Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Things I discovered at the Auckland Central Library

It’s not about books: it’s about the world.

Don’t be scared of bothering a librarian.

The question people ask is not necessarily the one they want answered.

It’s best to get the most authoritative source you can, and cite it.

A library is not the most convenient place in which to have a crush.

Hundred-year-old dust is darker and grittier than the newer kind.

‘No Ordinary Sun’, the poem by Hone Tuwhare.

Spy books come back smelling of cigarette smoke; occult books rarely return.

Libraries collect people of all kinds, and do not shelve them.

Beware the late-night cleaner in the third-floor cafeteria.

Not everything good is new or bought (sometimes it is old and borrowed).

A stink bomb set off in the lift will pong everywhere.

The library is where the plot thickens.

* * *

From the stacks at Auckland Central Library recently I requested Shirley Maddock’s Islands of the Gulf, which I’m reading as an extension of my research into this latitude of Auckland. First published in 1966, it’s something of a New Zealand classic, though it may have sat quietly in the basement storage for quite some time. The old “date due” slip pasted in the back above the barcode indicates that it was borrowed six times between 1982 and 1995, during the life of the library’s early Plessey issuing system.

Islands of the Gulf, a weighty book, is an enjoyable read with a ton of photos by Don Whyte. These are listed (as good books used to do with “tables of illustrations” or “plates”) over three pages just after the table of contents. 

What particularly struck me the moment I opened it was that just inside, after the endpapers with their map of the Hauraki Gulf, the book’s previous owner had written her name and the date:

Coral Ridling
Dec. 66.

Miss Ridling — her staff wouldn’t dream of calling her by her first name — headed the Social Sciences Department of the Central Library in the 1980s when I went to work there as a young student in my Christmas holidays (see ‘the best and worst library experience you’ve had’ in this interview, and its comments), so seeing her handwriting brought back memories. She taught me many things in my first job and was witty as well as efficient. To me she was very kind.
Several things I learned from her are above; the other items on the list all date back to that time.

Several libraries around New Zealand are led by Miss Ridling’s former staff, and looking online I found her described as a “respected mentor” who “always maintained that the day one did not learn something new in libraries was the day to look for new work”.

Miss Ridling gave Islands of the Gulf and years of service to the library, but she gave much more to lots of people. She lived in Grey Lynn, used the public libraries during her retirement, was active in the University of the Third Age, and died a few years ago.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Give Me Land, Lots of Land

Leading his goat to glory:
a competitor at the 2011 Kumeu Show.
“The country is closer than you think”, said a billboard for this weekend’s Kumeu Show. It’s a catchy slogan, not meant for deep analysis, and sadly it’s only true in relation to the limits of urban sprawl: it doesn’t stand up when I think how long it takes to drive from my bungalow in the ’burbs to areas that appear untouched by a developer’s dreams or a town-planner’s schemes.

In the years I’ve headed northwest to Taupaki, Kumeu, Huapai, Riverhead and Waimauku — names from the map charting the way to Muriwai surf-beach — urban Auckland has expanded and the rural idyll has receded. Vineyards of the west have disappeared or started to straggle, and at the end of the Northwestern Motorway, Westgate has arrived. The latter may sound like Stargate and Watergate combined, but it claims to be “the thriving retail and entertainment hub of Auckland’s Northwest corridor... a statement in convenience, accessibility and variety”.

This weekend, my partner and I decided to go to the Kumeu Show. The organisers say this agricultural and horticultural event held annually in the late summer is the largest show in the southern hemisphere, and it’s been attracting townies like me for at least 40 years. (This I know, as my dad took me when I was a kid.)

There’s something special about checking out the chooks, admiring the axemen and noting the newest shearing techniques while eating hot chips out of a paper cup. And for those who want it, there’s all the fun of the fair: ye olde Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, haunted house, shooting gallery, Dodgems, and the open-mouthed clowns whose operator turns their heads.

There’s no need to promote the show to locals. They know it’s coming and presumably choose between clearing out, hunkering down at home, or entering some of the numerous competitions that A&H (or A&P) shows are known for: Adult Jams and Jellies, Novelty Animal from Vegetables and/or Fruit, or Giant Decorative Dahlias, to name but three on Kumeu’s schedule for “indoor exhibitors”.

I wanted, of course, to check out not only the chooks (etc) but also the local library and the locale. With Kumeu officially part of Auckland rather than Rodney District, as it was before November 2010, its public library is one of the 55-plus I can now borrow from — part of this latitude of libraries that I blog about.

