Children’s Librarians—Igniting the Reading Spark

‘Long hours spent alone in her bedroom had encouraged in Sylvia the habit of reading … On Saturday mornings, while her father read the papers and her mother made a martyr of herself over the household chores, Sylvia got in the way of walking down to the library, unescorted.’

This portrayal of a young Sylvia Blackwell, from Salley Vickers’ 2018 novel The Librarian, could just as easily describe me (if not, quite, my parents). The ‘long hours spent alone’ in my bedroom not only included reading but also cataloguing my book collection. Like Sylvia, I was a librarian in the making. And ‘unescorted’ Saturday walks to the library were a regular feature of my life in late primary school years.

Children’s librarians – real and fictional

Cover image (trade pbk) courtesy of Penguin Australia

In Vickers’ novel, set in 1958, the youthful Sylvia Blackwell is influenced by a thoughtful and energetic librarian. In her turn, Sylvia becomes that influential guide for her young charges in the fictional English town of East Mole.

The guiding librarian of my youth was Miss Euphemia (Pheme) Tanner, children’s librarian at the Bendigo Library, Victoria.

Euphemia Catherine Tanner was born in 1914, the year her parents, May Smith and Francis Tanner, married. In mid-1915, her father enlisted for service in World War I. He was killed in action in France the following year.

Training for life

Pheme Tanner grew up in Bendigo, living with her mother and her maternal grandparents. In his 1995 publication, Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo, Jeffrey Prentice writes that Pheme had a ‘closeted childhood’ and ‘turned to reading’ for companionship. She attended Gravel Hill State School and proceeded from there to the Bendigo School of Domestic Arts.

The Arts School, established in 1916, was welcomed with gusto by the Bendigonian. The paper’s columnist wrote that ‘just as boys were able to learn trades at State technical schools, their sisters will be able to learn … everything connected with the work of a house and will fit themselves for that grand female profession – the oldest and the best and women’s true vocation and life work – the care of a husband and a home … It is safe to say they will prove prizes in the matrimonial lottery for the happy men fortunate enough to secure them as wives.’

Whether or not Pheme wished to be ‘secured’, I do not know. She did not, however, enter the ‘matrimonial lottery’.

After a stint working as a domestic, she became the part-time librarian at the Legacy Junior Library in Bendigo. That library closed in 1944 and its 600 books and furnishings were donated to the Bendigo Children’s Library. Pheme was appointed librarian there in 1946.

A career in books

Pheme’s experience as a children’s librarian parallels that of the fictional Sylvia Blackwell. In Vickers’ novel, Sylvia’s initial survey of the children’s section of the East Mole Library ‘revealed an outdated collection, much of which would hardly pass for children’s reading in the twentieth century’. Likewise, when Pheme Tanner scanned Bendigo’s children’s collection in 1946 she saw it was ‘in a sorry state with some of the 8,000 books not suitable for borrowers and many in disrepair’ (Prentice, 24).

Another link between Pheme and Sylvia is their approach to drawing children into the library building. Both solicited the help of local schools, inviting classrooms of children to come to the library and sample its wares. Pheme Tanner went one step further. She invited interested school children to ‘work’ at the library on Saturday mornings.

RAECO book slips and pockets

So it was that, twenty years after Miss Tanner took up her position as children’s librarian, I began my ‘career in books’. On Saturday mornings, I took my unescorted walk to the Bendigo Library. Once there, I stamped ‘Date Due’ slips, slotted the borrower cards from returned books into their rightful back-of-book pockets, and gathered up higgledy-piggledy piles of books for re-shelving in their proper Dewey Decimal home.

Miss Tanner permitted her gaggle of volunteers a mid-morning break. We gathered in an airless, bookless room for a few minutes to slurp on free icy poles. (Although the job of purchasing the icy poles was a coveted one, it never appealed to me. Why would I want to leave the company of books?) At the library’s midday closing, I departed with my pay (10c) and a bundle of reading for the coming week.

