SLQ and the Spanish Flu (Chronicles of State Library of Queensland)

In 1919, the Spanish flu arrived in Australia. This flu pandemic resulted in the deaths of over 50 million people worldwide, including the lives of approximately 12,000 Australians. Despite quarantine restrictions the first cases of Spanish Influenza in Queensland were reported on May 3, 1919. The arrival of the pandemic saw the Royal Queensland Show cancelled for the first time in its 43 year history, and the Exhibition Grounds used as an isolation hospital.

Public Library of Queensland (later known as State Library of Queensland), ca.1910. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 194819

Public Library of Queensland (later known as State Library of Queensland), ca.1910. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 194819

In an effort to stem the spread of infection, some public buildings were temporarily closed – including the State Library of Queensland (at that time the Public Library of Queensland).

The temporary closure of the Public Library started small with the shutting of the public toilet and access to drinking water. On May 8, 1919, in response to many complaints regarding this move, the Public Library issued a statement in several Brisbane newspapers, stating in part, “The lavatory of late has become a menace to health, so it was decided to close it until better sanitary arrangements can be made. On health grounds also the supply of drinking water has been discontinued until a system attended with less danger to the public can be installed.”

In support of the closure, there is a letter dated May 3, 1919 in the State Library of Queensland’s collection (OM79-78), forwarded to the Public Library Board from the Daily Mail’s editor. A cover letter from the editor states that the letter, about the state of the public toilets, would not be published but was sent for the library committee’s consideration. It contains in part,

“…in my opinion [the public toilets] should have been burned down or knocked down long ago…if they are waiting for the new sewerage to be completed I think the present Generation will be laid in Toowong [cemetery] before then.”

Letter from "Library User" regarding the state of public toilets at Public Library of Queensland. Dated May 3, 1919. From OM78-79. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Letter from “Library User” regarding the state of public toilets at Public Library of Queensland. Dated May 3, 1919. From OM78-79. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Once the fuss over the toilets died down a bit, citizen’s turned their concern to the the spread of germs within libraries proper. The Courier Mail published this letter –

“I would like to know if anything is being done in the matter of disinfecting public libraries and their contents. Books and papers, handled by so many hundreds daily, should, to my mind, receive early attention”. (Brisbane Courier, May 8, 1919)

In the rival Daily Mail newspaper another letter to the editor did not mince words about the concerns of unsanitary conditions (and unsanitary library users) at the Public Library of Queensland.

“There are men with dreadful coughs, and you can hear the phlegm rattling in their throats – so much so that others have had to get away into the open to avoid them… If they visit there they should certainly have a portion of the reading-room reserved, and made to use handkerchiefs at least… The matter is serious and prompt action is necessary now, or else I would not have written”. (Daily Mail, May 3, 1919)

Women wearing surgical masks during the influenza epidemic, Brisbane, 1919. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 108241

Women wearing surgical masks during the influenza epidemic, Brisbane, 1919. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 108241

On May 20, 1919 the following statement was published in all Brisbane daily newspapers,

“It has been decided to close the Public Library from to-day (Tuesday) until further notice”.

As the closure of the Library extended into weeks, users became less worried about the hygienic status of the books and more concerned about access. Once again they turned to writing letters to the local newspapers:

“…How much longer is the farce of this institution being closed going to be tolerated by the public? The School of Arts library and reading room has been open the usual hours, right throughout the infuenza epidemic, and as a daily visitor I have not noticed anybody dead about the institution.” (Daily Mail, June 12, 1919)

“…Could you tell me why the public library is closed? If on account of the ‘flu why are not clubs, churches, hotels, and billiard rooms also closed? I am surprised that the present Government should close this library, which is such a boon to the working classes.” (Daily Mail, June 3, 1919)

“The building is a splendidly ventilated one and always spruce and clean, so that danger of contagion is not nearly as great as that of other places in the city…the library building is at all times the rendezvous of many of the “Great Unwashed” particularly on a rainy day, and this probably is one of the reasons which prompted the closing” (Daily Mail, June 5, 1919)

Finally an announcement was made on July 14, that the Public Library of Queensland would be re-opened, presumably much to the relief of devoted library patrons.

Myles Sinnamon – Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland