Monday, 26 December 2011

Hard Bittern: A Tale of Manurewa

Bing Dawe’s Australasian bittern weathervane, shown at Auckland
Botanic Gardens in Manurewa,is part of his Watching out for
St Francis
series at the Sculpture in the Gardens exhibition.

Photo courtesy of Jane Sanders, ART Agent.
Manurewa means “soaring bird” to people whose appreciation of Maori language involves translating it into English. To others it means “drifting kite”. Birds and kites both feature in old stories about this part of South Auckland.

In the 1930s a Pakeha ethnographer and collector, George Graham, recounted “Nga Matukurua — The Two Bitterns” before an audience at the Auckland Museum’s Anthropological Section. This “Tale of Manurewa” was about twin pre-European pa, fortified villages on two neighbouring volcanic mounds. 

During Pakeha settlement these became known as McLaughlin’s and Wiri mountains but now they are known hardly at all, as my kind has spent decades erasing them. McLaughlin’s, about 10km from the Manurewa town centre, strikes me as a misplaced Mayan construction covered in grass, though in an Auckland Libraries anthology, poet Tony Beyer sees it as a temple from ancient Mesopotamia:

mclaughlin’s gashed hill
tiered into a ziggurat
by quarryings

Scoria from Wiri Mountain made railway ballast “all the way south to Ohakune”, according to Volcanoes of Auckland. This one-time landmark has kept only its lower northern slopes, incorporating “the best lava cave in New Zealand” plus, where a 60-metre-high scoria cone once stood, “a large lake-filled hole”. The authors have low expectations of its future, predicting it will be “flattened and earmarked for industrial subdivision”.

The Vigilant and the Careless
But let’s get back to the bitterns Graham mentioned. The Te Wai o Hua people’s hill-fort commanders in the late seventeenth century were dubbed Te Matukutureia and Te Matukutururu, respectively the vigilant bittern and the careless one. The careless bittern lost his head and consequently his life when Ngati Whatua warriors captured his pa — his fault, as when war threatened he had gone fishing for eels and fallen asleep (the local equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns). His kinsman on the other hill kept “his sentries ever posted, his pa entrance ways securely closed”, saving his village, his people and “his tatooed head”.

The chiefs’ avian identities settled on the hills: McLaughlin’s Mountain is more eloquently Matukutureia, and its careless neighbour Matukutururu. (That’s according to Manukau’s Journey, an Auckland Libraries e-resource, but some people apply these names the other way around.) 

At the botanic gardens, Manurewa.
These days The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand describes the Australasian bittern as a “Protected rare native... Usually solitary and stealthy”. Its favourite hideout is a swamp (or wetland, as we call these shrinking habitats now), but the matuku does fly. The noted artist and ornithologist Don Binney painted one soaring through the sky at Te Henga, West Auckland. In Manurewa, the popular Auckland Botanic Gardens currently feature Bing Dawe’s flying bittern at their Sculpture in the Gardens exhibition, on until February.

An Appropriate Emblem?
Could the bittern be an appropriate emblem for Manurewa today? It’s a suspicious bird (says William Herbert Guthrie-Smith in Bird Life on Island and Shore), and has reason to be: it’s embattled. So is Manurewa, if media portrayals are accurate — a suburb full of streets named Struggle, inhabited by Kiwi battlers.* Stories that have made the news and elicited wider comment are about the murder of a liquor store owner, attacks in bars, the Manurewa Cosmopolitan Club’s refusal to admit a turban-wearing Sikh man, residents’ opposition to a planned prison for men next to the existing women’s facility, concern about state house tenants “let in” to Manurewa, and a suspected drunk driver whose car critically injured two girls on the footpath. 

Doug Ford’s Manurewa murals include this tongue-in-cheek
(he says) portrayal of the fictitious Oh My God Fruitery.
When Manurewa lost South Auckland’s central business district to another ward last year, a councillor said the change “ripped the economic heart of the Manurewa ward”. The Auckland Council’s Manurewa board suggests in its just-published plan that the pre-amalgamation council “failed to show [the] urgency necessary to transform the Manurewa town centre”, a smaller set of shops and services than those in the central business district nearby. 

