Classy Customs House Library

While we were in Australia during the holidays, I got a chance to visit the dazzling Customs House Library (CHL), part of the City of Sydney Library Network (CSLN).

Customs House Library

Customs House Library

Situated in a sun soaked plaza with several outdoor cafes, CHL is conveniently located across the way from Circular Quay with its multiple ferries servicing Sydney’s northern suburbs. It’s in one of the busiest tourist areas of this cosmopolitan metropolis of over three and a half million people – the iconic Sydney Opera House and the enormous botanical gardens are just short walks away, as are several museums and The Rocks, the city’s historic district.

As I entered, I walked on top of a glassed covered model of Sydney…

Makes you feel a bit like Godzilla!

Makes you feel a bit like Godzilla!

…a good way to help visitors get an idea of the layout of the city and pinpoint attractions.

Occupying the first three of the six stories of this heritage edifice, the branch shares the stately sandstone building with city exhibits and galleries, opera and customs house management offices, and private businesses such as the rooftop Café Sydney. Openings and windows from the upper levels overlook the lobby and light from the glass ceiling floods into the atrium.

There’s even a watering hole in the library!  The Young Alfred Restaurant & Bar is on the left as you enter, just before the periodical area which has a large collection of Australian and international papers.

Snazzy newspaper storage

Snazzy newspaper storage

CHL offers free wifi (as does Kings Cross, the branch I went to when I worked just across the square from it while living here for nearly a year in the eighties.  It’s now further down Darlinghurst Street, but is still heavily used by locals and travelers).

I spoke to friendly Fiona at the Help Desk, where they have separate slots for fiction and nonfiction returns (though evidently people don’t pay much attention to the signs), to let her know I’d be taking pictures.  She told me that customers can use the self check machines down here to borrow magazines and that the many screens running images on digital computing on the light blue panels behind her are part of an interactive multimedia exhibit from the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.  Sydney From All Angles uses smart technology to let you discover different neighborhoods of the city, e.g. when you stand on the map, you’ll get stories, pictures and other info about that place.

The red ground floor Help Desk is on the left

The red lobby level Help Desk is on the left

Current journals, paperbacks and some of the internet computers are down here too.

For those with mobility issues, CHL has a stairway wheel chair lift and a fascinating glass elevator that lets you view the mechanisms at work.  As in Japan, they have bumps to warn people they’ve reached a flight of steps.  I took the wonderful circular staircase, where one flight up, the Barnet Long room, now used for functions, was at one time where imports and duties were paid.

Additional intriguing exhibits up here include Fred Hollowes: A Global Vision which honors the Aussie eye surgeon who dedicated much of his career to helping improve the vision of impoverished people in the outback and in developing countries abroad.

Fred, colleague and patients

The doctor’s legacy is a foundation which has brought sight back to almost a million people

The Sydney library has a long history.  Started in 1826, it became a public library as we know it (free!) shortly after being taken over by the state government in 1869.  CSLN now has a half million items in its nine branches (CHL is one of the newer ones, even if its shell is old).  Two library links let patrons pick up and return items, and it provides financial support to the Paddington Library.  They have loads of online databases from LINCS Community Information Directory, Ancient & Medieval History and Australia/NZ Points of View Reference Centre to Hobbies & Crafts, SpineOut (an emag for YAs) and Dragonsource (a magazine database in Chinese).

CHL doesn’t use RFID yet, so items can be checked out at the Loans and Help Desks on the branch’s top two floors.

Upstairs circulation desk

Circulation desk

Funded by the City of Sydney Council with some help from state government, CSLN offers musical scores, DVDs, CDs (displayed by genre, some of the racks are on wheels), audiobooks, videos, kits and books.  Children’s toys, bicycle repair kits and Power-Mate electricity meters can be borrowed.  They provide services to the homebound and physically challenged and have several reader’s groups.  There are loads of computer classes from basic computer, internet, email, blogging, Facebook, Twitter and web page creation to eReaders, Facebook for small organizations and Intermediate Excel and Word, and CHL has an Open Computer Lab for those who have questions that can’t be answered by all these courses.

