Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Reader, the Library and the Lens

Man reading, Vancouver Public Library downtown,
October 2011.
The man in this picture: what’s his story?

Of various photographs I’ve taken that show people reading in libraries, this one draws my attention the most. The man in the picture is not the first ever to be absorbed in a book. But his hands are almost clasped (in supplication, stress?), and the title of the book that tops the small selection next to him, Mass Destruction, is striking. The photo has him close up — although he’s half around a corner, facing away, there’s a sense of intimacy.

A public library is a public place. Photographic design (angle, distance) or accident (blurring) means few people are positively identifiable. And being seen reading or in almost any other library activity is not incriminating, nor anything to be ashamed of. So I keep using the camera. 

There is an ethical question, however: if people don’t know they’re being photographed or consent to it, am I crossing a boundary, taking something more than just a photo? (I’m not the only person who wrestles with ethical issues in this setting. The history of public libraries is full of books whose presence on the shelves has been challenged by outraged citizens or staff, and full of debates over intellectual freedom and privacy — particularly since the USA Patriot Act.)

A comment by the New Zealand writer Fiona Farrell makes me think that even the observed reader maintains his privacy, has a room of (and on) his own. “It is always so difficult to tell what is going on in a reader’s mind,” she writes in The Broken Book. “...The reader could at one remove be experiencing the thrill of illicit passion or considering bloody rebellion. No wonder the dictators and leaders of cults burn books and issue their edicts of forbidden texts.”

Carol reading, East Coast
Bays Public Library, Auckland.
Some things my lens doesn’t penetrate. I’ll never know the story, the one belonging to the young man at the Vancouver downtown library that day. I’ll never know what he’s reading or get inside his head; neither will anyone else who looks at that picture. And that’s the way it should be.

* * *

Farrell’s Broken Book set out to be prose about walking — it was to be this New Zealand author’s first work of non-fiction — but after the Canterbury earth quaked, the writing went in other directions as well: across shaky ground and into poetry. This is no great surprise for those of us who read her; it is a pleasure. I think many people like the way her writing refuses to confine itself. Very recently my bookclub loved this new book, and it features on all the “best of the year” lists I’ve seen so far.

During one section, “A Walk to the Botanic Gardens” (in the Oamaru of her childhood, perhaps?), Farrell finds herself in the Cork City Library, Ireland. There she talks of being “supposed to be writing a novel” but becoming distracted by old Irish texts, among which she discovers the old woman of Beare. (Thereby hangs a tale. That senior citizen is not one of the more bedraggled, down-and-out library patrons; she’s the narrator in a long and very old poem.) I especially like what Farrell then says about the library at Cork —

The reading room is filled with the sort of people you find in reading rooms everywhere: in winter, the old guys who sit on the streets in summer come in to read the papers out of the chill wind. There are school kids doing their projects and giggling surreptitiously behind the shelving. There are the natives of a dozen different countries dealing with officialdom on the library computers.
Above: newspaper stand, Edmonton Public Library downtown.
Below, two
photos of browsers, Vancouver Public Library downtown.
Yes, that’s a picture you could paint from a library in Auckland, New Zealand, too. And during October when I was in Canada, it was similar. At the Edmonton Public Library downtown branch, I smiled to see old codgers reading the paper just as the old codgers do in the libraries of my latitude. I wouldn’t like to suggest that the men in my photo had come in from the cold — it was only autumn after all, with temperatures not yet in the minuses — but I understand that this EPL branch and indoor shopping centres downtown are great places of refuge when winter gets really miserable, such as more than twenty below. 
Finally, I love Farrell’s comment about being a library browser: “I was there in the warm, browsing the shelves. I like that word, ‘browsing’. Like a cow picking its way from one delicious clump of clover to another. It’s a drifty word, full of purposeless pleasure.”

Yes, yes. (I’ve got the photos to prove it.) Thank you, Fiona Farrell, for putting all this into words.

The Broken Book by Fiona Farrell is published by Auckland University Press, 2011. It is copyright, and quoted here with permission. The photos in this post are the blogger’s own.

Glen Eden Public Library, Auckland.

Parent and child in pink gumboots, Massey Public Library, Auckland.
Shoes off, feet up, Edmonton downtown library.


  1. Oh Claire - your blog is bliss and these photos of people reading in libraries really touch me - I've been thinking of trying to capture people reading in the wild, on park benches etc and trying to do something with them. What do you think?

  2. Oh and meant to say, I LOVE Fiona Farrell's Broken Book - have been meaning to blog on it for ages - will try and make the time.

  3. The more the merrier, I think - of both photos and raves about The Broken Book. Thank you very much for visiting and commenting so kindly, Mary; I'm a great fan of your blog and The Blue. In case anybody reading this doesn't know what I'm talking about, I heartily recommend