Thursday, 26 January 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. apologies for not commenting on this earlier [though i did read the post in january]: the "muddy footwear" sign reminded me of the gumboot box at lincoln university, where i used to work

    from memory, certainly at the time i was there, while there were varied opinions about the value of said box, the majority of library staff liked it, valued it as an historical artifact even while acknowledging not so many students wear gumboots that often any more

    a quick look at the lincoln [library] site had no reference to gumboots, sadly

    but [thank you google] a quick interweb search revealed not only a reference but photographic evidence of the artifact updated for the bilingual present:

  2. Gumboots are underrated, I feel. I wore gumboots to church once. Not to a library yet, though. Thanks, Alison!