Sunday, 17 June 2012

What Goes, What Stays? Time in a Western Library

A poster at Hendersons public library.
This project will be archived at the
s research centre.

It’s surely a mark of an interested, active community that its public library noticeboard is up to date and announces a wealth of associations and events. Here in Henderson, West Auckland, these range from the woodturners guild and the Scottish country dance club (no partner needed) to job-search meetings in the library and the settlement support group for new migrants.

Heavens above: there’s even an invitation to “read the Bible before you die”, more moderate than that quote suggests. With its black Courier typeface and plain white paper, it’s also more modest than the other shinier, more colourful, signs of things to come. And though it speaks of things eternal, by my second visit it’s no longer there.

Turning 180 degrees to the doorway of the Waitakere Central Library, it’s reassuring to see another notice declaring that this is a 

The circulation desk at Waitakere Central Library.
Members of the public come here with any
initial questions or requests for help.
The entrance area is very neat, with a long, wide passage alongside the circulation desk to the books and other facilities beyond. It’s tempting to imagine the library staff rushing me along on a book trolley to whatever assistance I urgently require.

Or not. No rushing is evident on any of my three visits, though the atmosphere is one of helpfulness and quiet efficiency. The first and second times I go, the long circulation desk is imposing. By the third, I’m at ease walking right by and ascending what could be the stairway to heaven: steps stretching up and away into whiteness. (Note for people with disabilities: the library has a lift available.) 

From Ordinary to Extraordinary
I’m going to level 2, to the West Auckland Research Centre, whose J. T. Diamond Reading Room has a small exhibition space at one end. A friend and I plan to hear Karekare resident Ted Scott, in an Auckland Photography Festival event. He’s well known for his landscape photos, and I never get tired of giving a couple of his greeting cards. One has an unfurling fern frond in the shape of a koru; the other a punga tree-fern viewed from below, its branches like the spokes of a wheel or the ribs of some organic umbrella, reaching for the sky.
Many of Ted’s local photos feature in long-time Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey’s Untamed Coast: Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges and West Coast Beaches. His show at the library, however, seems to be from another planet, one that’s black and white and innumerable shades of grey.

That planet is 1960s London, where the photographer grew up and where he served his time as an apprentice in the now-vanished photo-litho industry. The London that he caught on film has vanished too: it was populated by Footplate Fred, whose job would end when diesel overtook the steam trains; by children playing on Blitz bombsites that would soon make way for tower blocks; and, in Petticoat Lane, by a little old lady who was an unlikely-looking messenger of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.

The Apprentice, Ted Scott’s show (to June 30), offers an interesting lesson about documenting the ordinary life that’s right in front of us. Soon enough, people will find it extraordinary. Of course, you have to have an eye for it, and he clearly does.

Back then, he was a teenager using his first camera. Films were expensive, so he’d buy one with just 12 exposures, and try to make every shot count. Occasionally something in his carefully arranged composition would (f)alter just as his finger pressed the shutter: that’s life, isn’t it? Some of the resulting photos he thought were flawed, but on reviewing them very recently he concluded that they had a certain something. So half a century on, these striking images are on display.

Today another camera operator, research centre team leader Robyn Mason, will record Ted’s talk for posterity. And the reading room that we’ve come to is named after someone else who documented things: Jack Diamond was a self-taught historian of west Auckland who spent decades recording the present before it passed, the past before it sank into oblivion. After he died in 2001, his 30 linear metres of photos, books and manuscripts were donated to the library.

When my friend and I arrive, the room is full of schoolchildren. Their teacher and the librarian are ending a practical lesson on research and there’s a light hum of conversation, punctuated by packing up, as everyone gets ready to go. Perhaps some of the students will later contribute essays to the J. T. Diamond Essay Competition, which encourages west Auckland historical research and the writing down of memories. I hope so; I hope that in the new and larger Auckland this initiative, hitherto a joint project of Waitakere Libraries and the West Auckland Historical Society, will continue.

The front of the library, with a cafe on the ground floor.

