National Library moves into future

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 13:11 24/11/2012

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If Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull could visit the newly made over repository of his books and millions more of the nation's cultural gems, he would not believe his eyes. There's nothing brown and cosy about the National Library now.

There's not a book in sight through the massive new glass and steel doors and round the sprawling, shiny, reconfigured ground floor. Not even a comfy leather chair. Seating is a scattering of cubes and banks of blocks in citrus bright colours that look as if they have come from a 1980s children's playroom.

Who needs chairs to lounge on when you're straight-backed in front of a screen? And it's screens and digital gadgets that say this library is far, far from a library circa 1950 and even further from a Victorian gentleman's study.  It is a library seriously circa 2012, more digitally up-to-date than any in the world, according to new national librarian Bill Macnaught.

Quite possibly, in 20 years' time, it will be passe, given the speed of technology, but today it is a world-leader. One of the library's aims is to keep digital information in a form that can't be made redundant.

The elegant, literature-loving Alexander Turnbull  (1868-1918), who gave his books to the nation, still has a bit of a softly varnished presence. His affluent dad Walter's portrait, in dusky oils, by John A Horsburgh, 1880, is on the wall of the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room on level 1, where the first sign of books reminds you that once upon a time they were the storehouses of literature.

Level 1 is the Alexander Turnbull Library floor. Turnbull senior's portrait was in storage for years before the makeover. It is flanked by some beautiful pieces of dark Turnbull family furniture, antique items that  give the big reading room the air of having the mixture of old and new favoured by contemporary decorating magazines. Reading bench tables are, it seems, made of walnut, sober but still super-modern.

Not too far away on another wall, Alexander is dragged into the 21st century himself in a graphic oil-on-hessian portrait painted in 2008 by Gavin Hurley.

Otherwise, all is space, light, steel and glass, and iced with bicultural references such as  the Takarangi - ''evolving heavens'' or ''evolving universe'' - pattern, used as a graphic abstract throughout. The library is also leak-free.

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It was the leaky roof  that demanded the makeover of the 1980s building, unfortunately run-up in a time of feverish throwaway construction before the stockmarket crash. The ''brutalist'' exterior remains faithful to its era.

The Molesworth St building was originally designed to store the collection for 20 years. The library had almost got there by 2008, when  major problems of collection safety, ageing infrastructure and difficult public access to the collections had were identified.

The $65 million Warren and Mahoney refurbishment promises safe storage for another 20 years and is coupled with a strategic vision, set out in 2007, requiring change to the delivery of services so they are relevant to 21st century New Zealanders.

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That has largely turned out to mean embracing the digital revolution. Just inside the soaring entrance, people can access their family pasts digitally. Just above, they can access a big, digital triptych that allows them to ''fly'' into Thorndon as it was in the 1840s, as it is now, and as it could be in 100 years' time. And that's just the first taste of a digital library age.

Websites and gizmos have not made the library's physical trappings entirely redundant, as statistics related to the library's closure for renovation in December 2009  reveal. It took a year to custom-box for storage more than 6700 individual rare and fragile books, manuscripts, photo albums and sketchbooks. About 7000 bound and unbound newspapers were custom-wrapped or boxed. Much of the $1 billion collection was moved off-site to the Archives New Zealand building in Mulgrave St and to storage in Thorndon Quay, but a great deal was managed on site. Packing took 15,000 hours in 18 months. The former reading rooms on the ground floor were fitted with shelving for 35,000 boxes of collections. It took 800 round trips by a removal company to shift 35,000 archival boxes, 20,000 books, 10,000 microfilms and 6000 folded items, and much more.

Now the physical treasures are all back home in the library, tenderly stored and frequently temperature controlled. They increase by day. The ephemera collection, for instance, says its curator Barbara Lyon, holds about 200,000 items and 500 to 600 more pour in every month. She has an old-fashioned wooden bank of pigeon holes she uses for sorting them by size and subject. It's full of cards, menus, programmes and the like.

The Cabot collection is an example of treasure that is out of its acid-free storage wrapping and once again available to marvel at. This comes from Charles Cabot's obsessive accumulation of theatre memorabilia, mostly posters and programmes from the 1920s to the 1940s, donated to the library by his widow.

Cabot died in 1978. He had set himself up in Wellington in 1926 as a pre-publicity agent for visiting shows, but he also worked as a doorman at the Opera House, where he made a point of getting visiting artists to sign programmes and posters. The part of his collection given to the library includes about 500 each of posters and programmes, nearly 100 scrapbooks of news clippings, about 150 photographs and a box of itineraries, autograph books and letters. Not surprisingly, it is the library's richest collection of  circus and magic posters and programmes and is still not completely catalogued.

''I think his wife must have been quite long suffering,'' says Lyon.

The beautiful old posters are large, says Lyon, so people need to make an appointment with the curator to view them in the large-format room.

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The beginnings of the National Library can be traced back to 1858, to the General Assembly Library for Members of Parliament. The National Library was formed in 1965 with the merging of the Alexander Turnbull Library, the General Assembly Library and the National Library Service under the National Library Act. Staff and collections were moved from 14 locations to the Molesworth St building when it  opened in 1987.

The National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa Act defined, in 2003, its purpose as ''to enrich the cultural and economic life of New Zealand and its interchange with other nations''.

So now the new, shiny, amazing, reborn National Library within the shell of its old building invites New Zealanders to visit it or log into it. While closed for renovation, the library underwent  a programme of  digitisation. Online images tripled to more than 250,000, Papers Past expanded and 10 more newspapers were added,  and more than 2000 at-risk audio recordings were digitised. The library's website natlib.govt.nz was improved.

Of physical library assets, the old is mostly stored and the new gleams self-consciously. Has it, with its gadgets, its kiddy-happy downstairs furniture, its cafe, its pop-up displays and its first exhibition, Big Data, been ''Te Papa-ised''?

''That couldn't be further from the truth,'' says Peter Rowlands, manager of the library's public programmes. ''If anything, we've got more serious about the way people engage with the collection, the truth and knowledge embedded in our history. We're not a gallery. We're a library and very specific. That's not to say it won't be fun as well, but not trivialising.''

The spacious new library configuration, Rowlands says, works ''hugely, hugely better on almost every level you can think of''.

He sees the high-tech, book-free ground floor as ''not so much as an exhibition space but a project space, for educational projects, seminars and workshops, a space more attuned to the future than the past''.

''Collections are important but it's what the past means for the future.''

- The Dominion Post

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