Friday, 7 October 2011

From a Different Latitude

Which public library is this? It could be one of Auckland’s, but in fact it’s way above Wellsford, the northernmost point I’ve visited in the 55-library latitude tour. Think falling leaves, cooler temperatures. Curling season. The sweet pong of high-bush cranberries that grow on the banks of the river running through the city. Think Edmonton, latitude 53° 34' north, Canada.

I decided to call in to the public library, “the second most visited place in Edmonton”.* The first such place is the West Edmonton Mall, once the world’s largest shopping mall and home — no longer, thank goodness — to a small pod of sickly dolphins.

“We’re bigger than our buildings”
Edmonton Public Library has 17 sites serving a population of 752,000 (city limits) to 1.1 million (greater Edmonton), one library less** than in Auckland City’s grab-bag before the 2010 amalgamations that pushed the population of JAFAs*** up to 1.4 million overnight. Like Auckland Libraries, EPL has several construction or renovation projects on the go at a time — five at present. But also like Auckland, EPL is “bigger than our buildings”, as one of its new posters says.

In addition to the people and resources within, it offers external electronic reference databases that members can browse outside the library walls with Auckland Libraries (whose Digital Library I continue to use from Canada), though the “Birds of North America” resource to which Edmonton subscribes is not on our list.

EPL’s bookmobiles, the equivalent of Auckland’s four mobile library trucks, were retired in 1991 but “community librarians” (different from branch managers) build links with external groups, and an outreach service sees staff visiting homebound people, connecting library laptops wirelessly to
member and circulation lists to remotely arrange memberships or help find and reserve a range of items, from braille books to music to video games.

Canadian author Susan Juby at EPL downtown.
My first encounter with Edmonton’s library system was wonderful. With local friends, I heard a popular Canadian author, Susan Juby, speak at the downtown library’s AV room. Introduced by Marty Chan, writer in residence — yes, EPL has such a person! — she generously spoke for more than an hour to an audience of about 30, before taking questions from the floor. Canadians may, like Kiwis, have a reputation for being quiet but they’re far more forward in Q&A than we are; this I’ve concluded on the basis of just two such sessions since I’ve been here. This is a good thing: there were no awkward silences!

“Shrugging on that skin” 

Susan Juby has written for teens and adults, both fiction and non-fiction, though Auckland Libraries has only her novels. One of her books, Alice, I Think, is in the personal Canadian teen literary canon that a friend here prepared for me, and Juby is so well versed in the craft of staying alive while writing that she’s managed to make authorship her fulltime job. Her talk at EPL featured pithy, sometimes self-deprecating observations, several of which I scribbled down:
  • on procrastination — “I had to make the process of writing less painful than not writing”;
  • “I wrote two entire novels at Calhoun’s [a Vancouver café] and no-one ever learned my name or said hello” (she wasn’t complaining; it helped her get stuff done);
  • she’s a voracious reader — “I needed to stop reading long enough to start writing”;
  • she loves “shrugging on that skin” of the first-person narrator;
  • “stinky first drafts” are a speciality and it’s as if “the entire room smells like farts” followed by the realisationOh, that’s coming off the page”;
  • “If you have not spent time in a chicken barn, she said,you have not lived”.
This last piece of wisdom related to Juby’s research for her latest novel, The Woefield Poultry Collective as it’s called in North America (the US edition is blandly Home to Woefield with a cover to match). I suspect she’s fond of chooks: her henbag, though not seen at EPL that day, is famous. 
Night classes at the library?
Her talk was part of a monthly “Writers’ Corner” that the writer in residence hosts at the downtown library, and one of numerous free day and evening events in EPL’s programme. A quarterly EPL Library Guide dedicates most of its 44 pages to setting out the various gatherings for children, teens and adults. It seems so extensive that I asked a local friend if night classes and the like were available elsewhere in Edmonton (they were). 

