Library Treasures

When most people think of the State Library of NSW, they think, books! Old books, new books, everywhere books! They’re not wrong. Books are abundant. Meet Maggie, our go-to library guide, with the Nuremberg Chronicle (one of the earliest examples of the printed press, also known as an Incunabula).

One of the ways in which this book is interesting to me is that it is one of the first early examples of a book using a style guide and templates. It introduces revolutionary layouts of text and imagery, and has a lovely, wonky handmade quality.

> View digitised images of select pages on the State Library of NSW website

The Library also holds in its Rare Books collection the First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected works, published in 1623. Back then, each page was hand printed, one at a time. They would arrive from the publisher and the printer would need to guess roughly how many pages there would be to the book and design an appropriate numbering scheme. What often happened is that the guess would turn out wrong, introducing inaccuracies and quirks into the book, things like inconsistent numbering and compromised layouts (omitting images and squashing text where needed to save space).

After hundreds of years, publishing is a now well-oiled machine. The production process is automated where it can be, and everyone involved in bringing a book to market applies their particular speciality at the right time in the chain to make everything go as smoothly as it can. Things are safely predictable.

I couldn’t help but compare the early days of the printing press, and the sorts of creative challenges faced then, to where web design and development is now, and has been for some time. In my field of practice, change is the only constant. Processes are always evolving, technologies are introduced constantly. Design decisions are made based on what we know about audience, business goals, content, design trends and development technologies at the time of concept, planning and building. None of these factors are static and since the digital format is interactive, it carries with it a duty to update and evolve its form. So digital professionals are always head down in the present deliverables while constantly scanning the horizon for the next thing.

The other trend on the web that is relevant here is the way that the web is finally becoming sophisticated enough to start to bring together text and imagery, more freeform layouts in flexible grid systems, more circles less squares, a diverse array of elegant fonts designed for screen reading. In short, the web is experiencing some of the design freedom in layouts and expression of content that magazines and books have cherished for many, many years. It’s a lovely loop to be a part of.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the Library. A beautiful feature of the Mitchell and Reference Libraries are the old card catalogue systems. No longer in use, as most of the cards have become digital indexes, but they stand as artefacts in themselves, testament to the history of collecting and classifying information in a point in time. They are also simply stunning objects to have around.

With spaces like this freely available to the public, why not head down to the library to read, use the wifi and be inspired by the surrounds?

Whilst this post has focused mostly on books, old books at that (here’s one more just for fun!…)

…it’s important to note that the Library is so much more than books. The State Library of NSW holds the most significant collection of artworks, maps, posters and other ephemera, and holds regular exhibitions of such things.

There are ample opportunities for anyone with an interest to get involved in the Library community too and show some love. I was touched by this grey sock, hand-knitted by a volunteer who followed an early pattern for wartime socks that is held in the collection.

The ‘Lemnos: Then and Now’ display re-purposes images from the Library collection with contemporary photographs to bring the past into the present view.

These are just a few of the ways that volunteers and artists are inspired by the collection. I’m looking forward to seeing the Library continue to flourish as they take on exciting plans for the future but for me, today, it was all about enjoying the past, breathing in the dust and that almost antiquated smell of books en masse. You know the one. It’s heaven.

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