Librarian Sue Johnson oversees a collection of literary treasures in Australia’s only monastic town.

Story By Heather Zubek

During the pioneering days of Western Australia, a group of Benedictine monks established a mission at New Norcia, then part of the relatively unknown interior. The year was 1847 and, although their provisions were meagre, their leader Dom Salvado planned to “establish, little by little, a library in this desert of Australia, as large as possible”.
Today New Norcia, about 140 kilometres north-east of Perth, is Australia’s only monastic town. Its library contains an array of such literary and cultural beauty that it stands at odds with the stark dry wheatbelt surrounding it. The library boasts a collection of almost 80,000 volumes and a large accumulation of journals, including many early books carrying Salvado’s signature.
“It is, in a sense, more of a collection than a library,” says Sue Johnson, monastic librarian since 1996. “There is quite a wide range of subjects, mostly religious of course, but there is also a significant collection of books on Australiana, Indigenous studies, art and journals of explorers.” Sue has even uncovered books on such diverse topics as Druid medicine, maritime navigation and even Lord Nelson’s letters to Lady Hamilton.
The oldest part of the library is housed behind the monastery walls and was built by the monks in the early 1900s. The beautiful baroque-style room with wood panelling, ceilings of pressed metal and large wooden shelves is no longer adequate to house the growing collection. The library is now housed in 10 rooms in four buildings spread across the entire town of New Norcia. “I can identify with [fantasy author] Terry Pratchett’s librarian as my knuckles become ever closer to the ground from carrying books from building to building,” Sue laughs.
Growing up in Narembeen in the West Australian Wheatbelt, Sue swore that she would never marry a farmer. “There’s just no time off. Being a farmer is just like being in a religious order; it is a calling,” she says. Sue met her husband-to-be in 1972 on a boat sailing from Perth to Singapore. She was on her way to join the hippie trail through Nepal to London. “We kept meeting up on the trip but in the end he had to get back to his Piawaning farm for seeding,” she says. “He was a tried and true farmer!”

This Story is from Issue #87

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2013