National Library: Bookworm heaven vs wow factor

BY SARAH CATHERALL
Last updated 10:14 22/08/2009

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Step inside Wellington's biggest leaky building. The National Library is just over 20 years old, but its roof is plastered with patches like Band-Aids.

Building inspectors come up daily to check that water is not flooding the drains - or dripping through to the $1 billion of precious collections sitting underneath.

The library is about to undergo its most radical transformation yet, turning it from a leaking building with shelves groaning under the weight of all its collections, to a building that its chief librarian, Penny Carnaby, says will be "a very changed and transformed National Library in Wellington".

The previous Labour government approved a grand plan to spend $82 million overhauling the library's design, encasing it in a glossy glazed "skin" and installing interactive media suites, along with 4000 square metres of new space.

In April, the new government slashed the makeover budget to $52 million, blaming the recession.

Now the library is in the throes of coming up with a revised renovation worth $30 million less, that will repair the leaking building and provide more storage for the growing collections inside.

This latest planned revamp, which is still under wraps and expected to go to the Cabinet next month, continues the next chapter in what has been a controversial history.

The present is proving equally fractious, with heated debate over what the library's real purpose is. Should the building be a more populist venue to rival Te Papa - or should it be the dignified home to earnest researchers poring over a nation's history.

Some argue the new-look National Library could be a building with a wow factor, that draws young and old to its collections, and highlights the importance of research and knowledge.

On the other side of the debate are cynics, such as former Alexander Turnbull chief librarian Jim Traue, who is concerned that library bureaucrats are "overcooking" the building's current state.

They fear a desperate bid to create a Te Papa-like experience at what should simply be a research library charged with collecting and preserving the country's cultural heritage.

* * *

My guided tour starts on the National Library's rooftop, overlooking Molesworth St, across the road from Parliament, to be shown the Butynol patches.

Rob Stevens, the library's renovation project manager and a former architect, explains why staff need to evacuate some of the 95 kilometres of manuscripts, photographs, materials and precious books stored in the floors below.

Nathan Guy, the minister in charge of the National Library, was taken on this same tour recently.

Mr Stevens explains: "A domestic-quality material has been used for a building of national importance. A lot of money will be spent either putting a floor down here or ripping up the roof. It's crazy. It's gone on and on."

Before the National Library opened in 1987, the country's prized possessions were haphazardly scattered around Wellington, housed in 14 separate buildings. The existing library building sparks a love-hate reaction from most.

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Work began on the inverted pyramid design in 1974, but was suspended for five years from 1976, dogged by funding and industrial dramas and design changes. The collections and librarians finally all moved there in 1987.

When the new National Library opened, it was already too small and fast running out of storage space.

For now, library officials plan to shift some of the Turnbull collections into storage for about two years, along with millions of items from the National Library too. Though some will be available elsewhere, scholars and researchers who regularly trawl through manuscripts and photographs are anxious about access.

Hamish Thompson, a Wellington writer and graphic designer, has learnt that he won't be able to see originals of historic photos, brochures and ephemera in the Turnbull library which he needs for his book on the New Zealand Railways advertising studio.

Roger Blackley, an art historian and Victoria University lecturer, won't be able to view some of the items he needs for his own project, as Turnbull's drawings, paintings and prints collection will be completely inaccessible. About to start work on a new book, he explains: "Part of the difficulty for me is predicting what I will be interested in. Whatever is digitised will be able to be used, but that's only a fraction of the material. For an art historian, it's crucial that you go in and view it."

Organisations such as the Shipping and Marine Society, Society of Authors and Genealogy Society will also be affected, as their researchers, writers and journalists rely heavily on the Turnbull collections.

Mark Bland, a New Zealander who lectures in English at De Montfort University in Leicester, also argues there is a lack of connection between what's needed and what the library wants to do.

"A wireless network will not cost millions and the reading rooms can be renovated one at a time. There is no reason to cause such public inconvenience."

* * *

Art critic and writer Hamish Keith says the National Library is enshrined in legislation, and is vital to a civilisation. Ours exists to collect, conserve and deliver our cultural memory, he says.

Whether you've used it or not,  there were 26,573 researchers who  sat in the grey, bunker-like building in the year to June last year.

More than 400 publications produced in the same period included photographs, letters, diaries and other manuscripts from the Turnbull - the largest repository of New Zealand documents, photographs and music, which is governed by separate legislation.

