Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Tour-Guides for All of Knowledge

“Librarians”, says author Patrick Ness, “are tour-guides for all of knowledge”.

Ness, winner of the 2011 Carnegie Medal for Monsters of Men, made this comment in what the Guardian called an “excoriating” acceptance speech. He criticised UK cuts to public and school libraries, pointing out that when libraries are under threat, librarians and young readers are in danger too.

Here’s how he describes the magic of librarians: 

“Knowledge and information — and by which I do very much include the internet — is a forest. And true, sometimes it’s fun getting lost, sometimes that’s how you learn some surprising things. But how much more can you discover when someone can point you in the right direction, when someone can maybe give you a map. When someone can maybe even give you a treasure map, to places you may not have even thought you were allowed to go. This is what librarians do.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Digging for Gold and Gum

Subdividing times: In 1960, Glenfield resident Judy Pyle tries a
bulldozer for size. The view is towards Wairau Road. (Photo no.
T1118 courtesy of Takapuna Public Library, also Roy & Judy Pyle.)
“What do I remember?” my friend asked. “The mall, the hall (with a little peek of the distant sea outside), suburban streets, boring houses, small trees, little library...”

In the late 1970s Glenfield was a hell of a place to fetch up if you’d come from a well-resourced and slightly busier city, as Philippa [not her real name!] did — and especially if you were a teenager, as she was.

The suburb has appeared in fiction more than once. In Music from a Distant Room Stephanie Johnson writes of “Glenlyn”, with “the hills... where the machines scraped and roared and banged, laying in the new subdivision”. Its primary school was, she goes on, “part of the development opened up after the bridge was put across the Waitemata Harbour” — at the end of the 1950s.

Subdivision after Subdivision

It’s an area that’s expanded ever since. By the early 1990s, when I was a reporter at the Takapuna-based North Shore Times Advertiser, Glenfield was creeping inexorably towards Albany. Laughingly dismissed as Nappy Valley* and the childhood home of a model said to be a gold-digger, it was serious about its future, accommodating subdivision after subdivision. A few were uncomfortably close to what we called “the poo ponds” — the sewage treatment area. The houses weren’t bad, but there were hardly any trees and gee, it could get a bit whiffy on those slopes if the wind came from the wrong direction.

The poo ponds no longer stink, or at least not so you’d notice if you’re passing on State Highway 1 (we used to shut the car windows and turn off the external air flow). And the names of some of those subdivisions are also lost, I think, though Unsworth Heights has lasted and become... what: a suburb of Glenfield? Does that make it a suburbette? Or a sub-suburb?

A selection from Diehl’s, down
a right-of-way in Hillside Road.
Hidden Treasure
In 2004 when I returned to work on the Shore, after a decade or so elsewhere, it was to Wairau Valley, Glenfield’s industrial zone and a former swamp. The valley had concealed pockets containing exotic foodstuffs, such as the delights of Diehl’s German Bakery, and books. 

Publishers with headquarters in Auckland had located themselves there towards the end of last century, because it offered relatively cheap warehouse space. Several including Random House distributed books from their overseas sister companies as well as books that spoke of New Zealand. They needed somewhere to store them.

Some lunchtimes when I worked at Random, a colleague and I would leave our offices at Poland Road, in a former Mormon property and a converted kitchen factory, and go for a walk. Wairau Valley was pretty dire but soon we’d be striding (this was no mere stroll) through residential streets whose now mature trees were home to tuis. 

Escape from the Valley
These songbirds were both numerous and noisy (in a good way). They brought my friend Philippa*** to mind, because I knew Glenfield had never put on such a show for her. If she wanted entertainment, she’d catch the bus to the cinemas of distant Queen Street in the Auckland CBD.

On the lunchtime walks it took a while for us to completely leave the Wairau Valley. A solventy smell from some toxic enterprise down below would often accompany us up Bruce Road to Chivalry.

Another escape, if you could call it that, was the Glenfield Mall which (unlike Botany’s) is fully enclosed. Not long before I went back to the Shore to work, the place had been done up. The ‘feature wall’ by the carpark escalator had strange exhortations to chop and slice, backgrounded by vaguely kitcheny images. It was marketing on the sly, I guess; a surreptitious way of herding people into the supermarket that was part of the complex.

