Saturday, 26 February 2011

Arriving at the Rainbow

“Manukau City Centre” has long been visible from State Highway 1, with the ginormous pirate ship ride at Rainbow’s End theme park in full swing. But for me, getting there from my home suburb of Avondale was far from plain sailing.

In the square, by Manukau’s central library.
My destination was the two newest libraries on the globe or, more accurately, the newest location of libraries: a week earlier (February 12), the existing Manukau City Centre Library and South Auckland Research Centre had re-opened in a single building just a couple of minutes from their previous premises, which were streets apart from each other.

Charting a course from Avondale (north west) to central Manukau (south) was easy. Google Maps told me the trip by car was only 23 minutes using State Highway 20, the south-western motorway that’s now accessible from Mount Roskill. I’ve used SH20 heaps of times to get to the airport... and I’ve lived in Auckland all my life.

But it took almost a lifetime to reach the library. Google Maps hadn’t factored in route deviations that included two unscheduled arrivals at the airport — from the west and the south. I can only blame my own geographical incompetence, as at the library, the nice person behind the issues desk looked closely at Google’s step by step directions and gave them the thumbs-up. She tried to soothe me by saying there’ve been complaints about the signposts along the route.

I’ve never connected South Auckland to criminality as did a desperate MP in a by-election, but my ignorance was such that until I consulted the South Auckland Research Centre, the only Manukaus I knew of were the harbour and the (former) city. Today I also know “Manukau” is that city’s main commercial precinct. It used to be called Wiri, which is now the name of the neighbouring industrial precinct to the west. Confused? 

At the shopping centre, children’s tiles
depict their community.
 The research centre is a place of quiet industry on the first floor at 3 Osterley Way, next to the town square and a couple of minutes’ walk from what I suspect most people still call the Manukau City Shopping Centre (now officially just another Westfield). The Saturday I visited, a couple of guys were at the computers — possibly for purposes other than research in the narrow sense — and a woman and a boy were reading microfilm. The woman seemed to know her way around; an able librarian showed the boy of about 10 the ropes. He looked up, once: “I’ve found my mum!” he said, with a big grin.
The librarian kindly gave me a guided though impromptu tour of the research centre with its reference items — historic New Zealand Herald issues, government publications, but also materials (in various forms) specific to South Auckland: Manukau Courier archives, local genealogical resources, heritage information. There are rooms for meetings and study, too, available to students and others.

Some of the South Auckland Research Centre’s most wonderful resources are online, and that’s where I read about South Auckland’s history, from the instructive to the oddball — including that it has its own “Bridge to Nowhere”, and that at the birth of Manukau City in the 1960s, one serious contender for its name was “Churchill”. Team leader Bruce Ringer has written much if not all of this, and has also helped oversee Manukau in Poetry, featuring work by poets ranging from national names to... well, a relative of mine whom I didn’t realise is a writer.
In the ground-floor library.
The Auckland region’s formerly separate public library systems still have their own websites, though these now link to the umbrella site and catalogue. Manukau’s is really impressive: it’s visually stunning, not at all clunky in appearance or navigation, and I’m not surprised to hear it’s won an award. If driving to the bricks and mortar library had been like touring the website, I’d have arrived in a couple of mouse clicks (‘two shakes of a lamb’s tail’ have been superceded). Another recent discovery is the Manukau Libraries’ Top 5 Goodies blog. It offers bite-sized book advice that’s entertaining and often cheeky, though a recent piece (to which I linked below) struck a sombre note about earthquakes.

Like the research centre, Manukau’s digital librarians have moved and are now on the first floor at 3 Osterley Way. Tosca, one of the blogging staff, noted this week that before the move, “every day was like my own personal Christmas” thanks to Manukau Libraries’ cataloguers (with whom she shared premises) and their trolley of new books. Now, she says, “I feel slightly guilty that I so easily look to Manukau Library (on the floor below me) to take their place”.