Below: around the side, with a view to Unitec
building next door. The foreground shows detail of a
columnar artwork representing a hinaki (eel trap)
and possibly, I
ve read, a wine barrel both used
by industrious west Aucklanders of the past.

A City Library, and More
Waitakere Central Library, which opened in 2006, is seven times the size of its predecessor, and clearly intended as a “city library”. If the spacious circulation area doesn’t convince you, the mayoral portraits will. Six suited men, two of them robed, are resplendent in gold chains, facing anyone who approaches the fiction department. They give no hint that their days are numbered.

What goes, and what stays, when cities amalgamate? Some of the change is easily identified and quantified; some isn’t. This library gives the sense that we’re in Waitakere — surely something there’s no need to shake off.

Still, there may be more appropriate candidates for pride of place on that otherwise blank wall: the Waitakere Arts Laureates, for instance, whose black and white portraits by Catherine Davidson are harder to find. They’re deeper in the library; I’d suggest their subjects also draw more deeply from the well of ideas.

As the new age of amalgamation dawned late in 2010, cultural commentator Hamish Keith lauded Waitakere City for its embrace of the arts, especially its laureate scheme, which has honoured 16 artists (in fibre, fine arts, hard materials, literature, performance) who have some connection with the west. He described this as “an initiative that deserves not to sink with the abandoned deckchairs. The new Auckland should immediately take this bunch aboard and should add to them, creating its own much larger tribe of the creative wise.”

That’s yet to happen. Although the post-amalgamation council’s Auckland Plan makes mention of the possibility, it makes no provision for it in years to come. Giving the existing laureates pride of place in the Waitakere Central Library would be one way to remind people of what the west can offer the wider Auckland.

The laying on of hands? No, this is
Waitakere Central
s new intelligent
machine. It reads compatible
labels to check books in.
It’s an interesting library, Waitakere Central, the first in New Zealand to be a joint venture between an educational institution and local government. The union is not especially obvious until you reach the second level where the non-fiction books of the two institutions are interfiled, Unitec’s readily identifiable by the logo on their spines. Public library members can use these in the library and photocopy a few pages to take away if they want. Originally Unitec students could issue and return their books on the ground floor, but that’s now changed.

The polytechnic and public library initially shared the ground-floor learning centre, too. When I visited in April it looked like a school computer room, though largely without a class: Unitec seemed by this time to have concentrated its computing resources for students elsewhere — perhaps in its campus building next door, though there’s also an extensive Unitec space on the third level of the library.

The Library Opens Up: Space, Access, a Sense of Security

When I went back a month later, after the library had closed a few days for renovations, the rows of desks in the learning centre had gone. Instead there was a more convivial arrangement with space to sprawl — more public library lounge than cramming chamber. As a staff member told me, it’s now a lot easier for people with prams or other equipment to move around.

An informal seating area just inside the library.
Several other changes didn’t register until they were pointed out to me:
- a former library shop just inside the library has become an informal seating area;
- DVDs and music are now more accessible at the front of the library on the ground floor;
- magazines have been moved to the front on the second level (where the DVDs and music used to be);
- more study tables in a naturally quiet area by windows at the end of the second level;
- all the ground floor bookshelves are now less tall than previously.

The latter I’d noticed in the children’s section, where shelves are even lower than the rows of fiction that precede them. This means barriers have been replaced with space, light and a clear line of sight, giving a sense of accessibility but also security, backing up the nearby notices promoting the care of children and prevention of bullying.

Signs like this are now appearing
in a number of
public libraries.
The children’s librarian, absent on my previous visit, was proactive about inviting new arrivals in this part of the building to ask her for any help they wanted. There’s an art to this, as I know from my earlier career in bookselling.

For retailers the desired result of such a “greeting” is a personal connection between staff member and customer, rendering products and services more accessible but at the same time boosting security. One challenge for the worker, especially in a library or bookshop, is to get the timing right: don’t interrupt a browser’s reverie or they may up sticks and leave, suffering from an acute case of the Shoulds (“I should be doing x, y, z...”). A degree of breeziness is called for, and it’s important not to seem pushy.

A quiet corner in the childrens section,
enjoyed by
children and adults alike.

