How old was I when I got my first library card? I’m not sure, maybe six? It was the 1970’s, everything was burnt orange and chocolate brown. I remember being very pissed off that I couldn’t borrow adult’s books with my junior library card. I remember reading all the Cricket magazines and scores of fiction. I would usually read a book a day.
Mum worked her way through the entire Crime Fiction section; they all had yellow hard covers with a red stripe. I don’t remember what Dad got out but he had stacks of science books by his side of the bed, Richard Dawkins and the like. My older brother liked Science Fiction and my younger sister had new readers like Hop on Pop. She was quite precocious and memorized Dr Seuss books from an early age, in fact we all learnt to read before we started school, thanks to Mum.
We were members of the Lower Hutt war memorial library, opened in 1953. The main entrance of the library has two huge murals, the first
– “Their Sacrifice” – with service men and women looking bereft under a tree branch with barely a leaf and the second
– “Preserved Freedom” – with happy children and respectful, prayerful adults, some harvesting fruit (presumably the fruit of the servicemen’s labours). “It was theirs to make but not to share the morrow” carved in stone underneath.
Oh! The Waspy guilt I felt each time I passed it. Was it disrespectful to look at it for too long? Was it disrespectful to not look at all? Of course it was fitting to have such a serious, massive piece of art in such a serious, massive (to a child) public building.
The legacy was one of knowledge, guilt, duty, humility, things my parents also felt were important, things they would have been taught in their formative years.
My father has an old brochure calling for financial support for the new library and attached Little Theatre. Titled A Call to Sacrifice, it begins thus:
“This brochure is a naked and unashamed call upon you, in the name of the City, to make a sacrifice, and its purpose is to inform you why. It makes no appeal to your personal self-interest, does not offer you something for nothing and asks you to give not necessarily that you may receive.”
Can you imagine that kind of appeal now? What a joke. Why not let the rates pay for it? Because:
“a cultural centre such as is proposed will serve to remind us that they that have left us “shall never grow old,” for culture, like the spirit of man’ is of abiding value.”
And why should they make this sacrifice?
“In memory of others who gave up to six years of previous life, in the heyday of youth, toiling in the hot and arid deserts or in the bitter cold of stormy mountains, and enduring the suffering and dangers of the battlefield that you might enjoy bountiful prosperity and the comforts of home.”
Whoa! I don’t think I remember reading a brochure with that kind of language printed in my life time. Finally some of the weirdest sentences that came from my parent’s lips began to make sense.
What has this got to do with reading or libraries? I guess we should be grateful that we have access to these kinds of cultural havens, acknowledge that knowledge is power and also be grateful that this knowledge is available to all members of the community no matter what their income. Mind you the kind of knowledge available in 1977 or 1987 in the Lower Hutt library seemed, even from a child’s perspective, to be limited. What did they want us to know? What was safe for us to know? What was missing?
Still libraries have always been a special revered place, a family outing; a church for atheists like me perhaps? Maybe that’s why it seemed appropriate to me to have such mixed feelings of lust (for knowledge), guilt, pleasure and worship all mixed up together.
There was also a secret code to learn when you joined the club – the Dewey Decimal System from 000 – Generalities to 900 – Geography & History (821 – Poetry in English).
And index cards filed in wooden drawers, you could flick through all the books with the tips of your fingers and find what you wanted. I still love index cards.
It was not just books either, this was the place I discovered The Face magazine, Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls alongside Mervyn Peake and Elizabeth Smither (once I’d graduated to an adult’s card in the 80’s). All these things seemed so far removed from my everyday reality. I couldn’t afford to dress like the cool things in The Face, I couldn’t find any cool records in the local record stores, I’d never be Fuchsia in Gormenghast and I’d never be a published poet. Not while I was still here anyway.
It was inevitable; I moved to the Wellington Central Library and never looked back. It was an old classically styled building near the old town hall; surely the classical styling would transmit knowledge by osmosis? The steps echoed as I walked up to the fresh index files. There were notices on the wall for Spanish language teachers, guitar teachers, you name it. I felt smarter just being there. Then, glorious! I discovered you could borrow art prints, I was cultured!
Then the library got cultured, or rather modernised and moved to a new designer premises. Style seemed to rule over substance, it seemed they’d blown the budget and couldn’t afford any new books. Lucky for me I had a card for the Vic Uni library.
Non-fiction ruled; anthropology, feminism, literary criticism, theory, theory and more theory, until I was ready for real life.
I didn’t belong to even one library while I travelled, I was doing my practical. I still read of course but my unsettled state didn’t allow for the ties of membership. Finally I arrived back home and settled in a small seaside village. I was ready for membership but all previous memberships had lapsed. I began with the Paekakariki village library (about 3M x 4M in size) I got out picture books, that’s all I read for several years.
I joined the Paraparaumu library too, it wasn’t much bigger, I moved onto parenting books. Paraparaumu library was relocated into much larger premises, the extent of their collection was revealed. I started comfort reading; YA fiction, DIY, recipes and craft books. I was almost ready for adult fiction again.
Multiple memberships became addictive, I got an out-of-town membership back at Wellington Central, and the catalogues were now all on-line. I was inter-loaning, reserving, you name it, I was click-happy on the internet. I was really in the zone again, from feminism to craft to poetry to self-help to fiction to YA fiction to DIY to zines to DVDs to CDs. Maybe I was ready for theory again?
My multiple memberships extended to include one more, back to Vic, where the juicy ‘Lit Crit’ awaits. On the same campus a small but perfectly formed graduate’s library at the Institute of Modern Letters delights me. I recently returned to the Lower Hutt library to check out their revamp after visiting my father. The index files were gone, the children’s section was moved to a mezzanine, even one of the large murals was moved from behind the issues desk to a far wall. I’ll be betting they don’t use a date stamp now. But the huge murals in the formal foyer still totally overwhelmed me.
I took a photograph. Was it disrespectful to photograph it? Was it disrespectful to not remember? Familiar feelings of guilt came over me, I was ready to be told off by a librarian but they were too busy being nice to little kids. The rest of the building had, of course, shrunk with age, like my father has lost inches in height. It’s a suburban library, nothing more, nothing less. I walked out through the back entrance and wandered through the historical graveyard, kicking up leaves. It was time to go.
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