Earlier in the year, it was high noon in Manurewa for six whole weeks, with both hands of the town clock stopped on 12.  Auckland bureaucrats were held responsible for time standing still.

But the local business association has worked to spruce things up, commissioning mural artist Doug Ford to paint the town. Manurewa is also a semi-finalist for the 2012 national “Community of the Year” Award.

There have been moments of glory, several of them thanks to a man who is now a stern-looking businessman with spectacles and silvering hair. John Walker, a member of the Manurewa Harriers Club in his teens, started running seriously in the early 1970s and didn’t stop until he had completed 135 sub-four-minute miles, 20 years later. Sir John Walker represents Manurewa–Papakura on the council and chairs his Find Your Field of Dreams Foundation, helping South Auckland youth through sport.

Local MP and Prime Minister Bill Massey
unveiled the Manurewa war memorial in 1921.
Other Manurewa moments, commemorated rather than celebrated, came in wars fought elsewhere. An obelisk on the corner of Hill and Great South roads lists First World War fields of battle and locals who died there. This 1921 monument just outside the gates of Manurewa Central School, supplemented by more recent plaques, is reminiscent of war memorials in small towns all over New Zealand.

A Microcosm of the Community
The public library, 30 years old in 2012, is across the road on land that local historian Gwen Wichman says was once the school horse paddock. When we arrived on a Saturday morning, a Chinese woman and her grandchildren were just leaving with a fresh supply of books. We found many more children and teenagers inside, mirroring perhaps the high proportion of young people in Manurewa’s population (29 per cent are younger than 15 years, compared with 22 per cent Auckland-wide).

In one library nook, a pair of jandalled teens at either side of a small table flirted in a manner recognisable from a distance and probably across the millennia, pretending attention to their respective magazine selections while rather more interested in each other. At the far wall, a couple of pony-tailed girls watched over the shoulder of a classmate/brother/boyfriend as he watched something riveting on a computer screen.

Boy and book, Manurewa Public Library
Children of assorted ages engaged in activities communal and solitary at another table. By the bookshelves a small girl clad confidently in fuchsia colours of magenta and pink tried to converse with her browsing father (she’d already chosen her reading). A sneakered boy, cross-legged on the floor, was absorbed in the ROAARR! of the picturebook before him.

All these people seemed to reflect the ethnic diversity of the Manurewa board area, where Maori
and Pacific residents are 57 per cent of the population, and Asian people 15 per cent. The library caters for its community with Hindi and Punjabi collections as well as substantial Maori and Pasefika sections.

The low-roofed library building has a warm, woody atmosphere inside, thanks to sloping ceiling beams, brightly coloured signs and a vibrant mural by Kaiaua artist Tony Johnston. None of South Auckland’s “troubles” was evident when we were there; nor did anything appear to warrant the two — no, three — security officers we saw. They were sociable as well as vigilant, however. 

Above and below: Manurewa Public Library, outside and in.
 I chose two children’s books, Jan Mark’s Museum Book and Keri Smith’s How to Be an Explorer of the World, which I’ve wanted to read ever since it featured in Auckland Libraries’ Top 5 Goodies blog. Carol’s haul included a huge volume featuring photos by Annie Leibovitz. She also indulged her love of English poetry that has regular rhythm and end-of-line rhyme.

The Drifting Kite
However, I wanted to know more about the “drifting kite” of Manurewa. Though the library’s copy of Tamaki-Makaurau: Myths and Legends of Auckland Landmarks doesn’t include that story, the Auckland Museum Library and the South Auckland Research Centre (at Manukau Public Library) both have something that does, George Graham’s “Two Bitterns” lecture.

As well as explaining the Matukurua villages’ names, Graham told of a rivalry there between the brothers Tamapahore and Tamapahure. When Tamapahore’s kite flew better than Tamapahure’s, an incantation by the latter caused Tamapahore’s kite to drift away “to the far off Hauraki horizon”, its owner in pursuit. Manurewa’s full name is therefore “Te Manu-rewa-o-Tamapahore” — the drifted-away kite of Tamapahore.