This bronze insert in a library
handrail is by Mathew von Sturmer.
He and Sunnah Thompson also
created the hinaki pictured above.
The librarian I saw had mastered this art. And when she wasn’t overtly helping people, she was around; at one point she was cleaning a window. I’m not about to suggest that library staff should be expected to clean up after us, but it goes to show — as does the activity I encountered in the research centre — that there’s much more to working in a library than simply loving books.

The Waitakere Arts Laureates
Don Binney, painter
Niki Caro, film-maker
Len Castle, potter
John Edgar, sculptor
Fatu Feu‘u, artist

Graeme Gash, artist
Lois McIvor, painter
Geoff Moon, photographer (d. 2009)
Lemi Ponifasio, dance director
Ann Robinson, glass artist
Dick Scott, writer
Peter Siddell (d. 2011)
Matafetu Smith, weaver
CK Stead, writer
Mahinarangi Tocker, musician (d. 2008)
Patricia Wright, singer 


Other Sites of Interest (comments discuss the Unitec arrangement) (info on the inaugural laureates) (additional laureates, inducted in 2008)

Thursday, 14 June 2012

While There’s Life, There’s Hope

Ahem. It may have been obvious to anyone visiting this latitude lately on the world wide web: things have been a bit quiet around here. I had a bright idea for another blog and thought I could manage both at once. However, that has proven difficult.

Our libraries, of course, haven’t slept. They’ve kept working really hard to serve their very diverse communities and no doubt will continue to do so, despite a one percent funding cut recently announced in the Auckland Council budget — though where they will find the “efficiencies” mentioned in the last (and usually least important) sentence of the Herald’s news story, I dread to think. When I look at libraries I see pretty lean operations whose people are practised at stitches in time and saving nine, seeing pins and picking them up, taking care of the pennies, cutting their coats according to their cloth, and (not least) wasting not.

Anyway, despite my silence I’ve kept visiting Auckland public libraries, ordering books, using the digital library databases. I just haven’t posted about them. And despite my not having posted about them, this blog keeps getting hits: 52 of them on May 24, for heaven’s sake, when I hadn’t posted since March!

As The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs says, while there’s life, there’s hope.* The blogger’s block is about to change. A new post is almost ready to go up here at A Latitude of Libraries. Watch this space.

*This dictionary also says all those other proverbial things I’ve paraphrased in paragraph two. It is available on the web through your Auckland Libraries membership — even when you’re not at the library — at Oxford Reference Online.

NB The unhelpful library sign pictured above amid empty shelves, inviting library users to approach staff who in fact were not in the vicinity, was not in Auckland. It wasnt even in New Zealand. It was in a library I visited last year, somewhere else altogether. That facility was undergoing some changes at the time, and apparently its now quite different.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Catching the Bus to WHY-car-whyyy

The Waikowhai bus is part of the fabric of Auckland, and those who rode it together as adolescents include Mark Greatbatch (cricketer), Russell Crowe (gladiator) and Simon Prast (Gloss-ster and theatrical type). But even though I’ve seen many buses bound for Waikowhai during my lifetime, until a few weeks ago I hadn’t a clue where it was.

The name is Wai meaning water, Kowhai as in the yellow-flowering tree. It’s long been said WHY-car-whyyy in our drawn-out New Zealand English, so when I heard it pronounced in the Maori way, I didn’t link it with the Waikowhai bus — or yet know where it was. Why-CORE-fi, said my physio, a Pakeha enunciating the Maori simply, beautifully, unselfconsciously: My husband is the principal at Waikowhai Intermediate.

Kowhai motif.
Outside the library.
Green Belt and Bible Belt
The renovated Mount Roskill Public Library boasts a new kowhai-flower motif and shiny green paint. Both are superficial and easy to slap on, but when I heard that they symbolised the nearby green belt extending to the Manukau Harbour, a light went on in my mind.

Wai-kowhai: it’s the place of the green belt, the bus, and my physio’s husband’s school. The suburb that hangs out with Lynfield, Three Kings, Hillsborough, Mount Roskill and somewhere called Wesley. Together they constitute what I’ll call Greater Mount Roskill, a borough from 1940 to the first big Auckland amalgamation of 1989.

