Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Of Lullabies and Libraries

The Observer and Free Lance, Auckland, 1885

Librarians have a reputation for saying “Shhh!” and for being fond of rules, but with the possible exception of Sister Francis Mary in my high school years, that’s never been my experience. These days it’s more likely to be the patrons who call for order — most recently in the Auckland Public Libraries where, according to the New Zealand Herald, “Snoring snoozers upset library users”.

Aucklander Catherine Jones is quoted as saying it’s “rude and inconsiderate for people to be treating our public libraries like some motel.... It’s not just the sleeping... sometimes it’s the snoring that I find irritating when you want to have a quiet read”.

A section of the community (not just in New Zealand but around the world, I’ve noticed) is emphatic about what a library is for, and even more so about what it’s not for. Mostly, such people say it’s not for noise — on this they are very vocal — but complaints cover a wide range, from internet use by fellow library patrons to their propensity to fall asleep. 

Glen Eden Public Library, 2011.
It’s the libraries’ fault, of course. They shouldn’t have brought us the internet, and especially not for free. Nor should they be running those Wriggle and Rhyme sessions for toddlers. And what business do they have providing comfy chairs? What next: a regular broadcast of lullabies?

Seriously, though, I’ve had no trouble with noise in the public library, nor with anyone sleeping there. The sounds I hear indicate that a wide range of people now feel at home, something that public libraries around Auckland have worked to achieve in the last few years.

Call me naive, but I like to think that people who visit for ‘the wrong reasons’ (whatever those are) may one day be tempted to pick up a novel or use the catalogue to find out about the world beyond our walls. If not, they may at least catch up on some much-needed sleep, and I can’t begrudge them that.

If you object to others sleeping and snoring in the library, I have a suggestion for you. As you use the library with your eyes wide open, you’re probably more mobile than anyone engaged in grabbing some shut-eye — so rather than expect them to move along, how about you find another place to be? (And shhh! In case you wake them up.) A number of public libraries in Auckland have areas specified for reading, study and contemplation. Even in those that don’t, there’s usually more than one quiet corner.

The Herald interviews library sleepers who are neither apologetic nor ashamed — a language school student and a housewife — and quotes Auckland Libraries manager Allison Dobbie. It’s “heartening” that people find libraries “warm and welcoming places to relax and read”, she says, acknowledging at the same time that patrons have probably slept in library buildings throughout public library history.

In New Zealand libraries, the number of winks some individuals have enjoyed must be many multiples of forty. On searching the National Library’s wonderful Papers Past website using the key words “library” and sleep”, I found evidence that this activity dates back to the earliest years of the Auckland Public Library. Under the heading “Library Loafers” (above), Auckland’s Observer and Free Lance newspaper of May 2, 1885 reports, “Our Public Librarian complains of a good many people making use of the Library to sleep off their last night’s potations.”

New Zealand’s nineteenth-century newspapers often printed hearsay from here, there and everywhere, so I was dubious about any particular link with Auckland. But further investigation showed that the luxuriant moustache, receding hairline and erect carriage of the Observer’s cartoon figure look just like those of the then Auckland public librarian, Edward Shillington.

In The Governor’s Gift: The Auckland Public Library 1880–1980, Shillington’s successor John Barr remembers him as “A typical military man, whose aim was to see that visitors obeyed the rules.” I’ve not seen anyone like that staffing an Auckland library recently, but perhaps Mr Shillington lives on in a few of the patrolling patrons. 

For more on diverse uses (and users) of libraries, see Wendy MacNaughton’s stunning watercolours inspired by the San Francisco Public Library and its patrons.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Library that Got Another Job

Having some fun: Auckland’s former Grafton library.
What happens when you’re made redundant? You go into a decline, graceful or otherwise; you get another job; you have some fun — or try all three. This is as true for buildings as it is for people, and the former library I visited last weekend is a good illustration.

The Grafton Public Library had its final chapter 21 years ago, only to begin a sequel focusing on its new career in the hospitality industry — initially as the Palais de Danse nightclub. We all know the stereotype of libraries as places where patrons are urged to “Shhh!”. A nightclub, on the other hand, is a glorified boom box. To this irony, Grafton’s transformation added another layer: in its early years the library had offered a hall for hire, with the injunction that it must not be used for dancing.

This “lecture hall”, then a common feature in libraries, complemented the lending department, reading room and committee room in architect Edward Bartley’s design for 2 Mt Eden Rd, near the Symonds St intersection. Constructed for £3037, the Grafton library opened in 1913 as the Auckland Public Library’s first branch.*

Bridge to the City
For its existence we can apparently thank a nearby landmark once claimed to be the world’s longest single-span ferro-concrete structure. When Grafton Bridge opened in 1910, “hundreds who lived on the other side of the deep gully suddenly felt themselves to be part of the greater Auckland”, writes public library historian Wynne Colgan. Doubtless they wanted the associated conveniences: services pertaining not only to rats, rates, rubbish but also to education, enlightenment, entertainment.

The Grafton library had at least its share of loyal patrons. Cliff Sanders, lamenting its loss, told the Auckland Star in 1990 that he’d joined in 1949 while working at the nearby ammunition testing unit. He used the branch for the next five decades, despite leaving the area around 1960. Parnell and Remuera libraries would have been more convenient, he admitted. “But it was such a nice building, the atmosphere was so good and the staff so lively I kept on going.” 

The interior of the building today,
including reading matter.
A Grim and Forbidding Reminder?  
He would no doubt have disagreed with Colgan, who writes that halfway through its library life, in the mid-1950s, the Grafton branch was “a grim and forbidding reminder of what library buildings looked like in the early 20th century”. But certainly its use quietly declined over the years. By 1990 when the Auckland City Council rubber-stamped the last of several proposals for its closure, it was open just two days a week.

The end of Grafton’s library appears unrelated to the sort of recessionary cost-cutting we see with public libraries around the world today. Nor does it have much to do with the much-discussed end of books, reading, the world as we know it, etc. The neighbourhood simply changed.

Greater Auckland’s Circulation System
This “Upper Symonds Street Historic Area”, as categorised by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, evolved from residential to retail/commercial between the 1880s and 1930s, then went into decline, says the trust. It followed a pattern seen in parts of several major centres:
– horse-drawn and then electric trams are introduced (turn of the century);
– trams disappear and fewer people come into the area;
– those remaining have “a strong local identity” but are “a small community battling for survival on the outskirts of the central business district”.

Here the neighbourhood includes the variously intersecting parts of New North, Mt Eden, Khyber Pass and Newton roads. Standing at the top of Symonds St, I think how road widening and the motorways snaking nearby must have further reduced, divided, even choked that community to boost greater Auckland’s circulation system from the 1960s on. A glance at a map will remind you that some of the city’s most complex arterial routes have been constructed there. 

Galbraith’s Alehouse, 2 Mt Eden Rd.
Photo: Laurie MacFayden.
How Books and Beer Compare
Despite everything, the building at 2 Mt Eden Rd looks like a winner. The Palais de Danse was short-lived, but the Galbraith’s Alehouse that replaced it in 1995 stands strong, and I don’t just mean with its 8.7 per cent Resurrection Ale.  

Admittedly there’s less to read than in a library but they have newspapers available, and extensive beer and wine lists to peruse. I like to think drinking good beer offers something similar to reading some really good books, anyway: complexity, balance, sensory satiation, insight, goodwill... 

It’s incredible how well this gracious building has adapted to hostelry. I want to describe Galbraith’s as an English pub, but writer Peter Calder may have a point when he claims it’s nothing of the kind. “Most English pubs have beeping, flashing pokies; many have a bass-heavy techno-funk soundtrack designed to entertain profusely pierced bar staff and make conversation painful if not impossible; few English pubs have real ale now.”
Emerson’s Bookbinder Ale.
At Galbraith’s, he points out, “nothing competes with the burbling chatter of deeply contented patrons”. That’s true, although if you’re after a quiet pint or a meal out with friends, daytime is preferable. Voices increase in volume once the evening arrives.

In honour of the building’s bibliophilic history, the beer I sampled and enjoyed on my recent visit was not one of the alehouse’s own but an Emerson’s Bookbinder Bitter from Dunedin. My companion drank a favourite dark, Galbraith’s Grafton Porter. 

Getting a Good Feed
To complement the beer, Carol ordered Sunday Roast Leg of Lamb with All the Trimmings. My choice was Pumpkin and Chestnut Ravioli with Buttered Winter Greens, Confit of Pearl Onions, Smoked Garlic and Sage Butter, Parmesan Crisp. Though in the ‘lighter’ section of the menu, this was robust and sizeable. It was also delicious. 