So is Manurewa soaring bird or drifting kite? The local marae and schools seem to favour the latter but I get the feeling many Pakeha (not Graham) prefer the former. The soaring bird suggests a near-empty landscape, with nothing between us and nature; the kite indicates that people have lived and travelled around the area since long before the Pakeha arrived. 

Manurewa library activities communal and solitary,
literary and otherwise.

The Oxford English Dictionary, available online for Auckland Libraries members, describes a “battler” as “a swagman” and “a word used in Australia and New Zealand in various other shades of meaning... esp. a person struggling against odds.”

The opening lines from Tony Beyer’s poem Matukutururu are copyright and quoted here with his permission. The poem previously appeared in his collection The Century (HeadworX, 1998).

Manurewa population statistics in this post come from the local board plan. 

A typed transcript of the George Graham lecture is at Auckland Museum Library, with a copy at the South Auckland Research Centre.

Another source for this post was Manukau’s Journey, the Auckland Libraries timeline of South Auckland history researched and published by the South Auckland Research Centre, now at Manukau Library.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Reader, the Library and the Lens

Man reading, Vancouver Public Library downtown,
October 2011.
The man in this picture: what’s his story?

Of various photographs I’ve taken that show people reading in libraries, this one draws my attention the most. The man in the picture is not the first ever to be absorbed in a book. But his hands are almost clasped (in supplication, stress?), and the title of the book that tops the small selection next to him, Mass Destruction, is striking. The photo has him close up — although he’s half around a corner, facing away, there’s a sense of intimacy.

A public library is a public place. Photographic design (angle, distance) or accident (blurring) means few people are positively identifiable. And being seen reading or in almost any other library activity is not incriminating, nor anything to be ashamed of. So I keep using the camera. 

There is an ethical question, however: if people don’t know they’re being photographed or consent to it, am I crossing a boundary, taking something more than just a photo? (I’m not the only person who wrestles with ethical issues in this setting. The history of public libraries is full of books whose presence on the shelves has been challenged by outraged citizens or staff, and full of debates over intellectual freedom and privacy — particularly since the USA Patriot Act.)

A comment by the New Zealand writer Fiona Farrell makes me think that even the observed reader maintains his privacy, has a room of (and on) his own. “It is always so difficult to tell what is going on in a reader’s mind,” she writes in The Broken Book. “...The reader could at one remove be experiencing the thrill of illicit passion or considering bloody rebellion. No wonder the dictators and leaders of cults burn books and issue their edicts of forbidden texts.”

Carol reading, East Coast
Bays Public Library, Auckland.
Some things my lens doesn’t penetrate. I’ll never know the story, the one belonging to the young man at the Vancouver downtown library that day. I’ll never know what he’s reading or get inside his head; neither will anyone else who looks at that picture. And that’s the way it should be.

* * *

Farrell’s Broken Book set out to be prose about walking — it was to be this New Zealand author’s first work of non-fiction — but after the Canterbury earth quaked, the writing went in other directions as well: across shaky ground and into poetry. This is no great surprise for those of us who read her; it is a pleasure. I think many people like the way her writing refuses to confine itself. Very recently my bookclub loved this new book, and it features on all the “best of the year” lists I’ve seen so far.

During one section, “A Walk to the Botanic Gardens” (in the Oamaru of her childhood, perhaps?), Farrell finds herself in the Cork City Library, Ireland. There she talks of being “supposed to be writing a novel” but becoming distracted by old Irish texts, among which she discovers the old woman of Beare. (Thereby hangs a tale. That senior citizen is not one of the more bedraggled, down-and-out library patrons; she’s the narrator in a long and very old poem.) I especially like what Farrell then says about the library at Cork —