Keith Hay’s Mt Roskill erection.
It's illuminated at night during
major Christian festivals.
I prefer the flexible fit of a green belt to the restrictions and strictures of a bible belt, but it’s as the latter that Mount Roskill has been best known. The influence of local housing magnates Keith Hay (Keith Hay Homes) and Bill Subritzky (Universal Homes) may have had something to do with that.

As mayor for 21 years, Hay had a gigantic cross erected on top of a volcano, distributed copies of the Ten Commandments to local schools and described churches as “the heart of the community”. (His son also became a Mount Roskill mayor before, as Auckland’s deputy mayor, opposing the city’s gay paraders and other habitués of the immoral demi-monde.) 

Subritzky, influential in church, business and local politics, gave a Bible to everyone who bought a Universal Home. In the borough’s penultimate year Mount Roskill had New Zealand’s highest number of churches per head.  

The demographics have changed over the years, and Mount Roskill is now home to people of diverse faiths, including many Muslims. But Hay’s cross still has its home on top of the extinct volcano.

Multicultural Mt Roskill (Stoddard Road).
The Auckland Council has adopted this landmark’s Maori name, Puketapapa, for the diverse area that the local community board covers. Perhaps “Puketapapa” will eventually become as well known as Maungawhau (Mt Eden), Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) and Owairaka (Mt Albert).

“Flat-topped hill”, its meaning in English, seems apt. The two shallow volcanic craters created thousands of years ago must have given the mound a flattish look, but since the early 1960s, when a water reservoir took the place of 25,000 cubic metres of scoria, it’s been flatter still.

People find various ways to explain the most widely used name for the volcano, “Mount Roskill”. One appealing idea, if only because it loops neatly through the “bible belt” identity, is that it commemorates the peripatetic nineteenth-century evangelist John Roskill, who held services there and later committed suicide. Perhaps most appealing to those mischievously inclined is “Mount Rascal”, briefly bestowed in the 1840s. A variation of that gets an airing in Toa Fraser’s wonderful 2006 film set in the area, No 2. 

Local volcanic rock features around the grounds of Three
Kings School, including in walls that relief workers
built during the Depression of the 1930s.
The Volcano Belt
From the top of Puketapapa/Mount Roskill you can see several other volcanic landmarks. The nearest — Great King or Big King, depending on who you read — is the sole survivor of the original “Three Kings”, a single volcano whose major cones were actually five in number, according to Volcanoes of Auckland. An early Maori name (for the survivor or the trio, again depending on who you read) is Te Tatua o Mataaho, referring to yet another belt or girdle: that of the volcano deity Mataaho. (He popped up previously in another post,
Mangere: Scratching the Surface.)

Commercial quarrying at Three Kings probably began in the 1910s and was quick to diminish the crowning glory of two — their cones. A local history, Not Just Passing Through, records that a local man was surprised one day in the 1920s “to see Mt Eden appear over the far side of what had previously been a vista of the Southern King”.

Thus continued the destruction of what Volcanoes of Auckland describes as “probably the most complex” volcano in the 50-strong Auckland field. Lava from the Three Kings eruptions nearly 30,000 years ago had flowed several kilometres, as far as Western Springs, and created “some of Auckland’s most accessible lava caves”. These remain (albeit on private land): tours of one called Stewarts Cave are a fixture on the University of Auckland’s continuing education programme.

As well as forming the dry-stone walls we’re accustomed to seeing around Three Kings, local scoria was once used less visibly in road-making. It was a key component of Winstone Aggregates’ “Roskill Stone”, a coloured building material, and is sold as a drainage material today. Winstone is still emptying the area, though the remaining cone is protected.

Looking for answers
at the Mt Roskill library.
A Complex Arrangement
The library complex that so vividly portrays Mount Roskill’s green belt also addresses its volcanic heritage, in orange and brown (fortunately some distance from the green). I say “complex” because this council-run building on Mount Albert Road is a bit like the Three Kings volcano, though it does remain intact.