Cover image from Jeffrey Prentice’s Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo

Pheme Tanner, one of the first full-time children’s librarians in Australia, continued in her role at the Bendigo Library until 1979. I have no knowledge of her personal feelings towards the thousands of children who passed through the doors of her domain. I suspect she might not have shared the gushing sentiment of Sylvia Blackwell who ‘at times, experienced surges of overwhelming love for her little customers’, but she would have shared Sylvia’s delight in observing those children ‘prospecting the shelves for new finds, or sitting spread-legged on the floor, absorbed in exploring the varied kingdoms to which the books she had chosen for them had opened doors.’

What Did Pheme Read?

Mt Alvernia Hospital, Bendigo, 1965. John Collins, photographer.
Copyright, State Library of Victoria.

But what of Pheme’s own reading life? Sadly, no clues about her non-professional reading remain. Apparently the retired librarian destroyed most of her personal papers shortly before her death, ‘in lonely circumstances’ at Bendigo’s Mt Alvernia Hospital (Prentice, 10). Her ‘personal library of reference books’ was purchased by children’s literature specialist Jeffrey Prentice who was intrigued to discover ‘a fine and informative’ collection on ‘children’s literature, library practice, bookselling and printing’ (Prentice, 5).

Living different lives

Salley Vickers, whose novel The Librarian was inspired by her own experience ‘as a young girl with a superb local library and a remarkable children’s librarian’, told a Perth Writer’s Festival audience: ‘I think all my characters are based on myself, but not my life. I write in order to live those different lives. I don’t regard those as less lived than the real life.’

My hope is that, within the physical confines of the Bendigo Library and among the pages of so many books, Euphemia Catherine Tanner lived ‘different lives’. Lives no less lived than her life as a children’s librarian, and certainly more expansive than her pre-ordained role as a prize in the matrimonial lottery.

Links and sources

Cover image (pbk) courtesy of Penguin Australia

In her author’s note for The Librarian, Vickers writes that the real-life Miss Blackwell of her youth ‘had a fierce dislike of Enid Blyton and I have given this prejudice to her namesake [Sylvia Blackwell]’. Pheme Tanner shared this disapproval (Prentice, 29). I suspect, too, that Pheme and the Miss Blackwells (both real and fictional) would have found common ground among the book orders for their respective children’s libraries. Vickers includes a list of ‘Recommended reading from East Mole Library’ at the end of The Librarian. It includes two Australian authors: P. L. Travers for her Mary Poppins books and Norman Lindsay for The Magic Pudding.

Footnote

After Pheme Tanner’s death in 1993, La Trobe University (which has a campus in Bendigo) established the biennial Pheme Tanner Award ‘for outstanding personal contribution to children’s literature’.

Recipients include authors Craig Smith (2011), and Christobel Mattingley (1999), illustrator Noela Young (1995), and librarian and former president of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Bronwen Bennett (2008).

Pheme Tanner, c. 1938. Image from Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo (1995) by Jeffrey Prentice

Signs and Wonders

What do we ‘see’ when we travel?

This is the question I asked myself last week as I began labelling photographs taken during several sojourns in the UK. The labelling task seemed a useful occupation during bound-to-base, COVID-19 days.

My first experience of overseas travel didn’t come until I was in my mid-50s, quite an august age for an Australian of my generation, and something that made me unusual among my peers.

I’ve never had an urge to travel. I recall sitting at a wedding reception with a group of strangers a decade or so ago. The conversation started with ‘Where do you live?’ (a guest from Sydney) and ‘What do you do?’ (a guest from Canberra). There were no guests from Melbourne so we didn’t ask ‘Who do you barrack for?’ or ‘What school did you go to?’ Eventually, the questions shifted to family and children. One of my children had been living overseas for a couple of years at that stage so the inevitable query was ‘Have you been to visit?’ When I answered in the negative, the follow-up question was inevitable: ‘When are you going?’

Home and Away

At that time, I hadn’t considered going at all.

I like home. I am content with the mundane and averse to people en masse. As the years passed, however, it became clear that my son in the UK would not be returning to Australia. It was time to arrange a passport.

Being an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent, I carry images of London in my DNA. Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, the River Thames. There is a sense in which I had known the English metropolis before I ever set foot there.

But imagination is not the same as reality.

Looking back at the photos from my initial visits (and, yes, there have been several now), I am interested to see what captured my attention, what it was I chose to record.

Certainly, there are pictures of renowned sites – Lord’s Cricket Ground, Royal Albert Hall, St James’s Park – but there are other, perhaps less expected, snapshots. The latter fall mostly into three types: places that put flesh on the bones of my imagination, sites that offered a connection to home, and unexpected oddities.