The reading room is filled with the sort of people you find in reading rooms everywhere: in winter, the old guys who sit on the streets in summer come in to read the papers out of the chill wind. There are school kids doing their projects and giggling surreptitiously behind the shelving. There are the natives of a dozen different countries dealing with officialdom on the library computers.
Above: newspaper stand, Edmonton Public Library downtown.
Below, two
photos of browsers, Vancouver Public Library downtown.
Yes, that’s a picture you could paint from a library in Auckland, New Zealand, too. And during October when I was in Canada, it was similar. At the Edmonton Public Library downtown branch, I smiled to see old codgers reading the paper just as the old codgers do in the libraries of my latitude. I wouldn’t like to suggest that the men in my photo had come in from the cold — it was only autumn after all, with temperatures not yet in the minuses — but I understand that this EPL branch and indoor shopping centres downtown are great places of refuge when winter gets really miserable, such as more than twenty below. 
Finally, I love Farrell’s comment about being a library browser: “I was there in the warm, browsing the shelves. I like that word, ‘browsing’. Like a cow picking its way from one delicious clump of clover to another. It’s a drifty word, full of purposeless pleasure.”

Yes, yes. (I’ve got the photos to prove it.) Thank you, Fiona Farrell, for putting all this into words.

The Broken Book by Fiona Farrell is published by Auckland University Press, 2011. It is copyright, and quoted here with permission. The photos in this post are the blogger’s own.

Glen Eden Public Library, Auckland.

Parent and child in pink gumboots, Massey Public Library, Auckland.
Shoes off, feet up, Edmonton downtown library.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Navigational Aides: Auckland + Edmonton + Elsewhere

A member of the public, equipped for all terrain, uses a
check-out machine at Edmonton’s downtown library.
“Our professionally trained staff take you beyond Google with the knowledge, discernment and desire to help you navigate a universe of information.” 

To an e-(lectronic), i-(nternet) and info-junkie like me, that’s the ultimate: the best I could wish for. The Edmonton Public Library must think so, too, because that sentence features in many of its media releases, including one that trumpets the 17-library system’s win of North America’s biggest library PR award. This Canadian institution has made people sit up and take notice in places other than Libraryland, too, with its 2010 rebranding and “guerilla marketing” campaign winning eight diverse other awards.

Spreading the Words  
Messages such as “We make geek chic”, “Market stats. City maps”, “Beyoncé’s latest. Beethoven’s greatest”, “We share stories” and the all-encompassing “Spread the words” feature on posters, carry-bags and other merchandise, showing the library has gone all out to be up with the play, down with the brown, the new black (but in this decade’s version of technicolour).

Billboard on Edmonton Public Library building, downtown.
Does the public library achieve all those things? Does it help me navigate a universe of information? Here I deviate momentarily to admit that I’m the person who steps away from the dinner table, regardless of guests, to go online and track down or verify some essential piece of trivia. I’m certainly not the only one, in this universe of everything available both instantly and electronically, but my info-snobbery may set me apart. For the real gen* I often go “beyond Google”, Wikipedia and the other user-generated sources.

This year I’ve followed a Libraryland debate about the future of reference services around the world. Apparently, many public libraries have recorded new lows in the number of reference questions they receive. “Now we’ve got the internet,” some people suggest, “we don’t need trained and specialist library staff to help us find stuff.”  

We may not need some of the printed books that have traditionally been the authorities, collectively offering The Answer To Every Question. It’s unlikely the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, accessible online through Auckland Libraries membership, will ever be printed, and at the Sir Edmund Hillary Library in Papakura, I was sad to see recent international reference books on sale for a dollar apiece. The library didn’t have the space, I gathered, and people didn’t use them any more.

R is for Reference: books bought for a dollar
apiece at Papakura Public Library.

The result in Papakura wasn’t entirely negative: my partner and I found good homes for some of the rejected volumes, and anyway, as members of Auckland Libraries many townspeople are encouraged to use the extensive, authoritative electronic reference databases to which the city subscribes. 

Going Google-Eyed?
There’s a tendency, though, to assume anyone can find what they want these days by typing a word or two into a general search engine. At a public library branch in my part of Auckland, I was dismayed when a friendly staff member directed me to Google. Even though I showed him which authoritative New Zealand bird book I wanted from an official-looking booklist, he thought (after we discovered its absence from the shelf) I’d find what I needed on Google Images.

Effective reference services — ones that use trained organic brains as well as search-engine brawn — are more important than ever in libraries. I love the way Eugenie Prime, then head librarian at Hewlett-Packard, put it in a passionate, quirky doco, The Hollywood Librarian. We [Librarians] help people define what their information need is, she said. Many people ...ask questions, and it’s not the real question. We have a way of getting people to share with us what that problem is and then are able to package the answer in a way they would want. Google can’t meet that, no way.  

