Saturday, 16 July 2011

Looking in through a Library Window

Remuera on a Rainy Day: Part Two of Remuera Public Library

A dark and stormy day.
Vampires in the library.
It was a dark and stormy day. Just right for visiting one of Auckland’s oldest working libraries — and appropriate, too, with “A Dark and Stormy Night”* one of the events scheduled for its forthcoming school holiday programme.

The Remuera Public Library is unlike any I’ve written about so far in that it is housed in a heritage building, as today’s lingo would say. The Historic Places Trust describes it as “one of Auckland’s most distinguished suburban buildings” and ranks it Category 1 for preservation, so people have expectations of the local body charged with its upkeep.

In 1840, long before the library was built, land in the area was coveted by a would-be buyer named John Logan Campbell, according to A Fine Prospect: A History of Remuera, Meadowbank and St Johns.** That Remuera has remained desirable ever since should give some idea of how one of its best-known landmarks is valued.

The front of the library,
Remuera Road.
The 1926 library building, on the corner of Remuera Road and St Vincent Ave, is neo-Georgian in style with more than a hint of American colonialism about it. The design won a New Zealand Institute of Architects Gold Medal for the Gummer and Ford partnership in 1928. An upgrade and refurbishment more than 70 years later also won an NZIA medal, in 2004.

Community librarian Sue Jackson clearly loves the library, not only its function but also its form. She finds it a wonderful venue for events, such as the recent launch of A Fine Prospect with authors Diana Morrow and Jenny Carlyon. And she delights in giving a guided tour of the tiny ticket office that, tucked away near a side entrance, once served the library’s lecture hall. Now, instead of issuing tickets through a slot in the windowed door, it accepts book returns through a slot in the wall.

From the library’s vertical file; original source unknown.
The Light Fantastic
Remuera’s library may be a stately old lady now but back in the day she was quite a gal, lacking the boundaries that had been the norm in public buildings. With fewer dividing walls between departments, there was greater light and flexibility of function.

That light is quite something. Initially the eye is drawn to the lines of the building, to the brickwork and columns outside, and to the dark wood contrasting the white walls and ceilings inside. But on the rainy Thursday afternoon I went there, the windows and doors were the thing: for people within they offered the world; for those without they were an invitation to brightness and warmth.

In the mid-twentieth century the lecture hall was integrated with the rest of the building. More space was needed for books, and the Auckland Public Libraries’ programme of public talks had been phased out decades before. Wynne Colgan attributes their demise to “the cinema and... the novelty of the talking picture, which reached New Zealand in 1929”. (Remuera’s own Tudor Theatre had opened in 1926, according to A Fine Prospect.)

Window through a window
through a window. View
from the ticket office.
This Vincent Ave entrance
was once the way in to the
library’s lecture hall.
During the 2002 upgrade the hall’s massive doors, kept closed throughout my childhood, made an entrance once more, with a new ramp now offering the best access to the library for those with limited mobility. There’s a disability carpark alongside in St Vincent Ave.

Other work in 2002 saw additions of the late 1950s and early 1960s stripped away, outstanding original features reinstated and reinforced; for instance, plywood that covered some oak panelling was removed. Sections of wall came out to enhance the open plan, and cramped staff workspace was ingeniously expanded by converting the hall’s former stage into a glassed-in mezzanine.

Remuera has had more than one public library. The first opened in 1915 in the office of the former Remuera Road Board, which had overseen the area until it became part of Auckland City that year. In 1926 parts of this building would reassembled in Point Chevalier as a one-storey library for that growing suburb.

The first library, from A Fine
, Auckland Libraries.
Detail from the front
of the present library.
 One Building, Many Libraries
In the present, too, there is more than one Remuera Public Library, something I realised when visiting this month. I’d harboured doubts about the place, despite my grandfather’s role as its architect and my own Remuera–Meadowbank upbringing. 

One of a public library’s gifts, perhaps an unintended one, is its levelling influence (see an earlier post, Of Lullabies and Libraries). But given this institution’s prestigious location and Remuera’s reputation for a class consciousness that is emphatically not the Marxist sort, I wondered if it could be more of a vehicle for one-upmanship, or promoting things that don’t really matter.

In 2006 the incorrect positioning of the library’s sundial prompted a Remuera-ite to wage war in several newspaper columns. He was right — and now the sundial is too — but some might question whether there might be higher priorities such as, say, global warming. (“Tis later than you think”, warns the engraving on the sundial.)

From the front of the
present library.
The library sundial: a sentinel,
and subject of a saga.
Another local told me of hesitating to borrow magazines from the library because certain proud possessors of doctorates might see and pass judgement. It was a joke, a funny one, and yet...

Last week I spotted, in the library’s display of recently returned books, The Safe and Sane Guide to Teenage Plastic Surgery. Only in Remuera, I thought.

After a couple of hours at this library, I realised that it can be whatever its users want it to be. If they want their library to gauge social standing or to give them the time of day, it can do that. If they want it to aid the pursuit of other forms of knowledge, then it can do that too.

So there are many Remuera Public Libraries: the one established in 1915; my library of childhood; a beacon for people who love books; an elegant venue for a launch; the switched-on wi-fi library; a cosy place to spend time on a dark and stormy day; a rallying point for Remuera Heritage, whose banner is displayed there.

When I first walked in through the reopened side entrance, my impression was of Serious Reading. The imposing sets of dark-stained timber bookshelves — tall, robust, decisively stationary — made sure of that. But in wandering the library, I found one of the things that impressed me most: that it’s a cool activity centre for today’s kids.

Parent and child.
Reaching out at Remuera.
It achieves this despite having fewer of the fancy-pants toys and none of the vibrant decor I’ve seen for kids at some other libraries. The “children’s classics” section is a simple brainwave, and the present vampire display for teens draws you from a distance. Remuera library’s Sue Jackson is, I’ve learned, a mover and shaker in Wriggle and Rhyme, Auckland Libraries’ and Sport Auckland’s award-winning “active movement” programme for under-twos.

In the child and teen sections I saw chairs in disarray, crammed book trolleys, half-finished drawings, shelves of teen magazines available at the front desk (presumably they go walkabout), and a small but determined person reaching for the top shelf of the children’s fiction. Such things tell me that this building, its advanced age notwithstanding, attracts the young as well as their elders — and they have made it their own.

It turns out I was wrong about the teen plastic surgery book: other libraries have it too. (And I’m not advocating a boycott.) Besides, at Remuera, a copy of Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples sat nearby, suggesting — what? Possibly that the proud possessors of doctorates had called in recently but also that yes: this library can be what you want it to be.

* Famous first words from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton in his novel Paul Clifford (1830), Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. The dictionary is available to Auckland Libraries members through Oxford Reference Online at the Digital Library.

The Dark and Stormy Night in the library is 20 July, 6.00–7.30pm. Bookings are essential. School holiday events at various Auckland Libraries branches are listed online as part of a Winter Warmups programme.

** I wanted to write more about A Fine Prospect. It’s a rewarding and sometimes eye-opening read. But I should declare an interest: Reader, I edited it. 

Need an answer? View from a St Vincent Ave window.

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