It’s raining books at Chartwell library. They thud gently as they drop through the returns chute into the waiting bin, and on a Tuesday morning there’s a lot of them.
M W Craven’s The Botanist is among those dropping in. So is Fault Lines, by Emily Itami, along with Pixie Tricks and the Pet Store Sprite, by Tracey West.
From here, they will be loaded onto a trolley four shelves deep, adult books on the top, children’s below, before being taken to the main desk.
In comes Indigo Wilde and the Unknown Wilderness, by Pippa Curnick, joining Good Girl Complex, by Elle Kennedy.
* How New Zealand libraries are adapting to the 21st century
* The power of a page-turner
* New Plymouth’s Puke Ariki library changing with the times
* Libraries in the 21st century: books are still books
The country’s librarians are about to meet to discuss how libraries have moved with the times, but why there’s a lot more moving to do. (Audio first aired October 2021).
The returns arrive at the rate of four or five trolley loads a day. Most scan automatically on their way through the chute, but the occasional one slips through undetected. Those are picked up by a further scan at the desk, where a quick check is also made on each book’s condition before it is returned to the shelves.
And the books keep coming, in all their multi-coloured diversity. Lebanese Cuisine, the Authentic Cookbook, by Samira Kazan. Close Your Eyes, by Rachel Abbott. Faithless in Death, by J D Robb.
So very many books. So very many readers.
This is Hamilton’s busiest library, busier even than the central branch. It’s Heathrow. Last month, 3200 people came through the doors. And last week alone 6038 items were borrowed. The total borrowed across all Hamilton libraries in that week was 14,881.
Libraries are our great civic space, welcoming all. And they’re popular: one in every three people are “active” library members, according to the Public Libraries of New Zealand 2022 Analysis and Insight Report.
They have been described as the living room of the community, says Ana Pickering, executive director of Lianza (Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa). They are also described as the last non-commercial community space, she says. “You don’t have to feel that you have to buy something. People can go in there and be in that space and feel that it’s there for them.”
She remembers seeing people pour into Tūranga, the new public library in Christchurch, the morning that it opened, and fanning out through the building. There was a sense, she says, that “this is our place”. Gloriously, when that particular library was later left inadvertently open but unstaffed on a public holiday, people kept coming in and checking out items. Not a single theft was recorded. “They all just came in and used it and got on with it. Which is just so wonderful.”
Only in a library.
Dealing with this morning’s returns is Jackie Pritchard. It’s a constant job. Once you’ve cleared a trolley, you come back and start stacking another one.
Pritchard has been at Chartwell part-time for a year and is training on the job. She already knew the library well as a customer. In summer, she used to come for the air conditioning. “Get a nice reading book, sit down with it.” The very definition of chilling.
At the moment she’s reading Miriam Margolyes’ memoir, This Much Is True. Margolyes was Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter series, and Pritchard had to wait a few months for the popular book, which had a lot of holds on it. For the record, librarians have to wait in line like everyone else to borrow books.
Also for the record, Pritchard loves her job. The people are nice, and she’s a people person. “I just love that interaction with everybody every day.”
That sentiment is widely held, it turns out. People really love Chartwell library.
Ritch O’Dwyer is here on a break from bus driving. His route is based at Chartwell, so he pops into the library up to three times a day. Today, he’s browsing the newspapers, partly for the news about Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, but also wondering if a death notice for a friend will be in one of them.
He’s into true stories, and is also a Christian, so looks up anything to do with his faith. “I find it so comfortable being here,” he says. “It’s good here because it gets me away from the road. You know, the road is always full on.”
The staff are wonderful, he says, unprompted. “They are really, really good.”
In another corner of the library, Nicole Bush is sitting at a desk with a library laptop – it’s more efficient than her phone, she says. The laptops, which have largely replaced fixed computers, suit her because she can sit where she wants. She arrived at opening time to do some research and also work on her CV. She’s lived in the area for seven or eight years and has regularly used the library, both for her own research and to get games and movies for her children. These days she’s coming in about twice a week; it used to be more often when she was studying tikanga Māori. The staff were “amazing” in helping her find her way around the library when she first started using it. “I feel very comfortable in here,” she says in a remarkable echo of Ritch O’Dwyer.
There’s a sense of sanctuary about the library. Come one, come all, as long as you behave.
Most people do behave, says security guard Saed Matlek. Okay, there was one time when a boy started a fire in the toilets, but the role is really more about talking to people and working with library staff to keep the place safe. He’s the smiling face at the entrance, and has been for nearly five years.
Sometimes younger people can get carried away, talking loudly or fighting each other. Matlek sounds reassuringly relaxed about it all.
“Sometimes we get young naughty boys after school, they come here they try to do stupid things but, my experience, I know how to fix it, talk to them.”