Today’s reference services may involve showing library users how to find things out, and where; how to assess the quality of information and access the most valuable sources. This is knowledge we all need in an age of information overload, and librarians are among the best to help us get it. Of course many simple, straightforward questions are asked in public libraries, and some of the askers may not be equipped to absorb a detailed and on-the-spot demonstration of research techniques. In those cases an old-fashioned method of reference help — serving up The Perfect and Indisputable Answer on a plate — is still good.

Empty section, downtown library, Edmonton.
Before people will consult reference services and their trained staff, it’s important to publicise their availability and value. Enter Edmonton Public Library and its marketing campaign. But does EPL go on to “help you navigate a universe of information”? Well, maybe. On the face of it, the big downtown branch didn’t do that when I was in town.

Reference Points in a Downtown Library
The purpose-designed building next to Churchill Square dates from 1967, but the Stanley A. Milner Library layout has clearly been updated over the years. There’s a new children’s library out the front, and another refit of the whole complex seemed to be underway when I returned after an inspiring first encounter

What gave me that impression? Rows and rows of empty shelves, with no indication of where books had gone or might be moving, and why. Vacant or superceded enquiry desks, with nothing to say whether they might be staffed. Mixed messages and obsolescence in signs, logos and fittings.

I loved the EPL marketing campaign, the library network’s extensive collections of CDs and DVDs, its writer in residence scheme, its wide-ranging programme of events and the EPL facilities I saw at Strathcona, the University of Alberta (eplGo), Callingwood (Lois Hole) and Woodcroft. I wanted to love the downtown library, too, but apart from the separate children’s library (where hanging out too long as an unaccompanied adult might get you some strange looks), on the day I visited it didn’t feel like a place where I could navigate a universe of information. Hell, I’d be lucky if I could navigate a single storey — or story.

Empty Desk Syndrome
Edmonton’s downtown library didn’t feel like a place with trained professionals available and eager to help. Oh, there were enquiry desks here and there. But the brilliant Access Department for people with disabilities wasn’t staffed (it opens weekdays, nine to five); neither was the Heritage Room; several other enquiry desks had an empty appearance. As I moved about the floor I saw few staff, though library users were in evidence. Even self-service supermarkets have more staff out and about, it occurred to me.

The EPL Access desk is scheduled for closure, I gather, along with most assistance areas in the downtown branch, and in future those who worked there may staff a single, street-level, enquiry desk. I’d be curious to see how that affects service and the overall atmosphere. Emptying most floor areas of identifiable staff seems a pretty strange initiative for a main branch that (I’ve read) has worked hard to deal with the security, safety and “ambience” problems faced by many downtown libraries. And while I’m all for patron power, I question whether it’s best achieved in a large building by concentrating most trained staff in one relatively small place that’s not exactly central. All these things make me wonder if EPL is putting its money where its marketing mouth is.**

Fine Arts and History desk at
Vancouver downtown library.
Compare and Contrast
While in Canada last month I visited another downtown library, Vancouver’s. Although its branding, handouts and posters aren’t as slick as Edmonton’s and some collections appear smaller, I think this city has got it mostly right. Vancouver has staffed desks on every level, signs that are relevant and a lot more handouts recommending books and reference materials on topics of current interest. Nothing seemed in a state of flux when I was there; everything was being used. I felt I could navigate — or that if I got myself lost, I could at least locate a staff member.

Admittedly the Vancouver downtown library building is much newer but libraries, to paraphrase EPL marketing, are bigger than their buildings. They’re about people, even for diehard information junkies like me.

 * It’s typical that on typing “gen” I felt the need to look it up using my mobile wireless broadband and Auckland Libraries’ Oxford Reference Online, where the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang told me it was “Brit, orig services'. noun”, meaning “Information. 1940–. Daily Telegraph A vast amount of gen is included, and this will be invaluable for settling arguments (1970).” 