There’s a huge media area with watching and listening stations and a Playstation console and video games.

Gaming computer by the CDs

Gaming computer by the CDs

CSLN also has the Koori collection with subjects connected to indigenous peoples at the Waterloo branch.  Another location, the award winning Surry Hills Library & Community Centre, hosts their local history collection and is the showcase green facility with a facade that follows the sun to regulate heat and light and an HVAC system that uses plants as filters.  Surry Hills sports a roof with solar panels and natural grasses, collects rainwater, and, due to a post-tensioning structural system, used less concrete when being built.

Since Sydney boasts a multicultural population, CSLN has foreign language collections in Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

CHL's Japanese collection has over 2800 items

There are over 2800 Japanese items

CHL houses the last two, which you can browse while sitting on upholstered benches or these translucent seats.  They include DVDs, magazines and English as a second language resources plus Korean children’s books and manga in Japanese.   Additionally, the State Library of New South Wales keeps a list of collections in a plethora of languages (including Assyrian!) available around the state, many of which can be interlibrary loaned free of charge.

Inside views can be as interesting as outside ones

Inside views can be as interesting as outside ones

I love how you can look out onto the soaring center of the building.  Natural light streams into all the levels, illuminating even the remotest corners.

Along with the classic decor of many of the upper section’s rooms…

Read in comfort on cushy armchairs and sofas

Read in comfort on cushy armchairs and sofas

…there are so many modern, eye-catching fixtures and furniture.  Each Ipac is accompanied by a wood block seat and is encased in bright red plastic that matches the internet stations, help desks, step stools, book carts and the magazine checkout station.

Library catalog terminals

Library catalog terminals w/ signs on slats by the tree

Lots of the signage is written vertically, often on multicolored floor to ceiling posts.  The YA area has a cool cluster of overhead lamps in red, blue and yellow and I really like this round wicker chair.

Great circular seat

Neat circular seat

CSLN has a kid’s newsletter (and adults) as well as storytimes and rhymetimes in Chinese and English and a Rock’n Rhymetime that incorporates music and movement.  Children can also attend bookbinding classes, craft, comic and recycling art workshops, Reptiles Up Close, author visits, Knight School, and Wii tournaments.  There’s a children’s area where, as in other sections of the library, old walls from when it really was a customs house are visible behind glass panes.

Youth Area

CHL Youth Area

Late Night Library, a series of events for adults only, has writer’s visits, programs on love (for Valentine’s Day), twisted fairy tales, Geeks Up Late (tech and gaming night) and, just in time for Sydney’s infamous Mardi Gras parade, a panel of bisexual, transgender, lesbian and gay Aborigines talk about what’s important to them.  Other programs include painting and calligraphy demonstrations, a burlesque workshop, craft nights, lectures on architecture and talks on writing sex scenes, being a poker shark, the traditions of Chinese New Year, the Way of Tea, and Feng Shui.

The latter half of the Fiction titles can be found up here

The latter half of Fiction can be found up here

At the top of the library, the Grand Reading Room is lovely.  White lamp shades complement the dark wood of the magnificent long tables and trim while picture windows afford great views onto the bustling area outside.  Peering through the second story balustrade, you can even see the intrepid souls gingerly making their way across the top of the nearby Sydney Harbour Bridge.  A meeting room, which can be rented at a 50% discount by community groups, is on this level too.

This beautiful library is a tribute to the excellent system that serves this vital city.

Dwarfed by a cruise ship, The Rocks are on the bottom right and the library is in the center under the arrow with Sydney behind it

Dwarfed by a cruise ship, The Rocks are on the bottom right & the library is in the center, under the arrow, w/ Sydney behind it (click on the picture for a better view)

Also, I’d like to give a big thank you to CSLN staffer, Kathy Tritsaris, who provided valuable information in advance of my trip.

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