A scare at the fun fair part of
Kumeu Show.
(Photo: Carol)
Giant marrows have their uses:
an indoor exhibit and winner.
Things became confusing on our Saturday morning drive when we reached the end of the motorway stretch of State Highway 16. Roadworks have gone on at that intersection for ages now, and every time I drive through (quarterly, at least), the lanes and directions seem radically different. But we made it through, still facing north-west.  

 Past George’s Strawberry Garden we went, past Soljans Estate Winery (whose carpark snared us during a prime-ministerial cavalcade a few years back), past... hang on: where did that massive roundabout come from? And that one? There they were, like crop circles placed by aliens in the night — except they’d arrived in the middle of the road rather than a paddock, and presumably exemplified increasing road use and urban sprawl rather than some inexplicable part of farming folklore.

We called in to the library before going to the show, as the former closes at 1pm on a Saturday and the latter goes on all day. The Kumeu Public Library is just past the place it’s named for; it’s at Huapai. I struggle to understand how two villages can keep their names while snuggling so close as to be on top of each other, but perhaps the local history I’ve since borrowed will explain.

Doug Armstrong, a local mayor and former TV presenter, opened the Main Road library and accompanying council offices in 1998 (the year Westgate came to be). It still seems brand spanking new, which is not to say it’s not well used: I get the feeling it is, though when we visitors from Avondale strolled in to the near-empty building just after it opened, the staff lamented that this was not a typical Saturday. Locals, they said, had called in during the week to avoid the show-related traffic jams.

A younger library user stands on his
own two feet.
(Photo: Carol)
 This library has a semi-circular design, with windows out to lush green grass. Inside, it’s as neat as a new pin. Around the curve are chairs, the practical but accommodating café type that’s designed to make you stay (and buy more coffee, or in this case browse more books). Displays are immaculate; everything looks carefully shelved; signs, notices and pamphlets are everywhere, but each is in its place. And oh, joy: the computerised catalogue is clearly identified. At many libraries, I find it hard to distinguish between computers for consulting the catalogue and those for general use of the internet, though of course there can be an overlap.

Some of the orderliness I saw at Kumeu may be common to all the former Rodney District’s seven libraries — this is the first I’ve visited — but I suspect somebody on staff has a very tidy mind. Perhaps it’s the friendly person who leapt to adjust the Pasifika display (an Auckland-wide library initiative, timed for the festival) before Carol photographed it to show her West Auckland school.

What did I expect to see at the Kumeu library? Farming stuff. Viticulture and the like. Muddy gumboots. They weren’t in evidence. Instead there was Pasifika, a display of books on how to “Get that job”, a crimescene-themed display of thrillers making good use of a desk (one of several individual workspaces tucked into an alcove, though in full view).

But why should an area that lives and dies with its boots on (be they gumboots or riding boots) have “farming country” stamped all over its library? People in Kumeu, its sibling villages and hamlets have enough of that without falling over it in a place they go to escape. Besides, the sort of books you might expect in a rural library are present, filed in the correct Dewey Decimal order.

Pasifika at Kumeu. (Photo: Carol)

Teen book covers displayed.
On the shelf at 636.5 I chanced upon a good wodge of books on keeping chickens, and the library catalogue has 17 such listings linked with the Kumeu branch. That’s more than you might expect in its suburban equivalent — though with chickens described as “the new black” at the Kumeu Show, Auckland’s EcoDay and even Facebook, this may be debatable. Are they the urban greenie’s chihuahua? Perish the thought! (That’s a quote whose source is in Oxford Reference Online, to which you can log-in using your library card.)   

As do other Auckland public libraries, Kumeu offers free computer and internet use, though in this case it’s courtesy of the Aotearoa People’s Network Kaharoa. The latter is is not some hippie/commie/separatist/peacenik outfit — God forbid, in the true-blue Prime Minister’s electorate — but a national and public libraries initiative to implement the government’s “Digital Strategy”.

I imagine Kumeu availed itself of APNK’s largesse before the district became part of “Auckland”, but the library staff clearly appreciate the increase in resources that the region’s single network of libraries has made available. The reference librarian, who came across as a great networker, talked of access to more collections of books (including Waitakere Libraries’ collections spanning 45 languages other than English), more reference databases, more everything. This, she and the others intimated, could only be good for local people.

