In praise of libraries
Updated: Jun 18
My second novel, Helen Had A Sister was launched into shops and Amazon.com last week, and I've been doing the usual round of book sellers to promote it. I still derive an enormous thrill seeing something I wrote displayed on the shelves of a bookshop, although this physical manifestation has the immediate effect of making my private stories, thoughts, passions and fantasies real for anyone to read; which is both frightening and gratifying. Of all the pleasures I have gained from this process, I have to say my proudest moment has been finding my novels on the shelves of the public library. Well actually, not on the shelves. I couldn't find my books, so consulted the computer catalogue to find they were out on loan, with a waiting list of further borrowers no less. I couldn't be more chuffed.
Over the course of my life I have spent a lot of time in libraries, and taken great pleasure from all they offer. When we first arrived in New Zealand we stayed at the Wakefield Hotel in Cuba Street. Almost the first action my parents took was to join us all up to Wellington Public Library. We lived in that hotel for 3 months while my parents found permanent accommodation, and on many days my Mother and I would walk down Cuba Street, past the Town Hall, to the old Library building. The children and young adults section was hard on the right inside the front door; a haven for young readers. There I discovered old friends in the books I was familiar with, making me feel less alien in this new country. Soon, as I read more widely, I made new ones. Later I graduated to the adults' section. To this day I remember the walk from the front door to the lending room across a lino floor which squeaked distinctly no matter how hard I tried to tiptoe across it.
I was a socially inept, somewhat nerdy, teenager and the library was the perfect sanctuary where I could lose myself in different worlds, explore ideas, travel to exotic places, all in complete safety. My reading ranged indiscriminately from Piers Plowman to Barbara Cartland and a wide variety of genres in between. It was much later in life that I discovered the scope and depth of knowledge I had acquired by exercising this random selection. One of the joys was discovering the library's store of sheet music tucked away in a room upstairs. I remember finding Boughton's Faerie Song from The Immortal Hour, Noel Coward's London Pride, and a host of more modern music. The Library was an eternal treasure chest for me to rifle at my pleasure.
I soon realised the real living taonga of the library service was its librarians. They are a remarkable breed, dedicated to their work, tenacious at ferreting out arcane volumes and unfazed by obscure requests. At Victoria University, when I was engaged in research for a thesis, I had two small children and was living round the far side of Wellington Harbour. Consequently it was impossible for me to attend university during normal hours, but I would scuttle in at night to do my work, fill out stacks of request slips and leave them behind when I left. Two days later when I returned I would find large envelopes waiting for me, all stuffed with all the clippings I'd requested. Those wonderful librarians were our pre-internet Google and Wikipaedia.
Recently I have been researching pre-European Maori burial practices for my latest novel. Sure enough my local librarian was able to steer me in the right direction for my research, and when a volume she recommended wasn't on the library files, lent me her personal copy. Any book lover knows that lending a cherished book to someone is the ultimate gift. I was overawed by this woman’s trust and generosity, particularly as the book, by the late Michael King, was invaluable.
I’ve been giving some thought recently to the importance of communities, and what holds them together. Traditionally Church, Marae and School provide focal points around which we unite, but each of these entities has a specific purpose in our society which may at times actually divide a community rather than unite it. Instead I would argue that the core of a healthy community is the trinity of a free public library, a local newspaper and a community radio station. These serve the entire community and provide media to which anyone, regardless of age, gender, social station or race can have access. I take great pleasure in going in to my local library and seeing the variety of people who use it freely. The elderly surf the internet, school children still seek material for school projects and youngsters rush in with their parents to listen to stories, watch movies and choose new books. Sometimes I will even catch sight of a geekish girl with her nose firmly stuck in a book. I have never entered the library yet to find it empty and forsaken. It is the hub of our community, and in my small way I am extremely proud to be a part of it. Long may it remain so.