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)


  1. A bit odd that they're still calling themselves Waitakere Central -- when the truse Waitakere is a few miles away from that site, and the other main libraries just call themselves Takapuna, Auckland and Manukau. I always call it Henderson Library, personally. Less confusing.

  2. Perhaps that will change eventually. I did feel a slight sense of disconnection about it: almost as if the Henderson community misses out on having a library by not having one with that name. But of course that's silly of me, as it's in the very centre of Henderson. I was also conscious that I said very little about the area itself - but people can learn quite a lot by reading Timespanner's interesting post. As Lisa (Timespanner) said, Henderson has a fair bit of history:

  3. Cheers for the link, Claire! :-) Yes, I agree about that sense of disconnection. However, I did hear a correction from "Waitakere Central" to "Henderson" mentioned by library staff at a workshop the other week, so ... perhaps Henderson may yet get its library back. One day.

  4. If you're into cool stuff happening in libraries you might like to read about this:


    1. Thanks for that, Nathan. I noticed the games nights at New Lynn: they sound very appealing.

  5. Waitakere Central library serves the whole of Waitakere (as many of us in the 'west Auckland' prefer to call the area) with it's extensive reference, stack and Maori collections and the Research Centre. The Local History collections include the whole of the west so it really is the hub library for all the smaller Waitakere community libraries. To us Henderson is it's location, but it is very much Waitakere Central Library.

    1. Thanks for that, Michelle. An event I attended the other day, featuring leading research librarians, underlined what you're saying: north, south, central and west Auckland all have significant hub libraries with additional heritage resources that their areas can draw on.

      Another thing that occurred to me after my previous comment was that changing the Waitakere Central name might undermine the legal foundations of the memorandum of agreement with Unitec (to operate a joint library).