‘Not a bad use of a glass cube’ by James O’brien
‘Not a bad use of a glass cube’ by student James O’brien was developed in Writing Nonfiction Research and Readership in 2022.
The Melbourne Central Little Library is an odd bird, tucked away near the food court on the upper level of the shopping complex. It is a humble glass cube, bare except for a couple of benches and a dusty, mostly empty electric-blue bookshelf on the back wall. A younger man with a backpack similar to my own walks in and the quota for backpack men in the space is now met.
The Melbourne Central Little Library was brought into being in July 2012 for the dual purpose of avoiding the embarrassment of unproductive space in a shopping centre, and capitalising on the brief vogue enjoyed by de-commercialised public life in the early 2010s.
GPT, the ‘vertically integrated diversified property group’ that own Melbourne Central, are proud to affiliate the library with the Little Free Library movement. Although apparently not proud enough to allow the word ‘free’ to enter the shopping centre store index in any capacity. The Little Free Library organisation’s worldwide map does not include a red marker for the Little Library in Melbourne Central, perhaps out of spite at the omission.
Sitting inside, it is clear that the Library is, indeed, suffocatingly little. The wide doorway prevents the smell of books from gaining a foothold against the anodyne shopping centre smell. Mercifully, the benches are behind glass on either side of the doorway, positioned in such a way as to partially spare the sitter from One Direction singing their hearts out over the speakers. The centre playlist is compiled from the most inoffensive pop songs of the moment peppered with forgotten but recognisable hits of the last two decades.
Not great library music.
The library is described by GPT group as ‘self-managed’, which is to say that there is no-one taking care of the space in a professional capacity. The intended function of the library is that people donate a book and borrow a book. There is a hopeful air overhanging the whole enterprise. GPT acknowledges, however, that ‘the education of our customers to swap their books is an ongoing process and one we didn’t expect to have 100% success with overnight’.
The young man with the backpack leaves the cube quickly, having failed either to leave or borrow a book. This is understandable. The books all appear to be either old, or bad, or both. Many are possessed of the black cross-mark at the base of their spine that marks them as the former property of a ‘real’ library.
There are four fake pot plants placed artfully to hide the shameful emptiness of the upper shelves. This appears to be the sole intrusion of visual merchandising – quite an achievement considering its location. A single issue of Women’s Weekly rests grimly on a lower shelf, as appealing as expired milk.
The Little Library suffers by comparison to the State Library across the road, a triumphal democratic monolith that has 99 years on its little sibling. The State Library was described at the 1913 opening of its dome as a ‘milestone of intellectual progress’, something which would be difficult to say about the Little Library.
Nevertheless, it serves its purpose. Shoppers may walk past and feel good about the existence of an oasis of free exchange in a commercial hub; even if the state of its collection makes it functionally useless to most.
Beside the Little Library an enormous screen flashes ‘60% OFF’ to passers-by. Maybe I can catch a bargain on the way out.
Author bio: James O’Brien is a queer emerging writer of video games journalism, memoir, and speculative fiction. James has been published in the Victorian Writer, the Memoirist, and the Writing Cooperative. He was a participant in the 2022 games journalism mentorship run by Creative Victoria and GamesHub, and awarded third place in the 2019 OutStanding national LGBTIQA+ short story competition for his story, Not to Be.
Photo credit: James O’brien.
Contact Us Notification Email. [email] 2022.
Gpt.com.au. 2022. About Us | GPT. [online] Available at: <https://www.gpt.com.au/about-us> [Accessed 6 March 2022].
Little Free Library. 2022. Little Free Library Map – Little Free Library. [online] Available at: <https://littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap/> [Accessed 6 March 2022].
The Argus, 15 November 1913. New public library opened by Lord Denman. p.21.