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.


  1. South Africans are not escaping Britons!!

  2. No, hence the parenthetical commas! But I appreciate that people who use the Oxford comma may find it ambiguous, so I’ve changed it.