It’s called the Fickling Centre, after another local mayor, and as well as the library it offers various community meeting rooms. My first encounter with the building was in a long-ago (and mercifully brief) incarnation as a recruit for Amway.

 Those who use it today range from music groups and service clubs to Secret Place Ministries, whose Pursuit Church pastors Ray and Pam encourage “intimate encounter with the Lord”, which “often includes times of ...soaking in His presence”. Perhaps worshippers leave their chastity belts and rings at the door?

Anyway, the building has undergone a $2 million refurbishment. This was probably needed, given that it was once unkindly described as “an anonymous block in a darkened corner of the downscale shopping centre that passes for the heart of Mt Roskill” (Alistair Bone, New Zealand Listener).

In the audience at the Fickling Centre
reopening ceremony.
About 90 people gathered for the council’s reopening ceremony and to hear the ubiquitous speeches — quite difficult when the steel-clad air conditioning along the length of the room contributed its thunderous roar. From across the lane, Club Physical’s blaring fervour also made its presence felt, like a hyped and miked Christian revival meeting. We were in Noise City.

I did hear the big boss of Auckland Libraries, Allison Dobbie, say that the refurbished library offers “quiet zones, which have become so important” (alluding no doubt to a recent hullabaloo arising at the St Heliers branch). When she pointed out the symbolism in the design, she meant the colour scheme and kowhai and not the aircon, but it was easy to drift into a reverie about just what the latter might symbolise.

 Something — the Fickling Centre as a whole? — is “a flexible, win-win model for everyone”. Perhaps that comment related to the Citizens Advice Bureau’s new location within the library, which seems to make the CAB people very happy. 

Advice and guidance,
in alphabetical order.
Their speech-giver told a tale I’ve since found in Not Just Passing Through, of the then mayor Dick Fickling turning up unannounced at a meeting about forming a CAB: “Turning off the lights mid-meeting, he regaled attendees with his opinion that when people were looking for advice and guidance, the family was the place to go for it.”  

Well, now the Mount Roskill library is the (or a) place to go for advice and guidance. That has probably been the case since long before the CAB moved in, perhaps from the library’s opening in 1977 — during Fickling’s mayoralty. And of course, the library can be with you always, even once you’ve left the building. “I sat home and read,” Roskill-raised writer Tze Ming Mok once said of her upbringing: “I sometimes say I was raised by the Mount Roskill Public Library.”

Mangere Mountain from Waikowhai Park.
My preferred Secret Place, Waikowhai,
on the Manukau Harbour.
Postscript: Arriving at Waikowhai
I did arrive at Waikowhai, eventually, though I went by car rather than bus. It’s one of Auckland’s hidden treasures, with extensive parkland going down to the sea. 

Where there are homes, you’d expect them to be mansions, given the million-dollar views. Most of them aren’t. The proximity of the rubbish tip and the Mangere sewage ponds put paid to that idea.

Waikowhai tip has disappeared now, there’s regenerating bush, and the sewage works have been replaced by a leaner operation which, rather than being meaner, is much more environmentally kind. You can gather shellfish again from the local shores, though according to Not Just Passing Through, leachate from the old tip continues to pollute Faulkner Bay.

Naturally, the area is rich. I look forward to learning more about the geology and the relatively recent fossils of Wesley Bay. And I want to know what’s so special about nearby Lynfield that Dr Willy Kuschel looked at beetles there for 15 years, producing a study that became world famous.  


The staff workroom has moved elsewhere to
create this open-plan public quiet zone in the library.
Library Facts and Figures
  • Within the old Auckland City’s 17-library system, Mount Roskill’s was the busiest branch — second only to the Central Library. In the 55-library system it still bustles more than many.
  • The recent library refurbishment has added 120 square metres, community rooms and unofficial quiet zones. The colour scheme is lighter and brighter. Window views previously sealed off from the public are now accessible to all.
  • The Mount Roskill library previously underwent extension in 1995 and major renovation in 2002.

Mt Roskill Public Library children’s section.
Interesting Reading
The major source for this post was Jade Reidy’s Not Just Passing Through: The Making of Mt Roskill. A book by Bruce Hayward et al, Volcanoes of Auckland: The Essential Guide, also helped.

