‘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
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.
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.
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?
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
- The Librarian (2018) by Salley Vickers. (Extract available via 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.
- Salley Vickers: website and Twitter
- Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo: A Memoir (1995) by Jeffrey Prentice
- ‘Domestic Arts School’ (1916, August 3). Bendigonian, 3 August 1916, p. 24.
- Newark book cards, RAECO Australia
- Mt Alvernia Hospital, John T. Collins (photographer), 21 March 1965. © State Library of Victoria.
- Salley Vickers and Patrick Gale, Perth Writers Festival, 2010, discussing ‘the therapeutic benefits of writing fiction and the impulses that lie behind their respective creative drives’
- Feature image: ‘No cissy books!’, (showing Miss Tanner with library helpers, Bendigo Children’s Library). The Argus, 18 May 1956, p. 9.
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).