Sunday Roast at Galbraith’s,
and (below) a setting for one.
As my meal suggests, they do ‘do’ vegetarian here, though with such meaty fare as “Chips Cooked in Beef Dripping” on offer, I’m not the key market. The chef is English: Carol said the superb quality of her Yorkshire puddin’s made that indisputable. I’ve had fair-to-middling meals there before as well as excellent ones. As I’ve experienced both parts of the spectrum with the same menu items, perhaps it depends who’s on duty.  
In the Neighbourhood Now
Within cooee of the alehouse are a few other eateries and watering holes plus the specialty food, kitchen and dinnerware businesses Sabato, the House of Knives, the Studio of Tableware. (The nearest public libraries are Central and Parnell, but the Mount Eden Village down the road has a good bookshop.)

One of the local watering holes is made up to look like the famous old pub at Cardrona, near Wanaka. It’s a Speight’s Ale House, and is it really Cardrona that inspired it? If the Speight’s Ale Houses and Mac’s Brewbars around New Zealand are the two brewery giants’ versions of the Galbraith’s experience, I suspect they’re watered down. 

Galbraith’s prides itself on its English-style cask-conditioned ales, made with imported hops and barley. Compared with the ice-cold liquid many Kiwis grew up with, they’re what my favourite Asterix book calls “warm beer” — and full of flavour. 

The way inn — to a meat-eater’s heaven.
As you enter the alehouse you can see the large room where they’re made. Last Sunday brewer Ian Ramsay, a man of about 60, let me in and was amused to hear of my blog project: it turns out that he used to visit this place as a boy of five — when it was a library, mind.

* The Auckland Public Library opened in 1880. Ponsonby’s library opened earlier than Grafton’s, but Leys Institute (as it was and is) was not a city council initiative. 

Warm welcome.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Along the Great South Road

If Ed Hillary had stuck with beekeeping in Papakura, would he have made an impression in what was then a southern outpost of Auckland? Who knows? As it happens he went on to bigger things, such as Mount Everest, and in Papakura they think the world of him. He’s esteemed elsewhere, but this town-meets-country district claims him and names things after him, because it’s where he spent the childhood years that people describe as formative. 

“Seek the Highest”,
says Summa Pete.
Hillary didn’t attend Papakura High School — it opened in 1954, after he was first up the mountain — but it gives a nod to his conquests. The crest has pointy protuberances approximating snowy peaks, and the motto exhorts all to “SEEK THE HIGHEST”... in Latin, which provides the vocabulary essential for pedagogical pomp, GPs’ prescriptions and ecclesiastical accessories. That nearly dead language can bring a sense of gravitas, though to me Papakura’s “SUMMA PETE” brings to mind a sun-loving, bejandalled, txting teen who can’t wait to get out of Hicksville.

It isn’t fair. Papakura isn’t Hicksville. All the same, I wonder if summa Pete, that restless fella, can be found in the genetic or psychological make-up of famous Kiwis who hail from there (the four I could identify, anyway). And it seems unlikely any would have stood out when they started... except that Hillary was tall.

The price of happiness:
pies for sale in Great South
Road, Papakura.
Justine Troy and Geoff Ross, now known for the international vodka brand 42 Below, were a prefect and a deputy head boy at Papakura High. Did their mums, both foundation pupils, have an inkling where they’d go and what they’d do? And who had heard of Keisha Castle-Hughes before she starred in Whale Rider? (It’s cheating just a little to include her: her student days at Rosehill College came later.)

Leaving a Legacy
Papakura is quite small. (The district, pre-Supercity, covered 126 square kilometres. Franklin, to the south, covered 2109.) But its council seems to have spent up large in its last months. The public library has been open at its current location since October 2010, just before amalgamation, and its move there was among the council’s “legacy” projects, notes the Papakura District News (Sept 2010).

It appears that while some other councils marked the end of their tenure by holding big parties, or by commissioning and publishing big books about themselves, Papakura District was investing in its library, museum, theatre and art gallery. It could have done worse.

The way in: library and museum
entrance in Great South Road.
The Sir Edmund Hillary Library (there he is: you see?) is in the same building as before, but together with the museum it’s descended one storey — to street level. So between shops in Great South Road, a glass-fronted entrance announces the library and museum at 209, and that’s where Carol and I went in. That day, a sandwich board advertised the café inside, bringing to a happy conclusion our negotiations about whether to recaffeinate before or after the library visit.

Light and Air
There’s a pleasant walk up, on a manageable slope (there’s also a lift straight up from the undercover carpark that’s entered from East Street). Here the design, including stunning murals by Desna Whaanga-Schollum, is “inspired by the natural environment and important geographical sites of Papakura — Pukekiwiriki Pa [Red Hill] in the east and the Pahurehure Inlet and the Manukau Harbour in the west”, says the sign. In this entrance area and plaza, and the library itself, detailing in unstained pine accentuates a sense of light and air, as do wall-length windows.