Heartlands’ by Philip Matthews (New Zealand Listener, Feb 11, 2006) reviews No 2 and reflects on Mount Roskill’s “ethnic-melting-pot quality”, something this post has failed to do. Tze Ming Mok’s prize-winning essay ‘Race You There’ (Landfall 208, Nov 2004) does this too, as a starting point for her wider reflections on multiculturalism.

Historian Lisa Truttman’s recent Timespanner blog post ‘Wanderings at Three Kings’ offers observations on the Fickling Centre reopening, with photos, and other insights. At least one other post discusses the new Mt Roskill Historical Society.

Friday, 3 February 2012

On Being Seen and Heard (or not) at St Heliers

Browsing at St Heliers Public Library.
If we’re to believe the letters column of our daily newspaper in the last few days, reading is simply not possible in the St Heliers Public Library. It’s as much as any local resident can bear to dash in, pick a book (any book) and dash out again before the noise pollution on the premises offends their sensibilities, not to mention their ears. Many of the polluters are children, who insist on being heard as well as seen. 

The writers to the New Zealand Herald seem to yearn for the Good Old Days of public libraries. Back then, stern, fusty staff shushed everyone and the only sounds from patrons were those of pages turning (not of pins dropping, as the library was no place for sharp objects). 

Just imagine how they — letter-writers and/or the librarians of the G.O.D. — would have responded had they been at the Auckland Central Library a week ago when a performing duo, the Dresden Dolls, presented their “ninja gig”: at that event the punk cabaret artists succeeded in persuading some 300 people in the audience to chant “F– it” in unison.

The Butchers, the Bakers...
Ah, the Good Old Days. St Heliers must have been a quieter place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Groups of Auckland citizenry including butchers and bakers (sadly no candlestick makers, though there was at least one temperance group) would catch the ferry there for picnics and other excursions, walking the quarter-mile down the wharf to get to the beach. Tamaki Drive did not exist, though there was a Tamaki Road Board, the local (very local) equivalent of today’s Auckland Council.

This outlying area had a library but it wasn’t especially public. In the absence of a suitable building, its books were in the custody of the local fire brigade, in premises where the present St Heliers library stands. Apparently the firemen enjoyed reading the books, which local residents had donated and the board had supplemented. But peace and quiet? Not likely, given the clanging of bells and everything else that accompanies emergencies of an incendiary nature. 

The St Heliers Public Library building was initially
the seat of local government, and its lamps
bear the initials of the Tamaki Road Board.
Today’s library was built in 1926 to a design by Grierson, Aimer and Draffin (better known as the architects of the Auckland War Memorial Museum). This brick building was the road board headquarters the initials on the lamps out the front offer a clue to that  — as well as home to the fire brigade. It was fully converted to its present use in 1931 when St Heliers became part of Auckland.

The amalgamation may not have had an entirely positive influence on the area; even in the G.O.D., Auckland’s own central city library wasn’t always quiet, as an 1890 letter to the Auckland Star attested. “A Ratepayer” noted that “the noise of the draughts players in the reading-room is very annoying, and I would suggest a separate room, or that they should be entirely done away with.”

Has it occurred to anyone that if there’s a problem with libraries, it may be space rather than noise? Even in its the 1940s, according to Wynne Colgan in The Governor’s Gift, users of the St Heliers branch sometimes had to queue in the street just to get inside. Over the decades it has undergone several extensions including, most recently, an ingenious and all-but-invisible one that moves the essential “back office” upstairs. However, this suburban library is still small. I doubt there’s enough space to add a “quiet room” like those I’ve seen at the Mt Wellington and Botany Downs public libraries. It’s also very busy, with a thousand or so visitors a day. 

Xena, as portrayed by Bunny Elwell
at the St Heliers Public Library.
Xena the Library Cat
One such visitor, a senior citizen, seems unfazed by it all, and perhaps some of today’s complaining ratepayers could take a leaf out of her book. Xena the library cat has a home of her own but gets lonely when her human indulges in a bad habit of going to work. So this beautiful tortoiseshell, who is 15 now (a septuagenarian, in human terms), strolls two kilometres down to the library every day. She has also been known to call in at the nearby fish and chip shop.