* * *

A small but growing number of documents are available online, and it's now possible to trawl through old newspapers while sitting in your dressing-gown in Wanganui, stretching the library's reach beyond the capital.

But it's this point that divides academics, with some nervous that Ms Carnaby is obsessed with digitising the collection, while others are urging her to hurry up.

When the library moves out for two years, 19 librarians will be assigned to digitising photographs, manuscripts and other materials so that more of the collection is available online.

Under its vision to 2017, the "New Generation National Library will be a library that never sleeps, a library for all New Zealanders to connect with and create their stories wherever they are", its strategic plan declares.

Michael Kelly, a spokesman for the Professional Historians Association, says: "Digitisation per se is a good thing for historians because it broadens access to information and makes things searchable and retrievable. But historians also want to see the documents and handle the papers and are nervous that digitisation will hinder that kind of research."

Mr Kelly, a freelance historian, uses the library every month and enjoys working there. "I don't feel that it's not a fulfilling experience."

Speaking on behalf of the association, he says: "We're not going to bag the refurbishment of a building that's leaking, but I think we'd be concerned if there were changes made for cosmetic reasons, or for changing tastes, or a particular fad, that leave such an important facility unusable.

"That has a considerable impact on the livelihood of our members."

Mr Kelly says the National Library is "a repository of our culture. It's up there with Te Papa and the National Archives as the hallmarks of a capital city. The National Library shows we are a sophisticated nation that cares about its past."

David Cuthbert, a researcher based at Jim Anderton's parliamentary office, is one of those backing the shift to new technology, explaining that "not a lot is currently available online".

* * *

So far, only 4 per cent of all newspapers, and a fifth of 19th century newspapers, are available on the library's Papers Past website. The library is spending $700,000 a year adding its collections to an online format, and while only 1.25 per cent of photographs are on the internet, it hopes to digitise a quarter of the photographic collection in the next two years.

Mr Cuthbert says: "I use the analogy of the national parks. There used to be a belief that unless you were rough and tough enough, you shouldn't be walking in them, but now any New Zealander can bowl up in a car without trudging through with an ice pick. Accessing digital material will be the same, allowing anyone to visit their National Library."

Below the leaky roof, down in the basement, Mr Stevens and library building manager Nick Reilly open the door to a room kept at two degrees, in which thousands of precious glass negatives of heritage photographs are stored in steel cabinets.

Mr Reilly points to a corner where there's a hole in the ceiling. An ugly green hose pokes out, snaking down the wall and into a bucket below.

This room sits under the external stairs leading into the library, and there's a leak above.

"It's dripped on the floor before," Mr Stevens says. "We have to come in here and regularly make sure there is no leak."

The risk? "That water will get into the negatives - this should be a safe, secure place."

After his guided tour, Mr Guy says: "I saw the plastic hosing rigged up to divert water away from the collections . . . I have also walked out on the roof and seen for myself its poor state of repair."

However, Mr Traue is cynical, and says: "In doing their best to persuade the Government that it was urgent to do a major makeover, the library management overcooked the facts.

"The library has got a couple of minor leaks. The only big leak is in the State Services Commission basement, which the library leases as a major storage area."

Calling for an independent review of the library's redevelopment, he says: "I can't see any evidence that they need to close the place and move everything out."

When Ms Carnaby appeared before a Parliament select committee in February, she said the multimillion-dollar makeover would create hundreds of building jobs.

And she spoke of a completed building that would bring in 400,000 visitors and rival Te Papa - outraging her critics.

"In the past 10 years, there are phenomenal connections of New Zealanders with their national museum and I expect exactly the same lift for the National Library of New Zealand," she said.

Mark Bland is keen to see double the resources pumped into the National Library, so long as they go to support research, and "badly needed but less glamorous activities".

In terms of visitor projections, Dr Bland says: "This is the stuff of fantasy . . . Most visitors who come from outside Wellington will be researchers who come to use specific parts of the collections."

Ms Carnaby, asked about the debate today, tucks her legs under her on a sofa in her spacious, light- filled office. "Yes, I was criticised. This is the DNA of the nation where people will engage with us online or by visiting. We are charged with access and preservation. It saddened me that people did not see the "both and" argument.

"But it's broadening out now and it's a much healthier debate."

* * *

Talking about the library she sits in today, she says: "There are some people who think it's a wonderful building that they feel is iconic and solid. Another thought is that it's daunting and could be termed elitist.

"Some people thought that the earlier design we had of the [makeover] for the building was a huge relief, making it more inviting, but an equal number of people thought that it was terrible."