The beautiful ground-floor library was buzzing the day I visited. Locals obviously had no difficulty finding it in its new location, and had made themselves at home. Manukau City Centre’s library is bigger than before, I understand. It’s not huge, but like my local, it has a great mix of spaces — for spreading out with magazines or study materials, for computing, for browsing the bookshelves or for engaging in armchair travel (courtesy of the travel section, brochures about Manukau’s parks, and some very comfy seating). I was quick to help myself to a gazillion brochures (well, 17) about the parks, so my Manukau adventures may well go beyond the area’s 17 libraries.

New next to old in the children’s section.
What really drew me, in this particular library, was the children’s section. I’m sure it helped that it’s just inside the entrance, rather than distant and invisible behind the grown-ups’ stuff. The shelving design allows a lot of books to be displayed face out rather than spine out: as a former bookseller, I know that makes a big difference. So at Manukau’s central library I was suddenly a 40-something kid, grabbing Lulu and the Brontosaurus by the delightful Judith Viorst, The Composer Is Dead by Lemony Snicket, Russell Ash’s Top 10 of Everything 2011 and three New Zealand books — Kyle Mewburn’s Crack in the Sky, Des Hunt’s Secret of Jelly Mountain and a teen novel, Dog Tucker by K Drinkwater. 

Needing, eventually, to devour something other than books, I made my way across the square to the shopping centre, where I sampled a strawberry yoghurt smoothie, wandered around and happened upon the old Manukau central library premises, now completely empty. The former library is tucked away on the mezzanine between businesses that I suspect receive relatively few visitors. It has a view straight across to The Rainbow, Shona McFarlane’s gorgeous stained-glass window that depicts Manukau’s harbour, landscape, day and night in a 12 metre panorama.

Both the window and that library location date from the shopping centre’s opening in 1976. The stained glass is less likely to leave the building, and I wonder who will look up at it now that the library’s moved on? I’m glad, though, that the library’s made itself visible in the community — even, in the end, to this outsider.

Day (top) and night, details from Shona McFarlane’s Rainbow
at Manukau City Shopping Centre. It’s something to look up to.

Friday, 25 February 2011

“I’m so very, very sorry for Christchurch”

Yes, yes, I’m overdue for a post, I know. (There’s a reason for the words “more or less” in my tagline at the top of this page.) My next post about a library visit will be very soon. Meanwhile, take a look at the wonderful blog post from Tosca of Auckland Libraries Manukau this week. It’s very apt for New Zealand right now:

5 Books from Manukau Library that I hope will explain earthquakes to a child and provide ideas for helping

I, along with the rest of the nation, have spent a good part of the last 24+ hours scouring the internet for snippets of news and updates about the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that affected Christchurch yesterday afternoon. It should not have been a surprise, then, that my nephew Kalani - or Mr. 7 as I call him - came home bursting with questions about earthquakes and volcanoes. And was. So we set some time aside last night to talk about what he knew about earthquakes already, what he'd been told by his teacher and what was actually happening in Christchurch right now. Thanks to numerous online news clips we were able to see how things really are. It left Kalani feeling anxious and concerned - he kept stroking the screen in sympathy - and led to his asking some very technical questions about how earthquakes happen. It left me feeling appalled and saddened and teary eyed. It also made me realise how unprepared I was to discuss seismology with a child and that if I expect him to understand anything about it I need to refresh my own knowledge. Thanks to Manukau Library I now have a selection of books to look over with Kalani that should, hopefully, answer a lot of questions. Last night I wasn't in a frame of mind to build on his initial questions and encourage him to think of ways in which he and I can help the people of Christchurch so tomorrow night that's what we're going to do - list ways we can help and then actually put them into action. I'd imagine it was a lot for a 7 year old mind to process just before bedtime - it was a lot for me to process and I'm 35 - and so it was a very sombre pyjama-clad boy who said to me: 'I'm glad I'm safe but I'm so very, very sorry for Christchurch.' So am I.

Ordinarily my lists proclaim themselves to be the 'Top 5' of anything and are, more often than not, tongue-in-cheek. Today, I'm simply listing 5 books that I'm hoping will tell me how to explain what happened and provide a 7 year old with some ideas for how we can help.