The Monolithic Mall

The monolithic mall opened in 1971 and remains the centrepiece of Glenfield. In Janet Frame’s novel Living in the Maniototo** with its version of Glenfield (Blenheim), “Heavenfield Mall is a huge windowless pretence” where people “buy buy buy... A consumer’s paradise enhanced, you will see, by the aviary on the second floor”.

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand mentions the aviary’s “100 noisy budgerigars” and quotes architect Warwick Massey: “According to what maxim of commercial law does a shopping centre with a view have to turn so resolutely away from it?” Massey described the site as looking “to the east over a pleasant suburban scene with our beloved Rangitoto [Island] in the background” but the mall itself offered no hint of that in 1972, when he visited. Nor does it today. 

Helpdesks at the centre of Glenfield library, opposite the mall.
Opposite in Every Way?
Opposite that complex — physically and metaphorically, given its interest in the world beyond — is Glenfield Public Library. A plaque commemorates the opening in 1975, but the space seems larger than in Philippa’s time. I visited recently on a Sunday morning that was almost indecently fine (for winter), and while waiting for the doors to open I saw a dozen people drop their books through the returns slot. With me were other expectant patrons, so even outside I had the sense of a well used community facility. And it was. 

Inside were hustle, bustle, plenty of patrons, and weekend staff who seemed more than usually inclined to smile. They spent a lot of time helping people. I soaked up the atmosphere, which reinforced for me that a library is what people make it. By people I mean staff, the public and politicians, whose investment on our behalf is essential.

On my way out I saw I’d missed nearly half the library. From the building’s foyer you can turn left or right but something, perhaps the large windows seen from the street, or the community noticeboards, steered me and most people to the left. The right-hand side is more library — including fiction, whose absence I would normally notice. While loitering on the left I must have been beguiled by the children’s section, whose Maori alphabet frieze is from a children’s art competition that North Shore Libraries (as it was then) held in 1995. When I visited the wing on the right, it was as still as the other was busy; an elderly couple browsed the novels while a young woman was curled up, reading. 

Absorbed in the children’s book
section at the Glenfield
Public LIibrary.
Frieze piece, “ngeru” (cat)
by Melissa Medemblik,
aged nine

A Place with a Past
Also on the right were local history materials. Glenfield had never struck me as having any history — too new, I thought — but here was some of the best local history coverage I’ve seen so far in a suburban library (Avondale library also has good materials). Glenfield Historical Society resources are available, and the area’s profile in the library must benefit from the (part-time) local history librarian who works there.

The library book I borrowed, Old Glenfield: A Portrait in Photographs, describes the place of its title as “poor country. In Maori times the forests were largely burnt, creating a wasteland of fern and kanuka shrublands. Where tall kauri trees had once stood, the soil was a whitish clay.” Mud and clay appear as a recurring motif in Glenfield’s history.

Europeans used the area for firewood and then it became “a huge gumfield”, with kauri gum (valued in manufacturing as well as for decoration) initially plucked from the land’s surface and then dug from its soil. Dairy farming contributed to the town milk supply, with Glenfield also producing flowers and fruit.

Out of the Mud and Clay
During the housing developments of the 1960s Glenfield lost its topsoil, as Stephanie Johnson describes. This exposed “raw white clays”, says Old Glenfield, so “People with gardening ambitions had to buy their soil back from developers”.

Until the high school was built along Kaipatiki Road (1968), land there was privately owned and leased to a cattle grazier, according to Glenfield College 1969–2009: A Portrait of the Past. In the late 1960s the road was metal, writes resident Tony McCracken, who joined Glenfield College as a teacher. Now Kaipatiki Road links Glenfield to Birkdale with a major bridge, but then it “petered out into a dirt track at about where the present-day adult education prefabs begin” (the college has always been notable for its community classes). The overhanging banks of nearby Kaipatiki Creek were home to glow-worms.

Founding principal Ken Buckley recalls mud as a major part of the new school. Peter Voss, his deputy from 1971, saw heavy clay “over-layed with a light depth of introduced top soil... Rugby players would come into afternoon classes bespattered [with] and smelling of reddish, muddy soil!” Perhaps the soil influenced the school’s first uniform, coloured brown and orange?

Voss’s first impressions of the college and the “young suburb” developing around it were “coloured by how raw and youthful everything was”. Now (if not previously), Glenfield has not just a future but a past. I thank the library for bringing it to my attention. 

