Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Of Lullabies and Libraries

The Observer and Free Lance, Auckland, 1885

Librarians have a reputation for saying “Shhh!” and for being fond of rules, but with the possible exception of Sister Francis Mary in my high school years, that’s never been my experience. These days it’s more likely to be the patrons who call for order — most recently in the Auckland Public Libraries where, according to the New Zealand Herald, “Snoring snoozers upset library users”.

Aucklander Catherine Jones is quoted as saying it’s “rude and inconsiderate for people to be treating our public libraries like some motel.... It’s not just the sleeping... sometimes it’s the snoring that I find irritating when you want to have a quiet read”.

A section of the community (not just in New Zealand but around the world, I’ve noticed) is emphatic about what a library is for, and even more so about what it’s not for. Mostly, such people say it’s not for noise — on this they are very vocal — but complaints cover a wide range, from internet use by fellow library patrons to their propensity to fall asleep. 

Glen Eden Public Library, 2011.
It’s the libraries’ fault, of course. They shouldn’t have brought us the internet, and especially not for free. Nor should they be running those Wriggle and Rhyme sessions for toddlers. And what business do they have providing comfy chairs? What next: a regular broadcast of lullabies?

Seriously, though, I’ve had no trouble with noise in the public library, nor with anyone sleeping there. The sounds I hear indicate that a wide range of people now feel at home, something that public libraries around Auckland have worked to achieve in the last few years.

Call me naive, but I like to think that people who visit for ‘the wrong reasons’ (whatever those are) may one day be tempted to pick up a novel or use the catalogue to find out about the world beyond our walls. If not, they may at least catch up on some much-needed sleep, and I can’t begrudge them that.

If you object to others sleeping and snoring in the library, I have a suggestion for you. As you use the library with your eyes wide open, you’re probably more mobile than anyone engaged in grabbing some shut-eye — so rather than expect them to move along, how about you find another place to be? (And shhh! In case you wake them up.) A number of public libraries in Auckland have areas specified for reading, study and contemplation. Even in those that don’t, there’s usually more than one quiet corner.

The Herald interviews library sleepers who are neither apologetic nor ashamed — a language school student and a housewife — and quotes Auckland Libraries manager Allison Dobbie. It’s “heartening” that people find libraries “warm and welcoming places to relax and read”, she says, acknowledging at the same time that patrons have probably slept in library buildings throughout public library history.

In New Zealand libraries, the number of winks some individuals have enjoyed must be many multiples of forty. On searching the National Library’s wonderful Papers Past website using the key words “library” and sleep”, I found evidence that this activity dates back to the earliest years of the Auckland Public Library. Under the heading “Library Loafers” (above), Auckland’s Observer and Free Lance newspaper of May 2, 1885 reports, “Our Public Librarian complains of a good many people making use of the Library to sleep off their last night’s potations.”

New Zealand’s nineteenth-century newspapers often printed hearsay from here, there and everywhere, so I was dubious about any particular link with Auckland. But further investigation showed that the luxuriant moustache, receding hairline and erect carriage of the Observer’s cartoon figure look just like those of the then Auckland public librarian, Edward Shillington.

In The Governor’s Gift: The Auckland Public Library 1880–1980, Shillington’s successor John Barr remembers him as “A typical military man, whose aim was to see that visitors obeyed the rules.” I’ve not seen anyone like that staffing an Auckland library recently, but perhaps Mr Shillington lives on in a few of the patrolling patrons. 

For more on diverse uses (and users) of libraries, see Wendy MacNaughton’s stunning watercolours inspired by the San Francisco Public Library and its patrons.


  1. Thanks for another insightful post and thank you also for linking to the San Francisco Public Library art project.

  2. Simply wonderful! The images the flow into my mind of watching patrons find rest and recreation (however they choose) over the years... love your perspective and your voice, makes us happy!!