Xena is popular with locals and has become a focus for the branch, with her portrait by staff member Bunny Elwell now on the wall. The St Heliers Public Library has held a contest for children to paint their own portraits of her, has run Facebook classes for senior citizens using Xena’s own Facebook page as a learning tool and, late last year, presented her with a rug made from squares knitted at library knit-in events.

YouTube shows this cool cat waiting outside the library and she even has her own Twitter account, where her profile reads: “You can usually find me lounging around in the Large Print area of St Heliers Library in Auckland. My interests are eating, sleeping and extreme road crossing.”

“Summer Reading
Adventure” notice.
Xena wasn’t in attendance the afternoon I visited this library. In fact, the place was pretty quiet — just how some people like it. There was evidence of children in the form of a half-eaten lollipop on the step, a pink scooter propped against the wall (near the “no bicycles” sign), and a noticeboard promoting the Auckland Libraries’ “Summer Reading Adventure”, but otherwise the juvenile form of Homo sapiens was little seen, and certainly not heard.

The computers, unusually for most libraries I’ve visited, had no child users at all that Sunday afternoon. Nobody spoke loudly on their cellphone, another complaint of the “shush” brigade, and one with which I can sympathise — though I don’t think it’s especially a library problem. I saw for myself, too, that several adults were reading books without difficulty. Good on them.

Adults seen reading in the
St Heliers Public Library.

See the links in the post above, also:

St Heliers Bay peace and quiet.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Elsewhere, Anywhere and Right Here: The Many Locations of a Public Library

Eaton’s catalogue, possibly not where libraries
source their supplies. This is at
the heritage
room, downtown Edmonton Public Library.
Public libraries open doors to Elsewhere yet, in a way, many libraries could almost be Anywhere. Perhaps they furnish themselves from the same global sales catalogue, right down to their human fixtures, such as the habitual sleepers, the old guys who read the newspapers, and the tourists.

Members of this last group are found at downtown libraries, which perhaps they enter with eyes only for the internet. Tourists are not at the library to see landmarks or cultural artifacts, the stuff they’d do at museums and galleries: they generally wish to sit in comfort and quiet, if never very Far From the Madding Crowd, and attend to email, Facebook or YouTube, making themselves at home. Ironically, in so doing, they contribute further to downtown libraries’ ambience of both Elsewhere (exotica!) and Anywhere (universality). 

A Long Way from Anywhere
A long way from Anywhere and twice as far from Elsewhere is another location that a public library is concerned with: Right Here. Yes, a good public library tells us about the place it’s in, as well as the places it’s not — but to hear and see this, we may need to linger and poke about a bit. 

It’s not always as immediate and obvious as the English–Maori signs we have in some Auckland public libraries. It took me quite some digging to discover, for instance, that custom-made floor coverings in our Glen Eden and Massey branches represent their areas in artistic ways.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier to notice what’s “local” in a library when you’re new to the country, a complete stranger rather than a slightly straying citizen. In Canada late last year, I had the opportunity to be that stranger. 

On Being a Stranger in Someone Elses Country
In the month I visited, I managed to learn about the place not just by walking the streets and taking public transport but also by using public libraries — with help, as friends showed me around and borrowed books that I went on to read. Thanks to Canadian libraries and my local guides, I:  

Light Lifting is available at Auckland Libraries,
as is the Canadian Railroad Trilogy picturebook.
...  Joined in a bookclub discussion at Woodcroft branch library, Edmonton, that inspired me to read Light Lifting, the wonderful first book of stories by Alexander MacLeod. (Note to self: must also read his famous father Alistair, eg No Great Mischief.)

...  Listened to Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic folksong, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, while looking at the thoughtful, multi-layered illustrations in the picturebook by artist Ian Wallace. (If you borrow this, be sure to read the Illustrator’s Notes tucked away at the back.)