Some of these Canadian library events are familiar — bookclub meetings (I attended one co-ordinated by a staff member at the Woodcroft branch last night; it was great) and the Edmontonian toddlers’ equivalent of our award-winning Wriggle and Rhyme. It’s hard for me to judge if the Auckland Libraries calendar is as full; we don’t usually look at it in a single publication, though its events feature on the website and are promoted through printed fliers.

Back home in Auckland, with seven previously separate library systems still coming together, the programme may be less easy to corral, describe and summarise. It will be interesting to see if any changes follow Auckland Libraries’ recent survey on patrons’ interest and involvement in its events. Of course, a lot of informal assistance goes on in libraries too: Auckland may have fewer job-search and computing classes but a former reference librarian at East Coast Bays, for instance, has told me of her similar work
every week with numerous individuals.

The gophers, T. rex and friends

I am away from latitude 36° 51' south for a few more weeks and am enjoying Alberta — from the North Saskatchewan River and the Canadian Rockies to the unforgettable “world famous” Gopher Hole Museum at Torrington and the slightly more world-famous Royal Tyrrell Museum in the Badlands, with its stunning collection of fossils and dinosaur skeletons from near and far. In four days (Monday October 10) its Thanksgiving Day up here. Those are other stories, though, and public libraries remain on the itinerary, whatever their latitude.

Wearing a Swanndri that the locals
think is a lumber jacket, the
blogger blends right in by the North
Saskatchewan River, Edmonton.
Below right: high-bush cranberries.
* from a library document downloadable as a pdf:

** “fewer” sounds wrong here, and given the fuss these days about less vs. fewer I was interested to see a redoubtable source commenting that we sometimes get too pedantic about the distinction. Source: Pocket Fowlers Modern English Usage. Ed. Robert Allen. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online (searchable free by Auckland Libraries members).

*** Aucklanders. JAFA is an acronym formed from “just another f***ing Aucklander”. Source: The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary. Tony Deverson. Oxford University Press 2004. Oxford Reference Online again.  

Top photo: children’s library, downtown EPL.



  1. I have spent time in a chicken shed - love chooks!

    Great post - and I'm so envious you got to travel all the way to Edmonton!

  2. Thanks, Rachel. I've got chooks myself and I'm missing them - but perhaps hearing coyotes yipping and howling in the countryside last night (a couple of hours from Edmonton) makes up for that!

  3. thanks for this claire

    you've prompted me to look for susan juby at the library - not completely successfully, it's true: initially i just established that the book of hers that was available at my nearest library [when i want to get a book out, i want to get it RIGHT NOW] - hasn't been available for maybe a year or more

    so a first: i've reserved 2, & they've turned up really quickly

    so currently reading _alice, i think_, which is a little unlikely, incredible one might say, in terms of storyline; but totally credible in how she's captured the tone & thoughts of an odd 15-year-old

    best line so far: "it's incredible that she's ready for another mother-daughter shopping trip already. people are still being interviewed by the police about the last one."

  4. I wonder if an "incredible" storyline is more acceptable in teen lit, such as this? I'm not suggesting that standards are lower but that priorities for the adolescent reader may be different, as these are years full of intense feeling. Note to self: reserve Alice, I Think, to read it after you.

  5. Alice, I Think contains some of the funniest scenes I've ever read, like Alice's father and his friends donning hockey equipment for protection when they are too drunk to drive and so Alice has to chauffeur... it may not be a likely scenario but in Alice's wacky world, I believed it.

  6. i really enjoyed _alice_ - my comments weren't critical [in the negative sense]: i think claire's on to something about intensity of teenage feelings being well-matched by the kind of storyline

    & as a general rule, i think i accept incredible/not wholly believable plots more easily if the characters are believable, which they are here

    i've, since my last comment, also read the _woefield_ book* [also agree with claire about alternative titles] & also enjoyed it a lot, was v.impressed

    again, somewhat unlikely plot & again, very believable & well-written characters: one of the differences here is that the story is told from 4 viewpoints - that's not easy, & they are very different, though mostly similarly not very self-aware, which is an even more difficult perspective to write from, i reckon: how do you reveal to the reader that they're not picking up on everything that's going on, while they don't?

    *both books have been returned, claire