I was privileged enough to have a library in both the community I grew up in and at my school. Books were given to us as gifts. School holidays were spent just as often at the library as the pool or the park. Audiobooks (back then on cassette tapes) were borrowed on long roadtrips. When you’re lucky enough to come from a family that loves words, you take this kind of behaviour for granted.
When I was twelve, the dingy community library got knocked down, and a two-story, light-filled haven took its place, complete with the young adults’ section in the far left corner so we could be left alone. With the new borrowing rules, I could reserve whatever I wanted for free, and sit in a beanbag all afternoon reading the latest ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’. I hadn’t discovered LimeWire, but their CD collection had all the NOW That’s What I Call Music’s… that I needed to pump up my iPod. At that couch under the stairs, eating a gingerbread man from the new library cafe, was where I first explained the New Zealand Slum City idea to a wonderful friend who didn’t laugh in my face.
As I got a little older and could bus into town, I swapped the local for the Central Library. This housed fifty times as many books, and just as many more nooks and crannies in which to enjoy them. I began to realise why on earth somebody would read a nonfiction book. As my piano-playing interests changed from exams to jazz and improvisation, the music section had me captivated, again situated at the far left-hand corner of the building. My backpack was full whenever I walked back out those doors and back out under the nikau palms.
Heading out across the Strait to University, the books and the places that housed them so honourably slowly morphed during those years. When you’re reading for research or coursework, the desire to read for pleasure dissipates. The library changed silently from a place of wonder (five libraries within ten minutes’ walk of each other on campus…) to a place of stress, researching, editing, procrastinating, beating yourself up for procrastinating, hoping your wallet doesn’t get stolen while you run to the bathroom, stalking the floors for a window seat, glaring at those whispering on the silent floor, wishing I hadn’t chosen to study on the 11th floor when that aftershock came rolling in, copying notes, memorising essays, writing cheat sheets, fretting about my grades, fretting about what job I was going to get, fretting about my future…
As you can see, they weren’t a space of peace anymore.
I never got to go in the Christchurch Central Library before the earthquakes. Because of the damage and cost to repair it, it was demolished and rebuilt over eight years. In that time, I graduated, got married and got a job. The wonder of reading returned when the stress of study subsided. So I did what we all did: made do with the local haunts, discovering new suburbs when we wanted to find something in particular.
Tūranga, the main public library in Ōtautahi opened to great fanfare last year. It is positioned in Cathedral Square, and one of the taller public buildings in a city that was literally flattened. This space means so much to our community. It’s safe, warm, and quiet (except the children’s area, which is rightfully rambunctious, even with the sound-absorbing light clouds). It’s non-judgemental. It’s free to enter. This is a place where everyone can gather, ask for what they need, and find it.
I think, in all seriousness, it’s become our sacred space. Tūranga is where the wairua (spirit) of our community lives.
There’s something untouchable, sacred, mystical, brilliant, whatever word you want to use… there’s something special about a library.
It’s the brink of where our day-to-day world meets our imagination. Where we can find out something we didn’t know. Our worldview is challenged. We learn how to make space for others. We become someone we’re not. We dream.
A library doesn’t claim to change the world, but it may just change us.
Earlier this year, I was leaving Tūranga with my requisite backpack full of books. On the left of the central staircase is a long table at standing height with stools around it. Sometimes there’s origami to try. You can lean and read the paper. There might be a new board game out, or a father and daughter playing chess. This time there was an unfinished thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of a wildlife scene.
Like a moth to a flame, I stashed my bag under the table and began to try and find the pieces of the navy and ochre exotic bird. Over the course of that hour, many others joined me. A few kids climbed up on the bar stools and had a go. Some people said a lot, some said nothing. As I walked out of there, leaving the blue whale to a bearded bumbler who congratulated me on every piece I put in, I thought, ‘Yes. The spirit of this place lives here. My spirit is safe here too.’