** Please check comment #2, from a well informed someone reassuring me that under the new set-up, staff will indeed be out and about in EPL’s downtown branch.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Cups, Pucks, Rucks and Reading

Public bus in Canuck ice hockey team strip, downtown Vancouver.
Eleven thousand kilometres: it’s a long way from a game of rugby — but somehow I managed without the Rugby World Cup during a month in Canada. It may have something to do with being a supposed rarity, a Kiwi who’s not into sport. Or perhaps it was because in the land of the puck and the Stanley Cup, the oval ball was still (conversationally) kicked in my direction now and then.

At a LitFest (non-fiction festival) event in Edmonton, an author signing his book for me enquired if I was South African, then tried to make up for it by presuming I was excited about the rugby. At the Vancouver International Writers Festival, the obligatory words about tearing himself away from the World Cup introduced New Zealand’s own Lloyd Jones. Then one night in downtown Vancouver a fellow Kiwi who must have overheard what a Canadian friend calls my “ixcint” followed me off the bus, telling me she was looking for “the game” — the final, I suddenly recalled, New Zealand versus France — and some “young ones” to watch it with.

I don’t know if it’s true that we’re “even more fanatical” about rugby than the Welsh,* but after a lifetime of bemused looking on (I’m a spectator of rugby spectators rather than of the game itself) I have to concede that as a nation we are fairly interested, at the very least. Not that we always look it. At the Vancouver festival’s grand opening, one of my Canadian companions interpreted Jones’s laconic response to the MC’s introduction as complete indifference to rugby. On the contrary, I said: he’s really keen. Perhaps I should have taken the opportunity to deliver an impromptu lecture in Kiwi Culture 101.

Lloyd Jones, world famous since Mister Pip found a place on the 2007 shortlist of the Booker Prize, was world famous in New Zealand before that. Although he initially made waves here with work such as Biografi (1993, contentious for its defiance of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction), his Book of Fame (2000) really made his name.

That award-winning novel is about the real-life 1905 tour of Britain by New Zealand’s rugby “Originals” and, having recommended it to numerous people over the years, I’ve decided it’s time I read it again — to see if I can get away with recommending it to my even more non-sporting parents and brother, also to find out if it’s still one of my favourite New Zealand novels. Sadly, it wasn’t on sale at the Vancouver festival (though his latest novel, Hand Me Down World, was). Now I’m home I’ve ordered it from the public library, together with a recent edition of Australia’s Griffith Review in which Jones “reveals how childhood rugby and a reverence for the All Blacks shaped his adult sensibilities and success beyond the Wellington suburbs”.

Ah, the public library. Apart from the passing mention above, does this post on this Latitude of Libraries blog have anything to do with the public library, really, readers may wonder? Well yes, it does. New Zealand, it’s been said more than once,** is about rugby, racing and beer. Maybe we need to rethink that and say instead that New Zealand is about rugby, reading and pies, or some other combination where the presence of libraries is at least implied. Watch this:

It’s a great little video about our love of public libraries (and rugby), released just ahead of this week’s LIANZA (Library and Information Association of NZ Aotearoa) conference. Maker Sally Pewhairangi says it’s in honour of New Zealand’s RWC win; it also celebrates the launch of a new initiative in LIANZA’s “Libraries Count” project. It’ll make you smile — and think.

One of many election issues,
Great South Road, Papakura.
There are plenty of things to think about in the lead-up to New Zealand’s election in a few weeks’ time (the price of pies, for starters) but do spare a thought for our public libraries. They’re far from immune to the penny-pinchitis that has threatened public libraries overseas. For that reason, and because they’re a wonderful thing, I support the national campaign to keep our public libraries both funded and free.

*Former Welsh international John Peter Rhys Williams (1979), quoted in the Reed Book of New Zealand Quotations.
** though possibly first by John Mulgan in his Report on Experience (1947, Reed Book of New Zealand Quotations).

“We share stories” poster and patron at downtown public library branch in Edmonton, Canada.

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.


Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Stepping into Poetry at Auckland Central

The Auckland Central Public Library has brought
down a barrier to the outside world, replacing
a low concrete wall with steps — and words
by poet Robert Sullivan.
A poem this post: a new Robert Sullivan poem has been published in a different way from the many poetry books Robert has written and edited — it’s now engraved on the new set of steps leading to and from the Central Public Library in Lorne Street.

