Friday, 3 February 2012

On Being Seen and Heard (or not) at St Heliers

Browsing at St Heliers Public Library.
If we’re to believe the letters column of our daily newspaper in the last few days, reading is simply not possible in the St Heliers Public Library. It’s as much as any local resident can bear to dash in, pick a book (any book) and dash out again before the noise pollution on the premises offends their sensibilities, not to mention their ears. Many of the polluters are children, who insist on being heard as well as seen. 

The writers to the New Zealand Herald seem to yearn for the Good Old Days of public libraries. Back then, stern, fusty staff shushed everyone and the only sounds from patrons were those of pages turning (not of pins dropping, as the library was no place for sharp objects). 

Just imagine how they — letter-writers and/or the librarians of the G.O.D. — would have responded had they been at the Auckland Central Library a week ago when a performing duo, the Dresden Dolls, presented their “ninja gig”: at that event the punk cabaret artists succeeded in persuading some 300 people in the audience to chant “F– it” in unison.

The Butchers, the Bakers...
Ah, the Good Old Days. St Heliers must have been a quieter place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Groups of Auckland citizenry including butchers and bakers (sadly no candlestick makers, though there was at least one temperance group) would catch the ferry there for picnics and other excursions, walking the quarter-mile down the wharf to get to the beach. Tamaki Drive did not exist, though there was a Tamaki Road Board, the local (very local) equivalent of today’s Auckland Council.

This outlying area had a library but it wasn’t especially public. In the absence of a suitable building, its books were in the custody of the local fire brigade, in premises where the present St Heliers library stands. Apparently the firemen enjoyed reading the books, which local residents had donated and the board had supplemented. But peace and quiet? Not likely, given the clanging of bells and everything else that accompanies emergencies of an incendiary nature. 

The St Heliers Public Library building was initially
the seat of local government, and its lamps
bear the initials of the Tamaki Road Board.
Today’s library was built in 1926 to a design by Grierson, Aimer and Draffin (better known as the architects of the Auckland War Memorial Museum). This brick building was the road board headquarters the initials on the lamps out the front offer a clue to that  — as well as home to the fire brigade. It was fully converted to its present use in 1931 when St Heliers became part of Auckland.

The amalgamation may not have had an entirely positive influence on the area; even in the G.O.D., Auckland’s own central city library wasn’t always quiet, as an 1890 letter to the Auckland Star attested. “A Ratepayer” noted that “the noise of the draughts players in the reading-room is very annoying, and I would suggest a separate room, or that they should be entirely done away with.”

Has it occurred to anyone that if there’s a problem with libraries, it may be space rather than noise? Even in its the 1940s, according to Wynne Colgan in The Governor’s Gift, users of the St Heliers branch sometimes had to queue in the street just to get inside. Over the decades it has undergone several extensions including, most recently, an ingenious and all-but-invisible one that moves the essential “back office” upstairs. However, this suburban library is still small. I doubt there’s enough space to add a “quiet room” like those I’ve seen at the Mt Wellington and Botany Downs public libraries. It’s also very busy, with a thousand or so visitors a day. 

Xena, as portrayed by Bunny Elwell
at the St Heliers Public Library.
Xena the Library Cat
One such visitor, a senior citizen, seems unfazed by it all, and perhaps some of today’s complaining ratepayers could take a leaf out of her book. Xena the library cat has a home of her own but gets lonely when her human indulges in a bad habit of going to work. So this beautiful tortoiseshell, who is 15 now (a septuagenarian, in human terms), strolls two kilometres down to the library every day. She has also been known to call in at the nearby fish and chip shop.

Xena is popular with locals and has become a focus for the branch, with her portrait by staff member Bunny Elwell now on the wall. The St Heliers Public Library has held a contest for children to paint their own portraits of her, has run Facebook classes for senior citizens using Xena’s own Facebook page as a learning tool and, late last year, presented her with a rug made from squares knitted at library knit-in events.

YouTube shows this cool cat waiting outside the library and she even has her own Twitter account, where her profile reads: “You can usually find me lounging around in the Large Print area of St Heliers Library in Auckland. My interests are eating, sleeping and extreme road crossing.”

“Summer Reading
Adventure” notice.
Xena wasn’t in attendance the afternoon I visited this library. In fact, the place was pretty quiet — just how some people like it. There was evidence of children in the form of a half-eaten lollipop on the step, a pink scooter propped against the wall (near the “no bicycles” sign), and a noticeboard promoting the Auckland Libraries’ “Summer Reading Adventure”, but otherwise the juvenile form of Homo sapiens was little seen, and certainly not heard.

The computers, unusually for most libraries I’ve visited, had no child users at all that Sunday afternoon. Nobody spoke loudly on their cellphone, another complaint of the “shush” brigade, and one with which I can sympathise — though I don’t think it’s especially a library problem. I saw for myself, too, that several adults were reading books without difficulty. Good on them.

Adults seen reading in the
St Heliers Public Library.

See the links in the post above, also:

St Heliers Bay peace and quiet.


  1. I love the portrait of Xena and I enjoyed seeing the real cat via the YouTube link that you provided. Thanks for another great post about libraries!

  2. Thank you, Lindy. I think there’s something a little bit special about tortoiseshell cats. I suppose that means I judge cats by their covers!