Friday, 10 June 2011

Is It a Library or a Lolly Shop?

The children’s section at Botany Public Library.
In April, Auckland’s Metro magazine caused a stir with ‘Sweetshops for the Mind’, an opinion piece urging readers to “Just look at how they’re selling books these days”. Design and display are the priority for publishers and bookshops, Paul Litterick suggested, and there’s little of worth between the covers.

This interesting argument could apply to libraries. These days, the wow factor is part of their architecture: they are designed to appeal to a wider public than those who merely like books or the pursuit of knowledge (they even seem to cater for people wishing to sleep). Litterick’s point seems especially relevant for a library at a shopping mall such as that of Botany Downs, one of the newer suburbs neighbouring Howick and Pakuranga, in east Auckland.

Many people first heard of Botany Downs once the mall opened in 2004, but long before that, east Auckland’s Botany Road area was known as “Bottney” (in spoken New Zild). Manukau City Library’s South Auckland Research Centre librarian Bruce Ringer says the “Downs” suffix was added in the 1970s to give the growing suburb a separate identity.

Not just another shop: the library at the mall.
Let’s Go Shopping
I’ve visited libraries just outside the walls of shopping malls — New Lynn’s is one — but Botany Public Library is the first I’ve seen that’s part of the mall itself. On public holidays when other libraries are closed it’s often open, presumably because the landlord requires retail and other tenants to maximise shopping and thereby revenue.

So it was that on Queen’s Birthday Monday, while most library users were taking the day off, Carol set the TomTom (a new satellite navigation whirligig that she’s been hankering after since we got lost on the way to another library) and off we went.

This device has been christened “Kate” after the new Duchess of Cambridge, because its English pronunciation is received, or standard British southern. It (or she, if you must) doesn’t do Maori, rendering a major arterial road — Te Irirangi Drive — unrecognisable. But Kate’s directions are otherwise clear, and we had no difficulty finding the Botany Town Centre.

Mall Meets Main Street

Shopping per se does nothing for me, and I’m no mall rat — but as shopping malls go, this one’s quite nice. Like Sylvia Park, another newish Auckland mall, it has indoor–outdoor flow. In case that is interpreted strictly as a home decor trend of the 1990s, I should add that Botany combines mall with main street, offering several ‘precincts’ with outdoor areas as well as some indoor shopping.

This shows the focus has changed “from internalised box to a community environment”, according to a spokesperson for architects Hames Sharley (interviewed by the New Zealand Herald before this AMP shopping centre was built): “Now people are saying, ‘We do like walking along shop fronts.’”

Given the precinct plan, it’s surely no coincidence that the Botany library sits between a Hoyts three-screen cinema and an Esquires coffee shop: enthusiasm for one such recreational venue can easily extend to the others. The design of the library, with filmset-style lighting in the entrance, even acknowledges its theatrical neighbour.

Botany Public Library opened in October 2004, and nearly seven years later it still looks fresh. Design historian Douglas Lloyd Jenkins has mentioned it as part of “a new burst of library building”.

The Library as Living Room
“Step inside any of these new libraries and you will notice that what constituted the library of childhood memory has changed”, Lloyd Jenkins wrote in the New Zealand Listener in December 2004. “Furthermore, the realisation that libraries are never likely to return to the semi-monastic retreats of the past will disturb the equilibrium of some traditional library users” [such as, perhaps, the one who inspired my last post]. 

High-visibility shelves with plenty on show (above)
and an alluring library entry, with places to go (below).
Like it or not, he added, “the public library has been rethought as a communal version of your living-room at home. As a result, the contemporary library is usually full, and consequently a little noisier than libraries of yesteryear.”

Most noise at Botany library is from the muzak that I presume the mall management has had piped throughout the mall complex. The vibrant colours and the words etched diagonally on glass are louder than this — part of the “pick me!” (or perhaps pick ’n’ mix) approach of the lolly shop, catering for short attention spans and providing the backdrop for a multitude of jostling library products.

Is this a bad thing? “The library has to reflect its location”, Manukau city librarian Chris Szekely said, soon after his Botany branch opened. In Manukau Szekely, who now heads the more senior and possibly more sedate Alexander Turnbull Library, oversaw the installation of a new library every 18 months, according to Commercial Design Trends. At Botany (and presumably the other locations), he wanted to try new ideas.