These expansive steps, bringing a new sense of light and openness to the front of the library (and a new challenge for skateboarders), lead down to a “Shared Space”, part of a new Auckland initiative for selected streets. Shared Space involves “removing the traditional distinction between footpath and road so vehicles and pedestrians can share the space”. Sounds dodgy to me!

The idea is that city streets and open spaces will become “vibrant, people-friendly urban destinations”. So far three Central Business District streets have had the “Shared Space” treatment, together with New Lynn’s Totara Avenue West and, from what I’ve seen, part of the new Wynyard Quarter downtown. I’ll bet it’s all been scheduled to help prettify the city for the World Cup Ruby, as a brochure I picked up in town calls the large football tournament that’s now on around New Zealand.

If I’m dubious about just how sharing and caring cars and their drivers might become in central Auckland, I have no such reservations about poetry or about Robert’s carefully chosen words. They celebrate the relationship between the public library, the city and its people, chiming beautifully (if I may say so) with the objectives of A Latitude of Libraries. 

Here’s the poem. Robert has kindly given permission for me to reproduce it, with a Maori translation by Bob Newson. You can right-click on it to see larger text:

I like it that Robert Sullivan (Ngapuhi, Kai Tahu) teaches in another part of Auckland, at Manukau Institute of Technology: his involvement in the library steps initiative seems to me to bring the south into Auckland’s centre. It’s appropriate, too, that he used to work as a librarian in the Auckland Central Library. Here’s what Robert says about the poem, in a Manukau Courier video about the steps project:

“You can tell I’m very positive about libraries. I think they’re fabulous institutions of memory and they really help people carry their stories through all the different aspects of their lives.

“I actually built in a lot of references with the help of librarians. So for instance the original name of the hill where Albert Park sits is called Rangipuke, which means Sky Hill; and yes there’s the Wai Horotiu or the Horotiu Stream which chuckles down Queen Street but underneath now, and lots of references to well-loved buildings in the area such as the St James Theatre, art galleries and some more odd ones which I dug up again with the help of librarians, such as Odd Fellows Hall.”

On an Auckland Libraries news page, Robert says that Kawe Reo / Voices Carry “stands for the many voices within the library.... Reo can mean ‘the Maori language’ and also ‘voice’. Voice is part of the library’s ethos which contains information in a wide variety of formats. I also like the fact that reo or voice contains the idea of breath and life-force.”

It’s wonderful to learn, thanks to Robert’s poem, the original name for the waterway that Queen Street now covers — a name that I’ve since discovered relates to the Maori pa at what we now call Albert Park. (Central Auckland also had Horotiu Bay, now more widely known as Commercial Bay and much changed.) I’d heard of Te Wai Horotiu only as the Ligar Canal, so named after Charles Whybrow Ligar, the surveyor-general who had an unspectacular career in mid-nineteenth-century New Zealand. Under European settlement the canal was said to be filthy: “an infamous open drain”, according to Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. I’m glad Kawe Reo / Voices Carry has restored it to health.

There’s more to come at the approach to the library in Lorne Street: a piece of street furniture is to be installed, featuring a word selected by Robert Sullivan — Reo — in metre-high letters. And wouldn’t it be great to see the sombre, sleeping St James Theatre, described by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as “one of the best-preserved vaudeville theatres in the country”, again became a vital, vibrant place, like the library opposite?

Note: Kawe Reo / Voices Carry is copyright. Permission must be sought before it is reproduced.

More links of interest:
The New Zealand Book Council entry for Robert Sullivan
An old
Auckland City Council timeline giving a history of Queen Street which ends, mysteriously, in 2003 with a horse-drawn carriage transporting the then Mayor John Banks along it.
A New Zealand Herald opinion piece this month about the new draft plan for central Auckland, including mention of the St James and Shared Space.

An earlier New Zealand Herald news story about the St James
Auckland Libraries blog post on launching 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry at the Central library. (Declaration of interest: I edited the book.)
The blog for the School of Creative Writing at MIT. Poet Robert Sullivan heads the school.