Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: When did libraries get noisy?

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A mini concert in a library is a stretch too far for people who find the nostalgic days of silence in libraries comforting. Photo / Thinkstock
A mini concert in a library is a stretch too far for people who find the nostalgic days of silence in libraries comforting. Photo / Thinkstock

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think there's a place in a library for an Argentinian folk musician performing loud and frantic covers of pop songs.

It happened during last year's Rugby World Cup. I'd popped down to my then local library (Birkenhead) to work for an hour or two. The library is a regular escape when the home office gets too quiet and claustrophobic, or I need reference material. I was just getting comfortable when the music exploded from downstairs. Weird, I thought. A one-person flash mob? Surely the librarians will politely usher him out?

But no, he finished that song and launched into another. By this time other people were popping their heads up from their laptops and books. It was impossible to concentrate.

After about 15 minutes, I packed up and wandered downstairs. Sure enough, it was a one-man band, playing his South American heart out, right there in the foyer as a few librarians looked on benignly.

I quietly asked one of them how long it would go on.

About another 15 minutes, she said.

"You realise that some people are trying to work - or study, or read?" I asked, grumpily.

She looked as dismissive as if I'd asked her to turn down the sound at a Rolling Stone concert. "It's for the Rugby World Cup," she hissed. Ah, yes. Birkenhead had adopted the Argentinians, and this was evidently some bureaucrat's idea of demonstrating our support for a team that probably wasn't, at that moment, inside the library.

Now, I think it's right and proper that libraries should be community hubs - places to go to learn to use the internet, or participate in a book club or craft workshop, or hear an author speak.

I don't mind students quietly discussing assignments. I can handle the smell of coffee and the clink of china drifting up from the cafes that are popping up at libraries. I could put up with a lunchtime concert of chamber music in the background while I read (as is on at the Auckland Central Library next Thursday). And I think the community knitting event to be held at Botany Library next weekend (all items for Women's Refuge) is a great idea.

I don't even begrudge children their noisy Rhymetimes and Storytimes - though I will check that one isn't about to start before I head down to do some work or reading. In fact, as a mother of two preschoolers, I've been known to Wiggles out with the best of them. It's great to encourage kids to enjoy the library from a young age.

But loud and attention-seeking folk-pop music was taking it a step too far. The same goes for people who blast their own music so it escapes their headphones and buzzes around the room like a tripping blowfly. And those who pop in for a nap in their lunch hour - and snore. And don't get me started on the tourists who take advantage of the free wi-fi to loudly Skype their friends and family back home - which I see was also a bugbear of some readers who commented on my fellow blogger Christine's ode-to-the-library blog last week.

(It was even more disturbing to read a comment from a man who'd worked on library computer systems and said he'd had to block hundreds of pornographic sites that people had tried to access while at the library. There's a time and a place, people!)

Yes, libraries should be shared places. And I think the secret to ensuring that they work as multi-purpose facilities is good design. The best libraries are those that have separate spaces - preferably soundproofed - for noisy and quiet activities.

It's a shame this wasn't factored into the long-disputed design of the two-year-old $9.4 million Birkenhead Library. It can be an inspiring place to work and a relaxing place to read, with its soaring ceilings, sea views and sofas. But it's also a cavernous open-plan space.

There's one tiny fishbowl of an enclosed "meeting room", which always seems to be locked, for no apparent reason. Otherwise, there are nominally separate spaces but the noise - from internet lessons, or Rhymetime, or the Skypers and snorers - disrespectfully refuses to recognise their symbolic boundaries.

Still, I'm happy to share. If I wanted total peace and quiet, I'd go somewhere else. But, please, no more Argentinian folk singers.

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