Otautahi: nga whakaaro aroha me nga inoi atu ki a koutou katoa.
You can read Tosca’s recommendations here.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Feeling the Heat on Waiheke

People hang out in libraries for all sorts of reasons, and the temperature can be one of them. When I went to Waiheke Island recently, it was part of my self-guided tour of all Auckland’s public libraries, so I had a destination to reach and a box to tick. Once I walked into the library, though, I luxuriated in the air-conditioned coolness and could think of little else. 

An island of sculptures, natural and nurtured
The primary reason for this visit to the island was to see the Headland Sculpture on the Gulf exhibition, on at Waiheke until February 20. Our party of four had seen it a previous year and in 2011 decided that the Church Bay clifftop with its outdoor gallery would give us another great day out. We met on a Saturday at about 8am to catch the car ferry from Half Moon Bay, in a part of Auckland I’ll call the Far East (I grew up in the eastern ’burbs but not that far out). 

Having parked the car on the ferry and settled into the passenger lounge upstairs, we heard a hearty “Hello, Len” behind us — and saw the Auckland supercity supermayor himself, Len Brown, enter the room. He was opening a Waiheke walkway that day, I learned. Mr Brown lives in a Manukau suburb, Totara Park, so even if his car is not his travel companion, the vehicular ferry is his best way to get to the island.
Collapse by Fletcher Vaughan, from Sculpture on the Gulf.

We disembarked at Kennedy Point, a few minutes’ drive from Matiatia where the ‘normal’ passenger ferry calls. ‘Slow down’, a roadside sign advised: ‘you’re here’. After finding the exhibition we spent a couple of hours walking through it. There was plenty to see, plenty to ponder — the temporary sculptures, the permanent ones in the form of glorious clifftop homes, and the naturally sculpted land and seascape. The temperatures weren’t soaring but there’s little cover en route, and those who became part of a ‘moving sculpture’ by accepting the loan of an Andante sun umbrella (by Waiheke artist Kazu Nakagawa) were wise.

At the end of the sculpture trail we made for Oneroa, Waiheke’s largest village. A sign announced the library on the road in, though it took longer to spot the building. It’s part of the Artworks complex, which offers a community theatre, art gallery, cinema, Whittaker’s Musical Experience and other enterprises such as Tanya Batt’s “Once Upon an Island” Story Centre. Entering the courtyard I saw picnic tables dotted about, with people enjoying lunch, lattes or other fare. To the left was a small outdoor stage and behind that the library, encased in beige (known trendily as mushroom these days) and with “FREE internet is here!” emblazoned on the front windows.

At the library
Inside, as I said, I fell under the spell of the air-con, though not so much that I failed to notice my surroundings. The public area was one large room about a third the size of my local library, with staff workrooms adjoining it. As with others I’ve visited, much of this library’s space was devoted to books, though on my visit a staff member seemed to be the only person scanning the shelves. There were also two or three quite large spaces for patrons to sit, compute, write, ponder or read, with up to 10 doing so.
The Artworks courtyard, top, and the library.

On one side of the building, windows looked out at what looked like an abundance of native plants. It gave me the sense of being in the bush — very impressive, given that this natural area was (I think) on the street side of the building and must be quite a narrow strip. 

The shelves of reserved books were in the public area, waiting for their requesters to help themselves. A unique island tradition, given the small population (8000, plus holidaymakers) and smaller number of library staff? No, a recent move from behind the counter, both here and at other Auckland libraries I’ve visited since.

I satisfied myself with borrowing from Waiheke’s library a recent Metro I’d been wanting to read, then rejoined my companions. Where we sat in the courtyard was an extension of Time Out, an “Argentinian Italian Cafeteria”. Its licence required all beer to be locked up at lunchtime, but the waiter more than compensated. He had almost Manuelian difficulty matching orders with customers that day but kept his good humour, as did they.

