The charge of the library brigade

Last updated 15:52 03/03/2014
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WHERE IT'S AT: The exterior of the Elma Turner Library, from the car park.

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Nelson writer Janet Hart puts in some quality time at the Elma Turner Library.

Yes, it's confirmed. The library's a big hit in Nelson. LIANZA public library statistics for 2012-2013 show that 83 per cent of Nelson City residents belong to the Nelson city public libraries.

According to the Library and Information Association of Institute of New Zealand, Aotearoa, this is the eighth highest figure in New Zealand of library members as a percentage of their local authority population; the national average was 55 per cent.

And the library is up with the play, following the trend to provide a wide range of services to its community. Just look at their Computer Classes pamphlet for February-April 2014.

Each week they give hands-on lessons from social networking with Facebook through to how to research your family. The Community Corner, now established in Elma Turner Library, has groups from JPs to Public Trust and Community Education giving advice. And it's free. And free is appreciated.

In fact Elma Turner Library could be up for a tourism award in our little tourist mecca. "We are very grateful. It is wonderful," a young French couple tell me, in the Skype space, "we come in here and blog to our families at home."

Down past the research centre, two Japanese girls nod their heads in agreement. "To use internet in here, for travellers, it is very nice."

And yes, it's a bit like the United Nations.

However these are only tastes of the banquet offered. Look at nelsonpubliclibraries.co.nz and see the access to a digital heaven. It's all a far cry from last century's shhh-ing and soft shoe shuffling in the old Nelson Institute building in Hardy St. Remember the sex books - for those brave enough to ask for them - on the top shelf behind the library's issue desk?

Who could have imagined a library like the recently opened, bookless San Antonio Library in Texas, where even the librarians wear hoodies like Apple geeks - it's all Apple-digital.

Or what about the Levinski Garden Library in Tel Aviv which turned its back on the Dewey catalogue numbering system and shelves its books by colour?

The previous reader rates the book with a coloured label on its spine of the emotion it elicits - red for love, I suppose.

Some cities like Birmingham include the library, art gallery as well as an auditorium and cafe under one umbrella.

But then Nelson's Suter Art Gallery Director, Julie Catchpole reminds me that closer to home, is Porirua's atrium with its Japanese garden, cafe, library and Pataka Art Museum, which creates a community buzz.

After seeing her in the Elma Turner Library on a couple of Sunday afternoons, I asked her if she'd chat to me about the library. Her eyes lit up.

Later she told me, "it's been part of my life. Growing up in Wellington, as a family we went regularly to the library on a Thursday with a special big bag for our library books and later in Palmerston North, where my son was born, the library's mantra was ‘The Living Room of the City'. We used its library constantly."

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Over the past 12 months she could be seen mostly inhabiting the adult nonfiction. "I get on to a theme; this last year it's been a real mixed bag," she laughs.

"I started off with Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom and moved to Gertrude Bell, then followed the cooking Moroccan thread, before knitting and crocheting books - I love textile crafts and fashion history.

"Then in between browsing DVDs and new magazines, there was art fraud and now we're trying to develop our garden so I'm investigating ground cover. And I might spot a new art book."

(Talking of ground cover: For this article, the Nelson City Council's media policy prohibited me from directly interviewing any library staff to gain further insight, snippets of delight and spontaneous response that comes with an interview.)

So on to bricks and mortar, where some architects with a library brief are like Tolkien on speed. Take Czech, Jan Kaplicky, whose lime green frog known as "The Blob" or, "snot with cerise interior" and 75,000 books underground, won the 2007 international competition for the National Library in Prague.

The idea's still on the shelf. While on the Riviera in Nice, they change their books - inside a three storey box, on top of a head.

But in keeping with our library's quiet public persona, our main Halifax St facade merges into an urban strip of blandness. Maybe its low profile is because the library isn't spicy, like Wearable Art, or like watching Dan Carter convert a try. Yet inside it's alive with Nelson's future.

Before Christmas, I was out and about with confident 4 -year-old Liana Warland, in the Just 4 Kids section of our main Nelson Public Library.

Stimulated by the visual feast, she picked old favourite, Olivia and the Fairy Princess as top of the pops that morning.

Then after a rummage around in the picture book boxes, a quiet read with a small brown bear on the sunny blue couch, Liana, with her little arms full of books, led me around her patch. We said hello to Grand Pooh Bear in the far corner, solved five wooden puzzles and checked out her favourite computer game called Maisey.

Her family has given her a jump start. And as long as in primary and secondary schools, teachers promote reading for pleasure and school libraries are valued by their boards and principals, the world will be her oyster.

Yesterday at lunch time 12 blokes and I lounged in the sun in the comfy seats in the adult section, overlooking the Maitai River. And while I skimmed the latest Vogue, two men in long sleeved shirts engrossed themselves in novels, a couple of suits and a handful of T-shirts scanned newspaper headlines, four middle-aged gents browsed American Scientist-type magazines and behind me two young Germans tapped away on their tablets.

And even although my third arm's my iPad, my library trips are unabridged pleasure. (I wish it were open 24/7). For there's nothing quite like the anonymity of browsing at leisure and feeling the freedom of letting yourself loose in a library.

Charge your glasses, Nelson. "To the library!"

- Nelson

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