Lead-up to the library, Bentley Avenue.

*Nappy Valley: a colloquial New Zealand and Australian term, says the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary, for “a suburb (esp. a new one) in which a large number of young families reside”. The dictionary is available to Auckland Libraries members through Oxford Reference Online at the Digital Library
**Auckland Libraries appears not to have the latest (2006) edition of Living in the Maniototo, but it’s in print and available through good bookshops. 
***In case you’re wondering what happened to Philippa: she grew up to be a librarian and is busy living happily ever after.

The texts quoted in this post are copyright to their respective authors or their representatives and the 1960 photo to Roy Pyle. 

Friday, 10 June 2011

Is It a Library or a Lolly Shop?

The children’s section at Botany Public Library.
In April, Auckland’s Metro magazine caused a stir with ‘Sweetshops for the Mind’, an opinion piece urging readers to “Just look at how they’re selling books these days”. Design and display are the priority for publishers and bookshops, Paul Litterick suggested, and there’s little of worth between the covers.

This interesting argument could apply to libraries. These days, the wow factor is part of their architecture: they are designed to appeal to a wider public than those who merely like books or the pursuit of knowledge (they even seem to cater for people wishing to sleep). Litterick’s point seems especially relevant for a library at a shopping mall such as that of Botany Downs, one of the newer suburbs neighbouring Howick and Pakuranga, in east Auckland.

Many people first heard of Botany Downs once the mall opened in 2004, but long before that, east Auckland’s Botany Road area was known as “Bottney” (in spoken New Zild). Manukau City Library’s South Auckland Research Centre librarian Bruce Ringer says the “Downs” suffix was added in the 1970s to give the growing suburb a separate identity.

Not just another shop: the library at the mall.
Let’s Go Shopping
I’ve visited libraries just outside the walls of shopping malls — New Lynn’s is one — but Botany Public Library is the first I’ve seen that’s part of the mall itself. On public holidays when other libraries are closed it’s often open, presumably because the landlord requires retail and other tenants to maximise shopping and thereby revenue.

So it was that on Queen’s Birthday Monday, while most library users were taking the day off, Carol set the TomTom (a new satellite navigation whirligig that she’s been hankering after since we got lost on the way to another library) and off we went.

This device has been christened “Kate” after the new Duchess of Cambridge, because its English pronunciation is received, or standard British southern. It (or she, if you must) doesn’t do Maori, rendering a major arterial road — Te Irirangi Drive — unrecognisable. But Kate’s directions are otherwise clear, and we had no difficulty finding the Botany Town Centre.

Mall Meets Main Street

Shopping per se does nothing for me, and I’m no mall rat — but as shopping malls go, this one’s quite nice. Like Sylvia Park, another newish Auckland mall, it has indoor–outdoor flow. In case that is interpreted strictly as a home decor trend of the 1990s, I should add that Botany combines mall with main street, offering several ‘precincts’ with outdoor areas as well as some indoor shopping.

This shows the focus has changed “from internalised box to a community environment”, according to a spokesperson for architects Hames Sharley (interviewed by the New Zealand Herald before this AMP shopping centre was built): “Now people are saying, ‘We do like walking along shop fronts.’”

Given the precinct plan, it’s surely no coincidence that the Botany library sits between a Hoyts three-screen cinema and an Esquires coffee shop: enthusiasm for one such recreational venue can easily extend to the others. The design of the library, with filmset-style lighting in the entrance, even acknowledges its theatrical neighbour.

Botany Public Library opened in October 2004, and nearly seven years later it still looks fresh. Design historian Douglas Lloyd Jenkins has mentioned it as part of “a new burst of library building”.

The Library as Living Room
“Step inside any of these new libraries and you will notice that what constituted the library of childhood memory has changed”, Lloyd Jenkins wrote in the New Zealand Listener in December 2004. “Furthermore, the realisation that libraries are never likely to return to the semi-monastic retreats of the past will disturb the equilibrium of some traditional library users” [such as, perhaps, the one who inspired my last post]. 

High-visibility shelves with plenty on show (above)
and an alluring library entry, with places to go (below).
Like it or not, he added, “the public library has been rethought as a communal version of your living-room at home. As a result, the contemporary library is usually full, and consequently a little noisier than libraries of yesteryear.”