We spent an hour at the library before making our way to the showgrounds. There we paid $15 apiece and a few bucks for refreshments to wander, experiencing sights, sounds, smells and tastes into the early afternoon. In the photos we took that day, the show stole the show — that’s what these things are for — but I enjoyed the Kumeu library just as much. I couldn’t help wishing it would tear up its Saturday timetable and stay open after 1pm: what I would have given to sink into one of those library chairs after all that walking about... 

Kumeu library: a place to rest
as well as read. (Photo: Carol)

For a recent rundown on Rodney District population and development, check out this story in the Rodney Times.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Round the Bays

“Evacuation Area”, said the sign on the path to the East Coast Bays Public Library, and at the supermarket next door the high-visibility vests for emergency wardens were, well, highly visible — ready for grabbing from coat-hooks in front of the check-out. A reaction to the Christchurch earthquake days earlier? There had been no aftershocks this far north, or at least not the geological kind. But the Bays on Auckland’s North Shore are ready for a tsunami, should it come their way, and a few years ago the supermarket had to evacuate staff and customers after a small boy (aged eight) lit a fire amid its greeting cards.

East Coast Bays was a city, once. Over the two decades from 1954 (its birth year as a borough), its population trebled to around 21,000, allowing a promotion to city status in 1975. The opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge helped: from 1959, people could drive directly from Auckland to the North Shore in their cars, rather than catch a ferry or go around the long way (a memory now lost in the mists of time). The Shore changed from a sleepy holiday haven of beaches and baches to a somewhat less sleepy haven, still featuring beaches and baches but with the former becoming crowded, the latter being converted to full-time homes, and a boom in the building industry.

Sea Scout activities at Browns Bay beach, Feb 2011.
The City of East Coast Bays was shortlived, swallowed in 1989 not by a tsunami but by another kind of Bays city roller, the new North Shore City. To locals, the second amalgamation that saw North Shore joining Auckland last November must have seemed like history repeating: bigger fish eat littler fish, ad infinitum. But if East Coast Bays no longer has an operational council chamber (in November it stood empty), it still has a community — or several, if you count each individual bay: Castor, Campbells, Mairangi, Murrays, Rothesay, Browns, Tor, Long. The best-known of those may be Long Bay, thanks to the regional park of that name, but the commercial centre is Browns Bay. There you’ll find most of the shops, the supermarkets, the leisure centre, and the library.

An award-winner

The Bays have had a public library service since 1970; its first building was a wooden structure that was, as libraries often are, too small. The council commissioned architect George Paterson to replace this, which he did in 1983 with a design that won awards, including one from the Library Association of Australia.

This building in Bute Road is the one I visited, and it really is beautiful. The setting, first: with a grassy, treed area on two sides and a sensitively designed approach, it’s easy to forget that the neighbours are an asphalt carpark, a supermarket and a sort of gym-plus (the council’s local ‘leisure centre’). When I showed up on a Sunday morning, one of those neighbours was noisily doubling as a church — the blue concrete-block walls of the gym were a semi-permeable membrane for the bass and drum of a believers’ band — but it wasn’t difficult to screen them out. I was attending a different kind of church.

I arrived minutes before the library doors opened, as did a few others including Patricia Kay, a local who worked there for two of her 40 years as a librarian. During her stint as the Bays’ information services librarian she cycled to work (20 minutes downhill), and from November to April she swam every day — Browns Bay beach is a three-minute walk. The Shore has always attracted people who are keen to make the most of their environment and Patricia, an English migrant who has lived in New Zealand half her life, is no exception.
Patricia outside the library, with bicycle.
Entering the library, one of my first impressions was of spaciousness, perhaps because of the high, sloping ceilings with their warm timber look, and the many windows. Staff ingenuity must also be a factor, however, as I gather limited room has been a challenge. Local library users are a keen bunch who ensure that more books and other items are borrowed from East Coast Bays than from any other public library on the Shore. 

The building has been extended three times, and now occupies the maximum allowable area on its site. Essentially, it’s a single storey, though a mezzanine floor offers workspace for staff. I doubt it would be possible to extend the library upwards in a manner sympathetic to its design, or without spending megabucks.

The latest and probably last addition comes courtesy of a local benefactor. It’s a courtyard for reading outdoors, with a ‘window on the world’ in the form of a steel stencil featuring hundreds (thousands?) of words about what’s in the library — media, antiques, planets, anatomy, to name but a few. 

