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.


  1. Janet Hunt’s subsequent email to me (pasted here with her permission) was really thought-provoking:

    “I think it's been interesting to see how the library on Waiheke has grown so rapidly: from a small room at the old Blackpool School in the 1980s (and I don't know before that) to a somewhat larger room on the main street of Oneroa, to its present premises and now a much larger proposed building. As books can be requested from Auckland, I wonder if a larger place is really needed. How important is browsing?”

    This is a similar issue to the much-discussed one of whether people enjoy buying books online or prefer to be in the place where the books are.

    My library use frequently involves searching the online catalogue at home, then going in to the library for a specific thing that my search has zeroed in on. But I know lots of people do it differently, and when I get to the library I almost always come away with things I didn’t plan to pick up.

    What do others think?

  2. I'm a browser - I commented on this elsewhere recently - I love the connections my brain makes between different subjects and ideas, just scanning the shelves and wandering around.

    I hope the lady with the iron didn't burn the dress!

  3. The iron’s been in the same place for a while, hasn’t it?

  4. Try looking for the DVD: Kit & Maynie [DVD videorecording] : tea, scones and nuclear disarmament / directed & produced by Susi Newborn and Claudia Pond Eyley. - in Auckland Libraries catalogue

  5. Thanks, Jan. I watched it as part of my “research” for this piece, and enjoyed it. There’s a link to the library catalogue entry in the article above, on the words ‘recent documentary’.

    Maybe the links I’ve put up there are a bit too subtle to see easily. Any suggestions for a more obvious but still tasteful hyperlink colour?