While some library shelves are emptying for an online future, bookshops are busy and bookstagram is thriving. CityMag set out to investigate the continued fascination with books, and the people and places that love them.
Celebrating the aesthetic value of books
So, what is it about the physical objects and the places that hold them that have us so enamoured?
For Kristy Biggs, it’s a combination of the sensory process of reading a physical book and the atmosphere that books create.
“It sounds a little clichéd, but it’s just peaceful, it’s my happy place. If there’s a bookshop or a library, I will go in, regardless of if I need any more books,” Kristy says.
“I just love being surrounded by physical books, reading physical books, browsing the bookshop, getting great recommendations from the booksellers – nothing compares to that.”
Kristy says she loves browsing her library at Blackwood and visiting Matilda Bookshop at Stirling, a favourite as she feels the booksellers’ tastes there align with hers.
“I do still love that experience of going in and finding new books,” she says.
“I know personally, I walk into Matilda Bookshop and Gavin comes straight in telling me, ‘You will love this one, you have to read this book’… that experience is wonderful and you can’t recreate it with eBooks.”
Kristy says browsing books and buying books is a hobby separate from reading them.
“I’ve bought books because of the cover, I’ve bought books because of the feel… especially when you get a good floppy book or, it sounds cheesy, but the smell,” Kristy says.
“I’ll re-sort my shelves, I look at them all, I’ll take that one down and move that over there, actually I don’t want that one anymore.”
Kristy has recreated the feeling that bookshops and libraries give her at home and shares pictures of her shelves and stacks of books, along with current reads and reviews on Instagram.
She says the community she’s cultivated online has brought her real-life friends and influenced her buying habits.
“The bookstagram community is so lovely, and to be able to post about a book that I want to talk to somebody about, it’s fantastic and very addictive.
“It’s like an inbuilt book club and I love it for that. My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of the books!”
“There’s a huge emotional attachment people have with these sorts of things,” State Library director Geoff Strempel says.
We meet at the State Library’s Mortlock Wing, known for its chocolate shelves that hold rows and rows of books above us. This wing often gets Adelaide a mention on lists of the most beautiful libraries in the world.
We chat among the ground floor exhibits as staff bump out the Christmas Pageant exhibition that’s been homed there throughout the holiday season.
“We have people who get off cruise ships who speak very little English, and they’ve got a page they’ve torn out of a magazine and they’re pointing at this and wanting to come and see it, we have people walk in and say, ‘where’s the Harry Potter library?’”
Geoff tells CityMag that libraries act as a third place, separate from home and work, where you can go and you don’t have to buy anything; you can sit there and just be.
“Lots of people talk about it as my library, there’s that real sense of ownership and belonging,” he says.
Libraries have always acted as community spaces, with their sense of place being derived from books even as visitors rely on them less. There’s something for all ages, with offerings such as baby bounce and rhyme classes for parents, and tech-savvy seniors classes helping older visitors navigate their devices and stay safe online.
“Libraries have become incredibly passionate about not just opening the doors and saying, ‘here’s our collections’, but engaging with the community to make sure that they understand the richness of the collections and how best to engage with them,” Geoff says.
While one university library is emptying shelves for a largely online offering, Geoff says the State Library is not at risk of the same fate.
“I understand the pressure on the universities, they need the cutting-edge material and much of it is databases online and many of those materials will never find their way into a physical journal or a book,” he says.
“We keep gathering, we’re constantly bringing in new material into our collection, buying and having donations. But we are also an historical library so we will all always and unapologetically be a book-centred organisation.”
The State Library of South Australia has 65 kilometres of shelving in its basement, and while parts of the collections are digitised, Geoff says they’ll never digitise it all because the collections are so vast.
The State Library is known for more than just its archive and shelves. It has hosted sold-out high teas and most recently, Christmas at the Mortlock. As part of 2023’s Illuminate festival, the library hosted a Storytellers Distillery pop-up gin bar that saw 35,000 visitors stop into the Mortlock Wing for a pour.
While the library welcomes over 550,000 visitors a year, Geoff says hosting these events offers a good opportunity for people who otherwise wouldn’t discover the library and that having events open to the public rather than privately run is a conscious decision to keep the community feel.
In CityMag’s day at the Mortlock, we came across many visitors with cameras in hand, poised to take their picture with the ‘grammable locale. They walk slowly through the upper level, looking for a place to pose that wouldn’t see occupying students in the back of their shot.
“I think there is something about the ambience of being a student,” Geoff says.
“Those people could study on their device at home, they’re choosing to come to a public space, and they want and expect that public space to have a certain ambience.
“That generally has a sense of being surrounded by knowledge, and the books have a nice vibe and feel about them.”
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When InDaily spoke to UniSA’s Director of Library Services Richard Levy in December he agreed the decorative value of books is something that shouldn’t be left behind as the organisation moves forward.
“The books even in pillars and ceilings, the aesthetics of the book, there’s probably a place for that in terms of discrete collections that remind you of what libraries have always been, because they do predate the internet,” Richard says.
Deputy Director of Library Services Katrina Gillespie echoed this sentiment, saying she’s observed students gravitating to libraries for spaces they can feel studious in.
“I wonder whether people are ready to make the complete shift to having no books, and I don’t think they are,” Katrina says.
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