...  Got lost in but enthralled by RED whose author and artist, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, is described as “the father of Haida Manga”. I know little of either Haida, an Indian tribe from the Pacific Coast of Canada, or Manga, the Japanese comic-book genre, so perhaps my quaint lostness is not surprising. Now I want to know more of both. (Does Aotearoa/New Zealand have Maori Manga? I am yet to find out.) Two other books by Yahgulanaas are in Auckland Libraries.

A little bit of Rome at Library Square, Vancouver.
(So is this library a round peg in a square hole?)
...  Took away a treasure trove of reading lists and research pointers from the downtown Vancouver Public Library. On the outside, this facility bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Colosseum in Rome — now what does that say about libraries opening doors to Elsewhere? Inside, however, the many resources include VPL brochures on such local topics as the fur trade, Chinese–Canadian history, fiction from British Columbia, First Nations traditions, hiking trails, and a self-guided tour of the library itself. (You can even get married there!)

...  Discovered, thanks to the downtown Edmonton Public Library’s heritage room, the importance of the Eaton’s catalogue, porcupine quill decoration and jars or bottles in Canadian life. This makes me wonder just what might catch the eye of New Zealand newcomers who browse the heritage collections of Auckland’s four central libraries — Manukau Central, Auckland Central, Waitakere Central and Takapuna.

Books from the heritage room,
downtown Edmonton Public Library.
Becoming an Armchair Traveller
My quest to know more about the big country north of the 49th parallel continued as I travelled back south and settled into antipodean life again. On the plane I read publishing impresario Doug Gibson’s Stories about Storytellers, a fascinating new memoir of his career extracting books from such famous Canadians as Pierre Trudeau and Alice Munro. I’m glad I bought a copy when I heard him speak at Edmonton’s LitFest (celebrating non-fiction), as Auckland Libraries doesn’t have it yet. 

In its capacity as doorperson to Elsewhere, I think Auckland Libraries has otherwise been faithful in carrying out its responsibilities to Canadian lit and learning. Back home I reserved and have since read Half-Blood Blues, Ghanaian Calgarian Esi Edugyan’s second novel. I’d heard her at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival where, despite what I took to be her Canadian quietness, she really impressed. The novel, which secured a Booker shortlisting and won Canada’s coveted Giller Prize, is about an elderly black musician looking back at his days in the jazz age. (I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you get the Serpent’s Tail edition, don’t read the back-cover blurb or the teaser on the front: they tell a little too much.)

A page out of Emily’s book, Growing
, shows her humorous Self-Portrait
with Friends
. This copy
’s first home was
Leys Institute Library, Ponsonby.
Courtesy of Auckland Libraries again, I’ve pursued an interest born in Vancouver where I discovered the Canadian artist Emily Carr (though I wasn’t the first). This contemporary of our own Frances Hodgkins persevered, like Hodgkins, in adverse circumstances, and became a national icon — posthumously (which is too often the way).

Emily’s in the Basement
Carr is known for her story-telling as well as her painting, and among numerous buried treasures in the Auckland Central Library’s basement is a first edition (1946) of her autobiography, Growing Pains. This volume is in remarkable shape given its 60-plus years of knocking around public libraries, and it is a beautiful thing. I recommend taking a look once you know a bit about Carr. Though the writing is dated, it is very readable and its author has, unsurprisingly, a good eye for the colours and textures of language.

Her struggles to be accepted as an artist in her home country, and as a woman alone, seem to mirror those of Hodgkins. Carr also studied under Hodgkins in Concarneau, France — though sadly the autobiography doesn’t name this “fine water colourist”, whom she describes as Australian! 

Public library entrance
sign in St Paul, a small
town in Alberta’s prairies.
Clearly, my Canadian Studies can continue, with Auckland Libraries assisting. Porcupines, old barns, the dinosaurs of Drumheller... these are part of the Canadiana clamouring for my attention, and my presence Elsewhere seems to place no great limitation on distance learning.

It’s the middle of winter now in the north, however, so I’m particularly pleased to say the next stop in my Latitude of Libraries tour is Right Here at home, in St Heliers. Summer at a library by the sea — who could ask for more?