An oasis of calm and eclectic information

TESTING THE WATERS: David Lange, left, and Bill Rowling in a light-hearted mood at Kaiteriteri Beach in 1989.
TESTING THE WATERS: David Lange, left, and Bill Rowling in a light-hearted mood at Kaiteriteri Beach in 1989.

In another life, I was a student in Dunedin. Those flu-struck years spent huddling against its southerly blasts become pleasant in memories, but much more so in words.

Many of New Zealand's finest writers have immortalised Dunedin in verse and prose, but a couple of my favourite lines were composed by Witi Ihimaera, a Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1975. In typed papers from that time, he describes the city as a place where "smiles shiver and snap in the cold" and "the birds sing away the frost". "Ye Gods," he added, "you're lucky if the Listener arrives on Monday at all."

Those papers, and hundreds more, are stored in Victoria University's J C Beaglehole Room, in which I once spent three happy days with white cotton gloves and pencil, poring over Ihimaera's letters, drafts and annotated manuscripts. I had flown up from Dunedin to do the research for my honours dissertation, and remember three days giddy at the privilege, astonished that someone was important and mysterious enough that their office rubbish could become the basis of study.

If I'd known then what we know now about Ihimaera's subsequent plagiarism, it would have made for a much more interesting project.

I've forgotten most of my earnest literary pontifications; all that has stayed with me in the decade since is the delicious peace of being alone in that small room in a tall building overlooking Wellington harbour, quietly shuffling through papers.

After I finished with Ihimaera and graduated, I stayed on in Dunedin for six months as a University of Otago library assistant, before callously throwing it all away to join my then-boyfriend in Nelson to spend a winter wrapping frosty grapevines, before we flew to Perth and freedom. But I came to adore those peaceful, industrious hours at the library, surrounded by busy people and yet almost alone, browsing when I probably should have been doing something else. I wish I hadn't left the job quite so soon.

So I was worried to read in the paper on Thursday that the Nelson Provincial Museum's Isel Park research facility in Stoke is closed for a week, until further notice, pending earthquake inspection. It holds items of immense value.

As useful as an iPad is, you can't compare it to the dignity of old books, papers and newspapers. There is magic in them and their exasperating inconvenience.

An entire edition of a newspaper, containing not just news but advertising, cartoons, movie and television listings, weather maps, share prices, corrections, letters, photographs, editorials, family notices and classifieds, is the most complete source of local record - what people in a single place were thinking and doing and buying and watching on a single day in history. It's a sense of complexity and completeness that disappears when you bring up a story on Google.

Several stories and an ongoing research project for the Nelson Region Hospice have seen me heading out to Isel Park to inspect some dinosaur-era editions of the Nelson Evening Mail, and though it's a pain in the neck at the time, when I leave, I always wish I could stay longer.

My favourite find so far is this 1989 photograph of David Lange and Bill Rowling cavorting in the tide at Kaiteriteri.

You wouldn't catch two prime ministers paddling in the waves these days, particularly not in socks and shoes. Unlike Lange, Motueka-born Rowling at least had the sense to take his off.

I'm reminded of those few days in Wellington whenever I visit. Librarians, archivists, and museum and research staff are the gatekeepers to that rich vein of old information, and it is getting more precious every year.

I am grateful for the time that the Isel Park folk have taken to help me and probably thousands more over the years, and I think it's a good moment to throw a little appreciation their way.

A round of applause, please, for the people who help you find stuff. For their quiet shoes and squeaky trolleys. For their quick thinking. For their helpfulness and ability to untangle the curliest of questions. Best of all, they don't make a fuss of it, and indeed seem perplexed at any gratitude.

I haven't met their match anywhere - not in hospitality, retail, banking, or government agencies. Here's hoping that those old photographs, maps, newspapers and documents, not to mention the white cotton gloves and pencils, will be back in action soon.

PS: If there's anyone out there who would like to share their experiences and stories of Nelson Hospice, I'd love to hear from you. Ph 03 546 2843 or email