A place of debate 
The present library’s integration into Artworks seems completely natural. There is controversy about plans for a new library building — the temperature inside the ‘old’ one may be cool but out in the community, temperatures seem to be running high and blood pressure is raised. Waiheke resident Deb Lyttle attributes some of this to concerns that the plans are “getting away from the idea of this being a cultural centre”. The new library, scheduled for construction this year, will be next to Artworks — but will share its building with the Auckland Council’s service centre, currently in the village of Ostend.

Reserved books ready for pick-up, and the native ‘forest’ outside.
The Gulf News, required reading for Waihekephiles, has been full of stories and letters about this. One complaint is that an upgrade of Artworks and its outdoor area, though proposed, is not in the council’s 10-year plan. Fuelling it is the cancellation of recent Waiheke Community Theatre performances after what its chair said was the fourth major flood in 18 months. A member of a group pressing for library extensions rather than a full replacement, he describes the new building design as an “overblown monument to council vanity”.

Voicing strong opinions is nothing new for island people. Author Janet Hunt, who left in 2010 (still loving the place after living there for 15 years), says, “There’s no silent majority on Waiheke”. The island seems full of spirited characters — from the retired Waiheke librarian who writes successful Mills and Boons, and a mainland mobile librarian who dabbles in metal-detecting, to the 90-year-old peace activists Kit Nelson and Maynie Thompson, stars of a recent documentary. I’ve seen it claimed that Waiheke has “more ex-Greenpeace campaigners per capita than anywhere else in the country”, and an interviewee in The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island (a film I hope Auckland Libraries will acquire) says it is “almost like a Greenpeace retirement village”. Says another: “The island is like its own country.” 

A library traveller, travelling libraries 
Deb Lyttle might agree. A Canadian writer attracted by the ocean, she has lived on Waiheke for 14 stunning summers. She describes the place as paradise, and as well as being inspired to paint what she sees there, she belongs to Transition Waiheke — part of a global movement for sustainable living.

Locals chat outside an Artworks enterprise.
She uses public libraries all over the world while travelling, and as she and her partner try to spend a month in towns they visit, they have a collection of membership cards. Deb is an eclectic reader who borrows fiction, magazines, non-fiction about the places she stays — and she does some of her pre-trip research at Waiheke’s library. Enthusing about public libraries she’s visited, she notes that Washington State’s Lopez Island Library offers Kindles for loan and, in the colder months, a warming fire in its grate. The Amsterdam Public Library, whose daily visitors number only slightly fewer than Waiheke’s regular population, is another favourite. The best libraries, she believes, encourage intellectual pursuits in a beautiful setting: “The architecture is so important.” If the new Waiheke library were to incorporate elements she’s enjoyed abroad, she might stay on into the winter, she jokes.

Janet Hunt used the library “a huge amount” when living on the island, and in her award-winning Wetlands of New Zealand: A Bitter-sweet Story, she acknowledges “the Waiheke librarians”. The size of the facility was no problem: she requested books from other Auckland City libraries for delivery to her local. The $1 charge would have been the cheapest ferry fare ever — except that library reserves are now free.

It’ll be interesting to see how this library is maintained and developed as part of its community. Whichever building contains it and whichever context it fits, it exists to be a resource and a refuge for people on Waiheke.

Waiheke near Kennedy Point, from the departing ferry.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Library as Escape Route

“So often absolutely ordinary in appearance, a good library should offer escape routes down the most extraordinary avenues, pathways into different worlds from the one you’ve left outside.”

That reflection is (I like to think) like my own, about my public library being a Tardis (see “The Place I Call My Local”, below). It comes from Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers, whose line “Libraries gave us power” is on the opening plaque of Cardiff Central Library. He’s written more at the Guardian.
Actually, I’ve just discovered I’m not the first to use the Tardis metaphor for libraries. Another such observation comes from Hephzibah Anderson writing at the Observer, way back in 2008. “A library is a Tardis on your high street”, she writes. “It’s a portal to the secrets of the universe, to jaw-dropping facts and mind-expanding fictions.” Her piece is about the shhhhhh! element of libraries — or the silence, at least, something she wants restored. I’m not sure I share her view. There’s usually at least one quiet corner at the libraries I loiter in, and that’s sufficient.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Place I Call My Local

Avondale Public Library, in a side view from Rosebank Road.
It’s a drab little building on the outside, its low, flat roof littered with air-con units: a place you can imagine as a Telecom call centre before they relocated to the Third World and the company rebranded. 