By 10am, the children’s section is filling up with mums and toddlers, ahead of Storytime at 10.30. Among them is Zahra Fadhul browsing some children’s books to read to her daughter, Dana Bubbood. She will also get out some books for her two other daughters who are at school – one likes adventure and the other likes magic.
Also here for Storytime is Lexa Dewes with her granddaughter Emily Steiner. “It’s great, Emily really enjoys it. Lots of singing and dancing and moving to songs, and then the story of course.”
Like Zahra, she’s planning to read a story to Emily before the session starts, and both drift off to a recently opened outdoor area designed with children in mind.
At 10.30, librarians Nicola Field and Gameedah Jonas get things underway. Storytime is pirate themed today, in honour of the improbable fact that Monday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Field is wearing a red pirate cap, while Jonas’ is a black number with gold trim. About 30 people are sitting around on the floor – mainly mums and toddlers, though there is one dad – and the kids are engrossed as Field and Jonas start the session. “Haere mai and welcome everyone,” they sing.
After rhymes and songs, the two stories are pirate themed. Plenty of thought has gone into this: the final activity involves walking the plank.
Clearly, this is not part of any library training. “No,” Field agrees. “But it’s such fun. And it’s so lovely to see the kiddies sitting there rapt in the story that you’re reading them and interacting with the other kids, and watching the parents have that special time with them.”
“Reading to children is only a positive,” says ringa tohu/service leader Suzy Purutanga.
“It’s about making it a place that kids can enjoy, that kids like to come to, and inspiring that reading, that imagination,” Field says.
And the customers keep coming. School age students mill about, presumably working on a project. The newspaper reading area stays busy. Laptops are constantly in use.
Husband and wife Colin and Joy Graham return their books in the cubicles on a wall inside the library, near the recent returns bins, and also near a ballot box for local authority votes. Elsewhere in the library, a condolence book for the Queen has drawn those wishing to pay tribute. Twelve pages have so far been filled with messages of respect.
The Grahams play slightly against expectations. The book reader is Colin; Joy reckons it’s easier to read on her phone. They both have good reasons for their choices.
“It’s bigger print and it’s just something physical,” says Colin of books.
“If I’m going somewhere, and I’m sitting there doing nothing I can read,” says Joy of her phone.
There, in a nutshell, is the entire print vs device argument.
Joy has, however, returned a couple of cookbooks and a romance today. She’d been walking around waiting for Colin during an earlier visit, saw the romance and thought she’d get it out because she’s found some by Hamilton authors.
Colin has come recently to reading, since he retired two years ago, and runs more to historical fiction and murder mysteries. He singles out a book about the Bletchley wartime code breakers. “The sort of stuff that makes you think a bit, too, that’s got a bit of structure to it, I like.”
The couple are looking forward to the opening of the Rototuna library, which is closer to them.
Rototuna will be only the second purpose-built library in Hamilton, after Dinsdale in 1985. It will be very much a community hub, says Purutanga.
You could say the same about Chartwell, with its children’s programmes and monthly digital training session. Come one, come all.
“We would like to see ourselves as community hubs, and I think we are,” Purutanga says.
They have 14 staff, some of them part-time, for the seven day a week operation.
It’s a diverse role. This week they are doing special votes for the council, and have just started as an outlet for a low-cost internet connection called Skinny Jump.
They also offer click and collect, choosing books for readers based on their preferences and previous reading history, and Su Bradburn looks after a monthly delivery service to home-bound residents across Hamilton and some rest homes.
Contrary to what Google may say, however, they do not offer a JP service. “I had a person on the other end of the phone arguing with me telling me that Google said we had one, so we had to have one,” Purutanga says. “What can you do? I had to laugh. ‘I’m sorry, Google doesn’t know everything. And it doesn’t always get everything right.’”
It’s also a customer-service role. Ringa tohu/service supervisor Leah Olesen remembers one customer who was grieving for a family member. She liked reading and during that time it was the only thing that made her happy. So staff would put rolling holds on books. Every two weeks new books would come available to help her through.
Then there are the readers who turn up with a vague recollection of a book they would like to reread. They read it four years ago, it had a blue cover. “And it was about this lady who did this and then went on this,” Olesen says. “And you’ve got to figure out what this book is.” Generally, as long as they have enough of the story, they get there, she says. And yes, smart use of Google helps.
It’s notable how traditional books and DVDs are just part of an offering that includes a large digital offering. Libraries are good at reinventing themselves, Purutanga says. The clue is in the name of the qualification: Libraries and Information Management.
Purutanga, who has worked in libraries for 24 years, describes one change ushered in by the digital age. She can remember when kids would come in after school with their homework sheets. The librarians would go into overdrive, looking up answers to the question of the day. That’s disappeared, thanks to students having access to the internet. “I don’t even know if kids get home worksheets now, but you just don’t see them.”
