how the criminal came into the house?

I also wondered if it would be possible to go back and look at newspaper articles and court reports and witness statements from the time to work out who the killer was. It’s been done before: I saw an exhibition in Melbourne Gaol about Colin Ross who was pardoned in 2008, 86 years after being hanged for murder.

But intriguing though it was, I didn’t have any more time to mess about. I knuckled down, got the information I needed, then returned the books to the collection desk.