Inside, however, instead of dusty partitions and a clutter of telephones, there’s a riot of colour and a ruckus of schoolkids amid shelves of books, a shimmer of computer screens and vivid community displays. There are quiet spaces, too. This is the Avondale Public Library, and it’s a Tardis. It’s not what you expect, it’s bigger than the exterior suggests, and it will take you travelling through time and space. 

An interior view.
Every public library is a Tardis, I suppose. And perhaps I romanticise the Avondale library a little, because it’s my local. But there’s no mistaking the atmosphere. For the most part — though the security guard must have a reason to be there — people are positive, focused, engaged.

The Avondale branch is Library Central, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, I’ve gone to other libraries that had what I wanted when mine didn’t. After a lifetime of using these institutions I’ve not yet learned the patience of the library patron... not to mention the loneliness of the long-distance runner. But Avondale is where my requested books come in and where I pay my overdues. Most of all it’s the place where last year, when I faced a while of taking things quietly after shoulder surgery, I dreamed of hanging out. If ever I thought a new career might be called for, there might (I thought) be a job for me there.

Dream on. Post-op I did walk down to the library, all ten minutes that it took me, on various occasions. But almost all my time there was taken up with one-handed photocopying of ACC forms (as advised by my case worker, in case they got lost). After that I just wanted to go home and sit down.

On one such visit, I became the person I’d never wanted to be, the penny pincher who questions a bill. (I was mistaken. And what was I doing, anyway, accruing fines for Living Off the Smell of an Oily Rag in New Zealand?)

A library sign reflects Rosebank Road.
It struck me, too, that I lacked many qualities and skills I’d need to work there. School was out, the place was chocka, and an older staff member was mixing with the kids, on their level and at their pace. Where did she find the energy — and how did she remain serene in the mêlée? What I saw was probably one of the Akozone Homework Centre sessions (ako = to learn), also offered at Glen Innes, Panmure, Otahuhu and Onehunga libraries. Outside the old Auckland City, other libraries in the region ran similar programmes and probably still do. 

Through the window to the life inside.
It’s not all kids at the library, of course — thirty-somethings hover at the wi-fi hotspot, older folk at the newspaper stand, or vice versa — and there are other demands on staff time. In the last couple of weeks, I was one of those demands again. My enquiry about the psychology of arsonists required, I liked to think, advanced research skills and sophisticated electronic resources. I’m not sure how much such work comes Avondale Library’s way: the questions I hear there tend to be more straightforward, though the halting English in which they are sometimes made may be a challenge.
While one staff member focused on my quest, another explained New Zealand politics to a (Chinese?) man who seemed to have difficulty understanding New Zild speech, let alone how the National and Maori parties could get into bed together. For this, the woman behind the counter needed no reference materials, but a considerable store of patience and communication skills.

The Avondale Library, I realised then, is a sort of Super Citizens Advice Bureau, and the first place many people go when they want to know what makes things tick. In that respect, my desire to know why arsonists set fires was no different from another patron’s interest in how politicians get power. Both enquiries were about worlds very different from our own.

In the more than 20 years I’ve lived here, Avondale has changed. Many more people of Asian descent have entered the community, though the Rosebank Peninsula’s market gardens of long ago had a Chinese presence. Gentrification is evident at ‘Avondale Heights’ in prettified bungalows, new fences and landscaped front yards. Some of the clientele at the doctors’ surgery halfway down the hill has likewise smartened up.

Further down, at the shopping centre and the library, I’m not sure how much is different. Some things look shabbier; some look more flash. Others, such as the pavement displays of taro and plantain for sale, remain the same. But don’t be misled by the way the library seems to disappear into its environs: there’s more to it than you think. 

Across the road.