Where do you go to write when you REALLY need peace and quiet?
Every author has a space where most of the writing is done ... the kitchen table, an office desk, if we're lucky a room of one's own like Virginia Woolf. On a tablet in bed ... during the commute to work. Wherever. But where do you go when you absolutely have to concentrate on the work, free of other distractions?
A few months ago I thought I was going mad with interruptions. Because I work from home, there are always other calls upon my time. Tradesmen, deliveries, telephone calls, emails, letters, bills, visitors, a pressing household job... All part of daily life.
Yet I'd reached a difficult stage with the new book, and really had to apply my mind to the work in hand if it was to be finished. What to do? Where to go? I thought about asking friends if they had a spare corner of the garage? Maybe a caravan? Should I rent an office, or even ‘go bush'? Then the answer came!
For some years I've had a ticket to use the Petherick Room at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, where I live.
It's a place where academics, researchers and writers like myself can read rare books, access the vast amount of archival material at the Library, and keep reference books from the collection on the shelf for up to three months. And of course tap into the wealth of knowledge among the Library's generous and ever-helpful staff.
I'd used the Petherick Room only occasionally. But faced with the desperate need for silence, I thought : Go there, sonny! It doesn't cost anything. It's a short bus ride from home. It's a perfect place to think. To both read as well as write books. Naturally. It's a Library.
Since then I’ve been going two or three mornings every week. And it’s amazing just how much can be accomplished within a few concentrated hours.
Not that it’s all solitude. A fine group of men and women use the Petherick Room, whose interests and research disciplines cover a broad range of the liberal arts. People to share the day’s news and gossip over a cup of coffee. Friends to talk over a problem with the work. To ask for advice on a research problem.
What’s the best book for background to the First World War? And, it being the National Library, you can call it up immediately from the stacks, or have it sent over from an outside library. The only question is: Why haven’t I been a regular reader for years?
For a long time the Petherick Room was on the ground floor, near the main reading room. This week we moved upstairs to a new, splendidly-designed Special Collections Reading Room.
Until now, people using the manuscripts, maps, music, pictures, oral history, photographic and ephemera collections had to go to separate rooms with limited hours. Now, we’re all sharing the same, larger quarters from 10 am to 8 pm six days a week … a much more efficient use of space, time, and incidentally creating an even more interesting place to work.
There are separate reading desks, high-backed with a bookshelf, individual lighting and spaced to give a degree of privacy but not isolation. Large tables to read rare books or to spread maps from the Library’s wonderful collection. Computers to search the catalogues, look at online material, and call up books. Refurbished arm chairs for a quiet browse.
The new reading room is part of a longer-term plan to modernise and integrate the Library services; and while the reading room is no longer open on Sundays (a response to the sorts of government cut-backs faced by cultural institutions everywhere), it's a relatively modest price to pay.
Certainly the Library's focus remains where it ought to be: on the readers. The ribbon was cut on Monday by the distinguished historian Dr Bruce Kent, who's been a special collections reader for the past 44 years ... longer than anyone.
Was it only Monday? No doubt there'll be a few settling-in problems – but already it feels like home. I hope you have as good a retreat, not just when you have to find peace and quiet to read and write ... but for anytime you want it.
Photos: National Library of Australia, by John Conway 2004 [By Martyman at en.wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons.
Special Collections reading Room entry: Anthony Hill