SPINE 003: The sound of silence

Library Fact: there are 1913 entries in the State Library catalogue featuring the word silence.


After several months, I can now identify what I cherish most about the experience of the State Library. It’s the silence.

It’s not just any old silence. It is a doing silence, not a contemplative one. Earthly rather than spiritual. It has a subtle, unique quality, depending on where I sit.

In the Horne Room, which I share with the current Fellows, the silence unsettles me a little. It is heavy as if its molecular structure were made of weightier atoms. Mostly, I prefer to work in the Friends Room. The tranquil atmosphere reminiscent of a club lounge is punctuated by the turning of newspaper pages, tinkling of a teacup and the occasional interruptions of guided tours pointing out the impressive collection of Don Quixote editions and Art Deco details such as the sinuous curves of the brass door handles.  Members can even take calls discreetly without provoking hostile glances. Friends often gather at one of the big tables to chat over a packed lunch and since the conversation is never raucous, it is not intrusive, just a pleasant social thrum.

In the Mitchell Library Reading Room, there is also a purposeful undertone, a hum generated by students doing homework and scholars doing research.  It reminds me of a beehive in its industrious buzz.

State Library of NSW rules and regulations, 1848

If I sit in the Special Collections section because I’ve requested original materials, I love overhearing snatches of dialogue with librarians as they field inquiries and make suggestions about sources and catalogue items.

The silence here is active.  It is self-directed, without the need for prominent signage proclaiming library etiquette. The rules and regulations of the Library, as published in 1876 stipulated that ‘no conversation will be allowed… otherwise than in a whisper'.

Today, there is a code of conduct on the Library’s website, but it not policed aggressively, although staff tell me things can get a bit rowdy around the time of HSC revision. 

The State Library of Victoria at one time had an official ‘shusher’ who presided over the domed reading room, patrolling the silence ferociously.  Even the rattle of a bangle on a desk was enough to earn censure or temporary eviction. Some writers who are regulars there tell me that they would like the ‘shusher’ to be reinstated.

It’s rare these days for anyone to have to be ejected for being loudly disruptive, as Bee (or Bea) Miles, the Sydney eccentric was in the 1950s. Defiant and undeterred, she gave readings of Shakespeare on the steps of the Mitchell, for which she demanded payment. 

These days the Mitchell is carpeted, providing sound insulation. Before that, its floor was covered in linoleum and people complained about the noise.  (The original Mitchell Reading Room which is now the Friends Room had a parquetry floor that was also described as ‘loose and noisy’ in the 1920s.)

Silence is rare in the public sphere.  My open plan local library has no refuge for quiet reading or work, to the frustration of many regulars. When I mentioned to a sympathetic librarian that I was going to complain to the council about noise levels, she said vehemently; ‘Please do!’  The reply I got pointed out that these days local libraries fulfil many roles, several of them as social and community hubs. Well, perhaps so, but then they need to be designed with that multi-purpose in mind: modular spaces, enhanced soundproofing, doors, even desks with those funny hoods you see in some co-working spaces.

But the battle for quiet in the public library is nothing compared to that other vexed space, 

the quiet carriage on the train. There, silence has to be proclaimed at every stop by the guard, reinforced by a public-address message and wording on carriage doors and walls, all of which it is easy to ignore, judging by how ineffectual it is. Silence in motion is hard won, vigorously defended and constantly under assault from music played at high volume leaking out of headphones, phone calls, persistent messaging pings and loud conversation.  Sometimes politely asking fellow travellers to be considerate provokes instant explosive rage and abuse. By the time I reach the State Library, I am truly in need of sanctuary.

What I’m reading:
  • Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
  • I Shall be Complete by Glen David Gold
  • Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

By Caroline Baum, State Library Reader in Residence 

Caroline Baum will moderate a conversation about Library architecture and design at SCCI (Sherman Contemporary Culture and Ideas) on October 20th.
Bookings: www.scci.org.au