Vivien Achia was a Librarian at Preston Technical College / College of TAFE from 1979 to 86. Up until 1985 she had a specific responsibility (and passion for) the College’s mobile library service. The job took her all over the local community, bringing learning resources to all sorts of people who otherwise would not have been able to access vocational and further education. In this article Viv reminisces on a unique service that literally brought technical and further education to the doorsteps of thousands.
“What I was trying to do was build a bridge between education and those with limited opportunities.” – Viv Achia.
It may well have been the only one in the world. Certainly at a library conference in Adelaide in the early 1980s, when I asked the American guest speaker whether they had mobile libraries at their colleges and universities, he replied, ‘Say you’re the only one in the world, honey, until someone challenges you’.
The mobile library was short, high, and white, critically underpowered, and with a narrow wheel base. I heard a rumour that the business manager at Preston College at that time, because he knew the vehicle would be driven by women, wanted to ensure that it did not have too much power.
It was top-heavy with plastic bins of books on metal racks high up inside the squat body, and their weight was likely to turn it over like a turtle on a steep camber or a curve. Coming back to base up Bell St from the tram terminus, I had to keep left and strain at the accelerator to crest the rise, while all other vehicles sped past me. When we finally achieved the top of the slope we cruised down to St George’s Road and with the truck creaking and groaning, entered our tin garage, where I left it for the night.
The mobile library service was a lifeline to community-based adult learners, in neighbourhood houses, community centres, learning centres, health centres and schools in a wide area from Brunswick to Craigieburn, Diamond Valley and Heidelberg. It provided essential resources to marginalised students, many of whom were attending classes for the first time since they were children. Many adults were learning English as a second language, typing, computing, or studying Preparatory or year 11 and 12 subjects. In the clunky truck I visited each class fortnightly, delivering books, tapes, videotapes and notes, and writing down requests for my next visit.
I also used my own personal Kombi Van to deliver typewriters, computers, and heavy video units to classes each day, moving them at midday to a new location. The prison officers at Pentridge, our local gaol, insisted that I park the Kombi over a deep pit so that they could check for weapons under the body. Then they ducked and swore because the oil leaks were heavy and the underside was soaked with black goo. Once past security, unaccompanied on most occasions, I rumbled through the prison to the far end, to drop off typewriters for classes, under the watchful eyes of prisoners in the gardens and yard.
Our low-key, friendly approach allowed people to gain confidence in their own abilities and to request resources from a funny truck, rather than a formal library. We supplied language learning materials at many levels from beginners to advanced, and for beginners, bi-lingual courses in their first language and English. We did lose a number of ESL kits, tapes, books and bi-lingual dictionaries, but I argued that they were necessary aids to people’s lives and had gone to good homes.
My working day was spent either out in my truck or in a tin garage at the Leicester St end of the library car park. It was roasting in summer and freezing in winter. I had a phone, a desk, and a budget. I shared my shed with some red back spiders and mice. One day when I returned for lunch at about 2 pm, I found that mice had chewed their way into my sandwiches. This made me furious as I was hungry.
Despite the hard physical work lifting crates of books, loading and unloading equipment into the truck or my Kombi, climbing stairs with computers, and dragging heavy video units across the car park, I loved the work: my clumsy truck, my tutors and adult students, and my life on the road. I know we made a difference.