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.

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