Here is a sample…

Flesh on the Bones of Imagination

  • Cheapside

As long-term readers of this blog know, I have a fondness for the novels of Jane Austen. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a certain London district is spoken of with derision and disdain.

One evening at Netherfield Park, the conversation turns to the Bennet family’s relations. Mrs Hurst reveals that there is an uncle (Mr Gardiner) ‘who lives somewhere near Cheapside’.

‘That is capital’, replies Miss Bingley and both sisters laugh heartily at the Bennets’ ‘vulgar relations’. Mr Darcy compounds the sisters’ scorn by declaring that, for the Bennet daughters, having relatives living in such a place ‘must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world’.

My pleasure was great indeed when I accidentally found myself wandering into this formerly unsavoury part of London.

  • The Inns of Court

Another of my literary favourites is C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. The series’ protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer who conducts his legal business at the Inns of Court. Shardlake’s offices are at Lincoln’s Inn, but he also petitions at Gray’s Inn and Clifford’s Inn.

No doubt I missed some of the erudite narrative presented by my London Walks guide as I strolled among the buildings where the fictional Shardlake had walked before me.

In Cheapside and around the Inns of Court, I took photos of signs that authenticated the mental pictures formed through reading.

 

Connections with Home

I never suffered a moment’s homesickness in the course of my UK travels. But that’s not to say I didn’t recognise, and welcome, connections with home.

  • The Cutty Sark

On three separate occasions, I visited the Cutty Sark, the famed tea and wool clipper now preserved as a museum in Greenwich.

After my first visit, I became so enamoured with the ship that I spent hour upon hour in the National Library of Australia researching the clipper’s voyages to the Australian colonies.

As with Cheapside and the Inns of Court, it is the interpretive signage on board the Cutty Sark that features in my photos.

 

  • Captain Bligh House

In a stroke of good fortune when searching for accommodation options in London, I came across a self-catering B&B in Lambeth. It’s a quirky establishment that reflects the flair of its artistically minded owners.

And the connection with Australia?

The house was once home to Captain William Bligh, infamous for the mutiny on the Bounty, and only slightly less infamous for his ill-fated governorship of the colony of New South Wales.

 

Curiosities and Oddities

You’ll have noticed by now that I like taking photos of words – interpretive text, street signs, wall plaques, you name it. If there are words in public spaces, they will likely be recorded on my camera … especially if those words reveal the unfamiliar or the unusual.

Private Gardens

On my first stay in London (when Captain Bligh House was, alas, already fully booked), I spent a few nights in a small hotel in Victoria, very close to genteel Warwick Square and its leafy arbour. My only previous knowledge of private communal gardens came from the movie Notting Hill where Anna (Julia Roberts) and William (Hugh Grant) execute a successful night-time ‘break and enter’ over a wrought iron fence and into Rosmead Gardens.

Prior to their illegal climb and drop, William points out that ‘only the people who live around the edges are allowed in’.

Signage at Warwick Square’s garden reinforces William’s claim.

An entry in my diary indicates the status of those likely to be admitted to the lush green plot: ‘The price of real estate here is suggested by the make of cars parked on the street alongside the garden fence: BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and four Porsches.’

  • Street Crossings

Another English novelty was the Humped Pelican crossing.

I am familiar with Zebra crossings, a name clearly referencing the white stripes on black bitumen, but a ‘humped pelican’? Nothing at the crossing site offered a clue to its meaning.

It was only after searching the internet that I discovered ‘Pelican’ is a portmanteau derived from ‘Pedestrian Light Controlled Crossing’.

(In addition to both Zebra and Pelican crossings, the UK also has Puffin, Toucan and Pegasus crossings.)

 

What Did I See on My Travels?

I saw signs and wonders!

I travelled into an unknown land (albeit one with cultural similarities to my homeland) and I was alert to both familiarity and curiosity. The first reinforced my own sense of self and my known place in the world, the second exposed me to difference and a wider understanding of ‘the other’.

And, as is so often the case, literature bridged the two.

Waterstones, Piccadilly (photo taken with permission)

 

Links and Sources

Photo credits: this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.