Most noise at Botany library is from the muzak that I presume the mall management has had piped throughout the mall complex. The vibrant colours and the words etched diagonally on glass are louder than this — part of the “pick me!” (or perhaps pick ’n’ mix) approach of the lolly shop, catering for short attention spans and providing the backdrop for a multitude of jostling library products.

Is this a bad thing? “The library has to reflect its location”, Manukau city librarian Chris Szekely said, soon after his Botany branch opened. In Manukau Szekely, who now heads the more senior and possibly more sedate Alexander Turnbull Library, oversaw the installation of a new library every 18 months, according to Commercial Design Trends. At Botany (and presumably the other locations), he wanted to try new ideas.

Up with the Times at Botany Downs

Some advances are of interest to boffins, though the aim is to benefit budgets and patrons. Botany was the first public library in New Zealand to embrace Radio Frequency Identification, winning a Computerworld Excellence Award for using this and other technology.

RFID manages inventory using electronic tags, security gates and self-issue machines (Botany’s are multilingual, giving directions in Maori, Chinese, Korean, Africaans and English) as well as automatic check-in of newly returned items. It’s touted as reducing the time staff spend on repetitive manual tasks and, in Botany’s case, extending the library’s hours.

Many tempting morsels at the Botany library are at a low height: the DVDs just inside; the books on their movable units, with their chest-high top shelves for ‘face-out’ displays. I thought this a child-friendly policy, and one that created an atmosphere of openness rather than the more blocky, mazelike feeling of libraries that have taller, stockier bookcases.

It may also cater for the security cameras, which I guess are part of the furniture in a shopping mall (this is the only library where I’ve seen such a thing) or even for some Asian clientele who feel at home sitting on their haunches, as a couple of people were in the Chinese language section when I was there.

The space dedicated to books and magazines at Botany seems relatively small. Nevertheless, I saw proportionately more people browsing the bookshelves or immersed in reading. In some libraries I’ve visited, the public-use computers have been the main area of activity. 

A quiet room with windows on the world.
From “Peaceful Place” to “Showcase”
A very impressive feature, I thought, was the variety of discrete spaces that the Botany Public Library makes available, though the push-a-button entry for one is a little discouraging. Within the main library are the taken-for-granted armchairs and squabs for people to collapse into or perch on. Elsewhere in the facility you’ll find... 
  • the “peaceful place” or “nohanga o rongo”: spacious, green-painted — and I gather it’s been acoustically treated to deaden sound. It has a bookcase of ‘fast facts’ publications, tables or desks where people were studying when I found my way in, plus windows on the world outside; 
  • a glass-walled internal “focus room” or “ruma hui”, where people can meet or read in an even quieter environment;
  • “” or “ako kupenga”, the red-and-black technology area where patrons can use the internet or (according to Commercial Design Trends) engage in video-conferences;
  • the “leisure lounge” or “wahi whakaata”, a mezzanine where I saw more students bent over their work (a pile of Maccas snacks between them), and more computers;
  • “Showcase” or “atamira whakaata” just inside the library entrance, a venue for public events. At the time of my visit it contained still more people engaged in research. 
With the possible exception of the muzak, people who get annoyed by library noise have little to complain about at Botany, because there are so many places of retreat. Interestingly, although these zones have new and innovative names and decor, this modern public library offers a variation on what its precursors provided a century ago with their reading rooms, lecture halls, lending departments and committee rooms (see “The Library that Got Another Job”).

The latter were more overtly “improving”. Their version of Botany’s funky World Wide Knitting in Public event (June 11) would probably be a Women’s Institute extraordinary meeting to knit scarves for soldiers; that’s the difference.

Is it a bad thing for Botany’s library or any other to look à la mode — styley, accessorised and even sexy — if this wins friends and influences people? That’s the question that this post and its “library or lolly shop” heading really pose. You decide.

The “Showcase” room close by the Botany library entrance.
Paul Litterick’s point (about the attractive presentation of poor literary fare) was made in a magazine whose cover featured a naked female torso and the words: “THE SEX ISSUE!”. 

Lolly — (NZ & Aust.) a small shaped piece of confectionery made esp. with sugar; a sweet; lolly shop (NZ & Aust.) a shop selling sweets. ORIGIN abbreviation of lollipop. — The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary, available online through Oxford Reference Online at the Auckland Libraries’ Digital Library.

The ‘touting’ of Botany’s RFID system can be downloaded (scroll down the page).