Memories of Chifley Library
Professor of English and Theatre Studies, University of New England
I remember the large Riverbend Suite painting by Sidney Nolan in the foyer of the Library beckoning me inside, when I enrolled in 1982. It was both soothing and mesmerising.
The long, leisurely days of reading and gazing out the window are enchanted in my memory; I could see Manning Clark in his large hat and three-piece suit, cycling to ‘the Tank’ to give his lecture, and knew it was time to start moving to get there before he started.
Sometimes we students would amble out onto the grassy slopes beside the Library to lie down and read in the sunshine; we rehearsed our lines for Twelfth Night, and listened to cassettes of lectures we skipped. We rushed out into the quadrangle, beating drums on many occasions, rain or shine, to protest against uranium mining and the damming of Tasmania’s wild rivers.
One morning as I sat reading, all the shelves on the first floor wobbled and shook; several large steel units crashed to the floor in an earth tremor that left a large crack in our kitchen bench at home.
Several years later after I’d finished my doctorate, I scoured the books in Chifley for words invented and resurrected by Barry Humphries that appeared in Dame Edna’s Bedside Companion, for the Australian National Dictionary. I was rewarded with a number of words used by the Dame, including ‘gladdy’ and ‘possum’, my favourites to this day. When I went on to write a full biography of Barry Humphries, I spent hours in the collection, searching for material that would shed light on the life of this extraordinary performer.
Whenever I visit the ANU campus now I always go to Chifley, looking for that painting and my memories.
Is it 50 years since Chifley Library was opened? Hard to believe. I can remember parking my newly acquired dark green VW beetle alongside the library, down amongst the cottonwood trees that later made way for the Concessions Area, now too part of history. Chifley at that time must have been in its first two or three years of operation. My early impressions of the library, as a user, were of peace and serenity: the colours used internally were calming; all finishes and fittings were of fine quality; everything functioned perfectly. Even the drawers of the monumental card files that held the library catalogue epitomised this perfection: they glided in and out, smoothly and discreetly. One could sit and work (note-taking! a now neglected skill) at the large wooden tables on the ground floor, gazing occasionally through the windows across the soothing green of the oval. Or you could go upstairs, past a lovely Emily Hope triptych in the stairwell, and settle in one of the many carrels by the windows, from which you had a bird’s eye view across the campus. This is where I laboured over my weekly Ancient Greek prose exercises (a form of assessment torture no long practised): my task was to turn passages drawn from nineteenth- and twentieth-century English prose writers into something that occasionally resembled the Greek of Xenophon. When I see those carrels now, on the top floor of Chifley, my struggles with Ancient Greek idiom come instantly to mind. And when I browse the bookshelves nearby, which house Classics and other humanities titles, I think with gratitude of the great generosity of one of my teachers, and later a colleague, Robert Barnes, whose donations to the Library over decades have been valued at millions of dollars.
The ANU installation of a satellite dish in the 1980s ultimately on the roof of J.B. Chifley building to receive international news like CNN and overseas cultural programmes, was popular with staff and students except when students switched the programmes to watch American football and basketball- which led to an irate humanities complaining of the noise on the Chifley ground floor and that libraries were supposed to be quiet places.
Before the Library Review of 1982, books were placed on either Menzies or Chifley, depending if recommendations for purchase came from what was then the Institute of Advanced Studies staff or School of General studies staff. So, the collections were split in all social science and humanities collections - for example, half the books on Russian history or British politics in Menzies and half in Chifley. Since undergraduate students were not welcomed in Menzies in the 1960s and 1970s this often caused problems
The recommendation of the Review to amalgamate collections in either Menzies or Chifley, led to significant academic debate, where academics fought over detailed sections according the Library of Congress classification. It was also argued that Institute academics would have to mingle with students in Chifley if books from Menzies were moved Chifley. After final decisions at Board and Library committee levels, moving the collections in every library building and subsequent changing of location details took nearly 2 years.
There were uniformed guards at the exit doors, who often took their duties on security beyond checking for books! It was also remarkable how quickly elements of their uniform, their shoes seem to wear out and requests for shoes every 9 months were eventually audited as being extreme by the library business officer.