Her view about its present state? It's a "poor version" of the Boston City Hall, which was built in 1962, and on which this library was modelled. "I want the building to be more inviting, but our focus is on fixing the infrastructure and storage issues.

"When we open the door in 2012, we hope that you'll come in with your kids and engage with New Zealand's heritage. That's one of the roles that we need to do better.

"A National Library is a fundamental pillar of the cultural and civic life of the community."

GEMS IN THE TURNBULL COLLECTION

*  A rare book printed in  1787 on one of Captain  James Cook's voyages to  the Pacific islands, showing  samples of tapa cloth. Only  45 copies were made.

* The first photograph taken of Wellington in 1851.

* A book printed in Antarctica on a small printing press taken on one of Sir Ernest Shackleton's expeditions, donated by Alexander Turnbull.

* A history of the world printed in 1493, showing the earliest printed map of Europe - the library has one of the 800 copies produced in Latin.

* A knife and fork from one of Cook's voyages.

* A photo album of Robert Falcon Scott's last Antarctic expedition, in 1910.

* 3000 letters from Maori chiefs to Sir Donald McLean, mainly used as evidence for Waitangi Tribunal claims.

* A diary by a member of Shackleton's 1914 Antarctic expedition, which led to the men spending two years stuck on the ice.

* Journals from Cook's voyages, including one by his astronomer.

* An early Kiri Te Kanawa programme signed by the opera singer.

HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL LIBRARY

1920: The Alexander Turnbull  Library opens to the public.

1945: The country library service and school library service merge to form the national library service.

1965: The National Library is set up.

1974: Work begins on new building, but is suspended from 1976 to 1981.

1987: Library officially opens.

1992: Treasury recommends selling books from the library collections.

2008: Labour approves an $82 million redesign of the library.

April 2009: Revamp proposal cut to $52m.

BRUTALIST BUILDING WAS TO HAVE HAD FLOOR ON TOP

Terence Broad spent a  decade working on the  National Library and has  bitter memories about the  saga that led to the leaky roof.

Now a retired architect, he worked at the Ministry of Works in the 1970s and 80s and was charged with ensuring the working drawings came to life. At one stage, he went to court to fight the library for money for the failing roof - and he's not surprised it now leaks.

"The library people were unhappy with the roof before they moved in," he recalls. "We had gone for the more-modestly priced option, as we always envisaged an extra floor would be put on top. The National Library have always felt hurt and wounded by the roof and I accept that."

The building is "brutalist", a style that flourished from the 1950s till the 1970s, in a theme that featured leaving buildings in their original state, without paint or other decorative materials. The National Library was modelled on the Boston City Hall of 1962 - voted by Boston residents as the ugliest building in their city. Mr Broad says that if he had his way, he'd soften the library building frontage, maybe with a large verandah over the promenade, to provide shelter and make the premises more inviting.

"It needs to have more of a human relationship with Molesworth St. It's like approaching a fort built in the 1890s because the Russians are going to come out on sailing ships and take over Lambton Quay. Its terribly harsh."

Mr Broad recalls that a huge cast of architects and builders were involved in the building and its design was controversial from day one. The plan was always to whack a floor on top - an idea that has now been dusted off by the library to add space. "It's always been severe and brutal," Mr Broad says.

"But in the past 12 months, I've been startled by the interest in it, with groups of respected architects and conservation architects talking about it, and a huge level of affection in the building.

"I'm not sure if it's familiarity or whether it's regarded as a fine example of architecture." However, he was concerned about the proposed glass-fronted $82 million design and thought the library managers had "lost the plot".

"I understand it could be less harrowed and precious. But you can't ever have a Turnbull library turned into a public cuddly toyshop - because people give it their special materials to keep them safe."

TO BE CLOSED DOWN  DURING THE  REDEVELOPMENT:

* Most of the 4.5 million photographs and images (except for 70,000 online)

* 180,000 ephemera items - posters, election fliers, theatre programmes, etc (except for 2000 online)

* 10,000 oral history interviews in its archive

* 100,000 paintings, drawings and cartoons, along with other things such as the cartographic collection

* Turnbull general collection, formed collection and New Zealand and Pacific book collection

TO BE RELOCATED:

* To Archives New Zealand from next year: 10 kilometres of Alexander Turnbull Library collections, including manuscripts, rare and early books, pre-1940 children's books and items that researchers have requested

* To a location on Thorndon Quay: the National Library's general collections

- The Dominion Post

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