The Library at Borroloola is a place where the books and the building have long since been eaten by white ants. The story of the Borroloola Library is one of the most poignant and mythic of all library stories. If books and libraries are in crisis in 2011, and perhaps they are, imagine if you will, the tale of the library in Borroloola.
Borroloola is 1500 kilometres South East of Darwin, and 60 kilometres from the sea on the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the 1890s a mounted policeman, Cornelius Power, established the library. It is probable that he wrote to the governor of Victoria asking for donations of books. A thousand handsome books apparently came, by ship, and were kept in the jail as there was nowhere else for them to go. Later on there were three thousand books in total. This library became the centre of cultural life in the area, a handful of bushies and a large population of indigenous people borrowing and reading and holding regular open air public discussion on the things they read about. The collection contained the leather bound books that an educated Edwardian Englishman might have had in his house. Dickens, Bronte, Henry James, Kipling, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Plutarch, Homer, Virgil, the Bible – covered in canvas jackets. Ernestine Hill described it as ‘a kindly light of sanity to men half mad with loneliness’. By the late 1950s the library was in an almost total state of decay. Some of the books had been sent to Darwin. But many of them had been borrowed and never returned, and what remained would eventually be eaten by white ants, the pages of works of great literature ending up in the material of the ant hills. When David Attenborough made a documentary about it in the early sixties, he reported that the only remaining book was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and that although the title page was legible, most of the interior had been eaten.
Sic transit Gloria mundi.