And there are other space innovations. To accommodate Wriggle and Rhyme, a regular reading and movement event for preschoolers with their parents, staff move the children’s books in their castor-wheeled shelving units. The library has no book-filled trolleys adjoining bookshelves, unlike several libraries I use across the harbour; they would take up too much room. The six computer terminals for general use — all that space allows — are managed with a booking system that allows each user half an hour per session. (Introducing free wireless internet has helped: you can BYO laptop.) And how many stacks of fiction shelves does the library have for the biggest book borrowers on the Shore?  Six or seven, I’d say. Fiction is this library’s most popular section.

The balancing act
It’s likely that the space limitations of the East Coast Bays library are shared by many others (Waiheke is one). Certainly other Auckland public libraries run a booking system for computers, and the Bay’s free-wheeling bookshelves are not the first I’ve seen. But the small space for fiction blows my mind. It can work, Patricia tells me. There are always lots of novels out on loan, but also the Shore’s seven libraries (eight, including the mobile library) have a “floating collection”. Rather than individual libraries having all ‘their’ books sent back to them, the books stay wherever readers return them, until they are next borrowed. This means there is always variety, always something new for those whose preferred method of choosing books is to browse the shelves. “You don’t always need lots of books on the shelves to provide good service,” she says.

The Ethel Baxter Room, the result of a bequest
for a newspaper and magazine area. The donor
was a Torbay resident who lived to the age of 105.
What about balance, I ask? That turns out to have been one of Patricia’s major jobs in the non-fiction at Browns Bay. It’s part of what the professionals call “collection management”, involving not only monitoring what’s in the library via computer, but also walking along the rows and manually checking the shelves. So after a Bays resident excitedly requested books on crochet from every available library, staff spotted that a dozen had made their way back to Browns Bay, and sent several elsewhere.

The “floating” policy doesn’t apply to everything. Along with various books in languages other than English, East Coast Bays has a special collection of Afrikaans literature that will always make its way back, in recognition that Afrikaans-speakers form a significant proportion of the population this library serves. Most library staff don’t float, either (except during lunchtime swims); they are strongly identified as local. After a few minutes with Patricia, I could see that Bays library users had come to know her well, to like her and to appreciate her skills. “She’s just a magician with the computer,” enthused one of several people who approached her to chat.

This library user was from Minnesota, and part of what Patricia describes as a growing community in the Bays — part-time migrants who stay for the summer before heading elsewhere for the winter. Other migrants who form a significant proportion of the Bays’ population are firstly South Africans, who are escaping their country’s crime rate. Britons, who also proliferate in the Bays, are frequently evacuees from Britain’s intensively settled suburbia and are keen to live close to the sea. And of course, says Patricia, compatriots frequently congregate. Evidence of these two expat communities can be seen in The South African Kaffee and Bramptins “The UK Grocer”, shops that sell a taste of home. Fancy some Klipdrift Brandy or a packet of Fox’s Moos Malted Biscuits? Both are available within walking distance of the library.

This is a comfortable place to hang out, and East Coast Bays may never fall on really hard times: it’s what real estate agents might call ‘leafy’, and it’s by the sea. Locals value what they have, including their library. But as everywhere else, the staff of that library work with the limitations of a building and a budget, devising ways to stretch them to the max. 

Detail from the “window on the world” — or should that be
“window on the word”? — at the Bays library courtyard.

Note: the Local History Online service to which this post links is an initiative of North Shore, Waitakere and Rodney Libraries. It features a searchable index of keywords relating to articles in local (sub-regional) newspapers, and lots of other wonderful things.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Not Your Usual Notice from the Library

This is from the Christchurch City Libraries blog today, in the wake of the February 22 earthquake:

Information about libraries opening
The following libraries are now open for their normal opening hours:
All other  Christchurch City Libraries  are closed until further notice.

Due Dates extended
We have extended due dates of all items issued to 1 May 2011.  Sorry if, in the meantime, you have had an automated email about an overdue item. We are waiving all fines incurred from the 22 Feb ...

Please help us by keeping items at home
We are assisting with emergency and welfare operations, so for reasons for safety, logistics, and staffing we are not currently able to deal with returns. Please DO NOT return any items to any of our libraries until further notice.

Special arrangements at other libraries:
The following libraries have confirmed to us that they have made a special arrangement for Christchurch residents who are temporarily staying away from home. If your nearest library is not listed below,  just ask.  We are sure they will do their best for you.

Thanks everyone and stay safe
Kia kaha Christchurch.