Up with the Times at Botany Downs

Some advances are of interest to boffins, though the aim is to benefit budgets and patrons. Botany was the first public library in New Zealand to embrace Radio Frequency Identification, winning a Computerworld Excellence Award for using this and other technology.

RFID manages inventory using electronic tags, security gates and self-issue machines (Botany’s are multilingual, giving directions in Maori, Chinese, Korean, Africaans and English) as well as automatic check-in of newly returned items. It’s touted as reducing the time staff spend on repetitive manual tasks and, in Botany’s case, extending the library’s hours.

Many tempting morsels at the Botany library are at a low height: the DVDs just inside; the books on their movable units, with their chest-high top shelves for ‘face-out’ displays. I thought this a child-friendly policy, and one that created an atmosphere of openness rather than the more blocky, mazelike feeling of libraries that have taller, stockier bookcases.

It may also cater for the security cameras, which I guess are part of the furniture in a shopping mall (this is the only library where I’ve seen such a thing) or even for some Asian clientele who feel at home sitting on their haunches, as a couple of people were in the Chinese language section when I was there.

The space dedicated to books and magazines at Botany seems relatively small. Nevertheless, I saw proportionately more people browsing the bookshelves or immersed in reading. In some libraries I’ve visited, the public-use computers have been the main area of activity. 

A quiet room with windows on the world.
From “Peaceful Place” to “Showcase”
A very impressive feature, I thought, was the variety of discrete spaces that the Botany Public Library makes available, though the push-a-button entry for one is a little discouraging. Within the main library are the taken-for-granted armchairs and squabs for people to collapse into or perch on. Elsewhere in the facility you’ll find... 
  • the “peaceful place” or “nohanga o rongo”: spacious, green-painted — and I gather it’s been acoustically treated to deaden sound. It has a bookcase of ‘fast facts’ publications, tables or desks where people were studying when I found my way in, plus windows on the world outside; 
  • a glass-walled internal “focus room” or “ruma hui”, where people can meet or read in an even quieter environment;
  • “” or “ako kupenga”, the red-and-black technology area where patrons can use the internet or (according to Commercial Design Trends) engage in video-conferences;
  • the “leisure lounge” or “wahi whakaata”, a mezzanine where I saw more students bent over their work (a pile of Maccas snacks between them), and more computers;
  • “Showcase” or “atamira whakaata” just inside the library entrance, a venue for public events. At the time of my visit it contained still more people engaged in research. 
With the possible exception of the muzak, people who get annoyed by library noise have little to complain about at Botany, because there are so many places of retreat. Interestingly, although these zones have new and innovative names and decor, this modern public library offers a variation on what its precursors provided a century ago with their reading rooms, lecture halls, lending departments and committee rooms (see “The Library that Got Another Job”).

The latter were more overtly “improving”. Their version of Botany’s funky World Wide Knitting in Public event (June 11) would probably be a Women’s Institute extraordinary meeting to knit scarves for soldiers; that’s the difference.

Is it a bad thing for Botany’s library or any other to look à la mode — styley, accessorised and even sexy — if this wins friends and influences people? That’s the question that this post and its “library or lolly shop” heading really pose. You decide.

The “Showcase” room close by the Botany library entrance.
Paul Litterick’s point (about the attractive presentation of poor literary fare) was made in a magazine whose cover featured a naked female torso and the words: “THE SEX ISSUE!”. 

Lolly — (NZ & Aust.) a small shaped piece of confectionery made esp. with sugar; a sweet; lolly shop (NZ & Aust.) a shop selling sweets. ORIGIN abbreviation of lollipop. — The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary, available online through Oxford Reference Online at the Auckland Libraries’ Digital Library.

The ‘touting’ of Botany’s RFID system can be downloaded (scroll down the page).


  1. Hi Claire,

    well I'll bite - my answer to "Is it a bad thing for Botany’s library or any other to look à la mode — styley, accessorised and even sexy" is Strongly Disagree.

    OK I'll confess something inside me winces seeing the picture of the woman clutching cup of coffee and something else walking past book shelves, clearly distracted and looking to one side ... but hey, one or two spillages are a small price to pay.

    great article in the Aucklander today too.

  2. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for commenting! To address the ‘detail’ part of what you said, I think location has a lot to do with it: I’ve not seen people bring food or drink into other libraries. I guess it says something about how successfully that particular library has become part of its surroundings.