The link below is to an article reporting on the opening of The Children’s Library at the State Library of NSW (Australia) for the first time on the 12th October 2019.
The Donald and Myfanwy Horne Room will open today in a gracious space in the State Library of New South Wales. One side of it is adorned with objects from the home where I lived with my family, my father Donald Horne (1921-2005), author of The Lucky Country and numerous other books, and my mother, journalist and editor Myfanwy Horne (1933-2013) who wrote as Myfanwy Gollan.
The rest of the room is set aside for study based on ideals of scholarly curiosity, imaginative inquiry and intellectual creativity. As my father wrote shortly before he died, words like curiosity and imagination help “celebrate scholarship and the marvels of the intellectual life more generally”.
The State Library has selected certain objects from my family home to inspire their scholars and fellows program — an upholstered mid-20th century armchair, a large 19th century pedestal desk and a collection of some 4000 books.
The armchair, now upholstered in a dark green material over the original knobbly grey fabric, was acquired by my parents to furnish their first home in 1960, a small, rented two-bedroom garden flat in Sydney’s leafy Double Bay.
It was on this chair, in 1964, that my father sat “pen in hand, pad on knee”, as my mother later wrote, “to write The Lucky Country”. I was too young to remember this act of defiance, as some now see it — after all, surely a serious writer sits at a desk. The act itself was born out of necessity, and only later became symbolic (at least in my parents’ minds) when my father acquired a new string to his professional bow — a writer of books.
In the early years of their marriage in their small flat, my parents had a choice: to turn a spare room into a dining room or into a study with a desk. A dining room it became, and instead of a desk, they purchased a mahogany dining table. Not only does this choice show the importance of the dining room in middle class Australia, but also the consequence my parents gave to the well-planned dinner party. My father even brought to his marriage several signature dishes, including a delectable petit pois dish I still cook to this day as well as Ted Moloney’s and George Molnar’s Cooking for Bachelors (1959).
The Lucky Country came out of formal quests for knowledge, but also arose out of congenially robust discussion around the dining room table. My mother acquired a new professional role, as editor of all her husband’s books and much of his other published writing. The armchair, then, marks a state of transformation in my parents’ working and personal lives and in their home, as an enduring workshop of ideas.
In 1966, we moved from our rented flat to our new house, a late 19th century two-storey terrace with room for both a dining room and a study. It remained my parents’ home for the rest of their lives and was not sold until 2015. The spacious, high-ceiling upstairs room at the front was soon furnished as a writers’ study.
Book cases graced either side of the fireplace, one with a small built-in desk for my mother to work at on her typewriter. The French doors leading on to the front verandah were shaded by heavy, satin, mustard coloured curtains. The centrepiece was the large, 19th century pedestal desk chosen by my mother. Placed in the middle of the room at a slightly raffish angle, my father savoured the room as a place to write, surrounded by bookcase-lined walls.
As he later wrote, “sitting at the desk Myfanwy had chosen for me became one of our essential ceremonies” of intellectual life together. “My writing came from a joint workshop of which she was a part. Not only the dinners and lunch parties that helped keep things going: without her emotional support and intellectual support I don’t know that I would have ‘become a writer’.”
Books that influenced my father’s writing and thinking are now displayed in beautiful glass cabinetry in the State Library. You can peruse the spines for a quick trip through 20th century ideas, global politics and history, its revolutions, art, political philosophy, sociology. Well-thumbed copies include A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by the 18th century advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, and The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies by the 20th century cultural theorist, Roland Barthes, for its critique of bourgeois culture.
Many of the books include his annotations — paper clips, discrete dots, vertical lines and squiggles — making it possible to trace some of what inspired his own social and political critique. The English translations of the writings of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, for instance, were marked up for his favourite passages on hegemony, “common sense” and the idea that we are all intellectuals. They represent, in many ways, his scholarly footnotes.
“I’ll just go to the study to look it up,” is a refrain I often heard from my parents. Rather than reconstruct their study, the artefacts in the State Library’s Donald and Myfanwy Horne Room have been chosen to continue the intellectual pursuit of conversation and ideas.
You can work at the desk, sit in the green armchair and — by application to the librarian — peruse the books and decipher the scrawls left by my father. These objects are not only tokens of two productive writing lives, but an inspiration to future generations who believe that books and ideas matter.
What are people looking for when they browse the State Library of NSW’s collection of six million items?
There are books in there, of course, but also photographs, soldiers diaries from World War One, locks of childrens’ hair, a vast array of paintings and sketches, maps, diaries from First Fleet officers and soldiers, Aboriginal artefacts and even floppy disks from the 1980s.
As winners of the inaugural DX Lab Fellowship at the State Library of NSW, we wanted to reveal the breadth and diversity of this collection (most of which is held in the library’s underground stacks), and show what odd and interesting items pop up when people search the collection online.
The result is Unstacked, launched this week by the library’s DX Lab, Australia’s first cultural-heritage innovation lab. DX Lab aims to build and support new ways of design thinking, experimentation and research with digital technologies.
So what is Unstacked? It is a webpage that updates to show what items people are accessing from the State Library of NSW’s collection. When people look at a collection item, it pops up on Unstacked. It is essentially a window into the collection, and an insight into what people are interested in at any given time.
Unstacked because it presents in a visual form items which are physically or digitally coming delivered from “the stacks”; the underground space where the library stores holds much of their collection.
You can view Unstacked on your computer, mobile phone or device. The plan is to display this project over a large space in the library for everyone to see. We’ve found that when it is shown in a public space, it provokes conversation and this was one of our aims.
What are people searching for?
The work reveals that the library’s users have very different interests and this highlights the diversity of the collection.
People use the library for all types of research. On any given day you might see searches ranging from Shakespeare, the psychology of teenagers or HSC papers to subdivision plans, kisses, houses in Lilyfield in the 1970s, or mosquito management.
For example, if you were looking at Unstacked when someone accessed a photograph of colonial houses from the collection, then you would see that photograph appear.
If you were interested in finding out more about this photograph then you could enlarge it and see more details. You could then click on the link to its record in the library’s online catalogue.
You may well see this photograph displayed alongside a book on The History of the Bean Bag, war diaries or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. It depends on what other people are looking at, at that moment.
And because people access the collection chiefly through the library’s web-based catalogue, the search queries displaying on Unstacked could be coming from anywhere – in the library, in regional NSW or on the other side of the world.
Visualising the searches
In respect to design, we wanted to showcase items with minimal fuss and let the contents of the collection speak for themselves. We thought a lot about how much information to show and when to show it.
In consultation with the library, we settled on a visualisation that balances communication and aesthetics. In other words, it looks good but is still easy for anyone to understand what they’re looking at. One of the challenges we encountered was how to deal with items from the collection that don’t have images attached to their records.
For published items including books, we used a palette of colours created by Chris Gaul for the UTS Library, which represent the different Dewey Decimal topics. For example, blue represents social sciences and orange represents geography and history.
We’ve had responses like “I had no idea the State Library of NSW had things like that” and “I’m going to look that up too”. People have been surprised by just how interesting and diverse the State Library’s collection is. They’re also amazed that anyone undertaking research can go into the library and look at the originals whether they be rare books, photographs or drawings.
We hope that Unstacked will increase the number of visits to the library both virtual and physical and inspire people to explore the State Library of NSW’s incredible collection.
This article was co-authored by Adam Hinshaw, a creative technologist specialising in interactive installation and a co-creator of Unstacked.