The Esquires Coffee House in the plaza has limited hours, according to my fellow library tourist. It was open the Saturday that Carol and I bowled up, and offered great views of comings and goings. As we sipped our ginormous lattes, numerous people went in and out of the library, many of them parents and children. This tallied with the former council’s description of its community as having proportionately more young families than other parts of New Zealand. Fewer people entered the museum — a shame, as from the outside it looked well set up. 

The book-return slot at the Sir Edmund
Hillary Library, and an important family ritual.

The library feels spacious. Just inside is a semi-enclosed magazine area whose tables offer space for spreading out, and after that on the left is a large children’s and young adult section. It’s great to have this so visible and accessible, rather than at the far end of the library, and when we strolled by, a couple of Maori mums were reading with their toddlers.

Walk straight towards the back wall, and you’ll find the reference and Maori sections in another semi-enclosed space. I had a little difficulty telling what was where, eventually realising that the timber framework over part of the area embraces the Maori books and suggests a wharenui, the meeting house at a marae.

Space to spread out, as seen
through a wall-high window.
Help: I Need Somebody
Back near the entrance, at a small cluster of one-person ‘stations’ (and a staff desk large enough for one to work at), we can look for someone to help us or to answer a question. The smallness and subtlety of this compared with the rest of the facilities encourages the feeling that the library is for us to use rather than something to which only librarians can give access.

By design, this library gives the impression of delivering everything directly to the public. But did the designers go too far? That area for interaction with the professionals is unsignposted, looks like a self-service space. Lack of an obvious help desk can reinforce an illusion that the library is meant to run itself, making things harder for people who don’t have the knowledge they need or want.

Those funky little ‘stations’ remind me of a similar feature at the East Coast Bays library. There, it seems that designers attempting to create non-intimidatory ‘interfaces’ for staff and patrons have imported white elephants
instead. People wanting help gravitate towards a large, clearly delineated counter.

A street-side mural contrasts old Papakura with the new.

The Bishop, Bullock Wagons and Broadway 
The town around the Papakura library and museum is worth a wander, and I was surprised to discover the old parts. One of the best is on the corner of Great South Road and Queen Street. “That’s a Selwyn church,” I exclaimed, as we drove past and my long-dormant architectural memory stirred.

Yes, it is: one of many commissioned and inspired by George Augustus Selwyn, “the missionary bishop par excellence who travelled New Zealand from the 1840s to the 1860s, frequently on foot. Opened in 1863 and with sympathetic additions since, Christ Church in Papakura retains the steep gables that are a Selwyn signature, though often architect Frederick Thatcher was the designer.

 The Selwyn Churches of Auckland lists this as one of the “Late Examples” of Selwyn churches “in the Frontier Towns”. Initially the journey from Auckland to Papakura could take two days’ hard slog by bullock wagon, author CR Knight reminds us, though the road was upgraded for military transit during the land wars.

Downtown Papakura seems to have had mixed fortunes. There’s more than one shopping street, and one called Broadway — complete with Broadway Buildings (1922 ) — marks this as a town with ambitions, possibly theatrical. Given its distance from New York, this is as Off Broadway as can be. The Papakura Theatre Company gets the joke; its nearby HQ is “the Off Broadway Theatre”.

Two-dollar-shop flowers,
adding splashes of colour.
Some premises are empty, with “To Lease” signs in the windows. As with many hard-up suburban centres, two-dollar shops have found a niche. One business that’s booming is the Red Cross Shop, with colour-coordinated racks of good-quality clothing in the window. This is in prime position on the corner of Great South and Queen, opposite the church.

A Local Living Treasure
No weekend excursion is complete without a walk in the park, and The Field Guide to Auckland recommends the 5.5 hectare Kirks Bush as “Papakura’s Living Treasure”. It’s just south of the town centre, and even viewed from the outside, this forest remnant is impressive. I hadn’t previously been aware of taraire and pukatea trees, two of the park’s mainstays, and walking between their 20-metre trunks I found them majestic, somewhat primaeval.

Some people have expressed their appreciation by tagging the trees and defacing the signs that identify them. This place has been a park since 1926, maintained at various times by a paid custodian and teams of volunteers. The destruction must have broken their hearts more than once.

Still, we loved Kirk’s Bush. I like to think that if more people spend ‘quality time’ in our public places, be they libraries or reserves, vandalism will be vanquished and our community enhanced.

Many happy returns: In a mural by Desna Whaanga-Schollum,
local resident John Dory makes for the library’s returns slot.