Also gone – long gone – are the sleeves and cards librarians used to stamp. These days self-checkout, used by more than half of customers, is simple. Scan your card, plonk your books on the glass, and go. If you print out a receipt, it can double as a bookmark. Some people apparently use money as bookmarks; at Chartwell, that has even included the odd $50 note left in the leaves of a book. More worrying was a condom wrapper that came back in a book on chess. Perhaps the daddy of them all, though, is the bong that came through the after hours chute.
The good librarians do what they can to return the misplaced items, sometimes getting back to the person while they’re still in the library.
So yes, it’s a diverse job being a librarian. “You never know quite what someone’s going to ask when they walk up to the desk,” Olesen says.
“We are really passionate about what we do,” Purutanga says. “We love our industry. And I think that makes a difference.”
Ana Pickering of library organisation Lianza says one of the important roles for a library is supporting people in reading for pleasure. “We know that reading for pleasure is so, so important for literacy, but you’re not going to be literate unless it’s something that’s enjoyable to you.
“The library providing access to the breadth of knowledge, and fiction and story and history – and the whole sort of culture that can be accessed through a library – I think is extremely important.”
That may come in many forms, not only books. Libraries hold a huge amount of information around local history, and Pickering says there is a lot of work going on to prepare for the new history curriculum.
She also says public libraries are increasingly consulting with their community to make sure their offering meets local needs. She cites Takānini in Auckland. “The first thing that you will notice walking into that library is that there is a kitchen and there is somebody there saying ‘Hi, do you want a cup of tea?’. People are bringing food to share and the people who need food are taking food. It’s very much about designing that space to respond to the needs of that community.”
The responsiveness sees some rural libraries overseas, where there aren’t enough staff to stay open throughout the week, choosing to open unstaffed at particular times – just as Christchurch inadvertently did.
Libraries are also beginning to offer creative “maker spaces”, as envisaged for the Rototuna branch, where people can do things like learn to use a sewing machine, or use a music studio or a laser cutter.
As well as the returns slot, the Chartwell team today has been dealing with nine bins of books that arrived overnight from other city libraries. Some are for people with requests in, some are duplicate copies. It’s a floating service, meaning books can be moved around depending on demand, says Shannon Cooper from the lending collections team.
She’s harvesting books to be taken back to Central for repair or to be shifted to different branches because they haven’t been issuing well at Chartwell.
By the time a book has been borrowed 100 times, it’s going to be showing some wear. “By that point, even the strongest bound book will fall apart,” Cooper says. “But people still want to read it, they’ll go straight back to the start of the series and read that again. We’ve got to manage that.”
The goal is to make sure all the collection – 333,771 books and 32,199 e-books/e-audio – works as hard as it can, Cooper says. That’s why titles get moved around.
Typically, they want a book going out every few months. It may be that some of those on her trolley today have been borrowed by everyone who was interested in them, and they will get a fresh audience at a different library.
Different genres do better at different branches. Central is notable for sci-fi and adult graphic novels; at Glenview, sagas come into their own. Literary fiction might find its best home at Hillcrest.
Some authors are so popular, they hit the shelves and go straight out again, and the library keeps multiple copies. Think Lee Child or Lucinda Riley.
Obviously, there have been disruptions because of Covid. Cooper says in the last financial year, they saw a rise in digital use, largely compensating for the drop in print borrowing. “It will be interesting to see if that maintains or changes now that the Covid restrictions have eased.”
In terms of numbers, in the 12 months to July this year, a total 1,059,371 items were borrowed. In that same timeframe, of those aged 18-plus, females made up 73% per cent of borrowers. About 13.5 per cent of the borrowing was done online.
Nationally, the number of physical issues are almost back to pre-Covid levels, while electronic issues have significantly increased. In 2020-21, total issues rose by 23.6% from the previous year, according to the Public Libraries of NZ 2022 report.
Almost 58 million items were issued – 57,876,158, to be precise. Electronic issues made up 35.6% of that. In total, libraries hold almost 14 million physical and electronic items.
As multipurpose and digital as libraries have become, there’s no getting away from print. Jenny Paul, browsing in the cookbook shelves, has a shopping bag full of books mostly for her four-year-old grandson. She lives on the other side of town, but comes here every couple of weeks because she thinks Chartwell has a better selection. She used to bring her grandson for Storytime as well. “I thought the librarians were really, really good with the kids.”
She’s keen on biographies, and also has a quick look at the paleo cookbooks in case there’s something new. “I’m passing, so I just always see what’s here.”
Caitlin Selby has paused by the holds section to see if a book her younger sister ordered has arrived yet. It hasn’t, and she’ll move on to browse adult fiction. “I like romance, historical, supernatural, everything.”
She works nearby and pops into the library two or three times a week, usually leaving with a book. Her most recent borrow is the Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Published in 1981, it’s a Silence of the Lambs book with Hannibal Lecter. She’s rereading it, having already worked through the four-book series. The style of writing is good, and she’s fascinated by the way the protagonist’s mind works to solve crimes.
Selby, a teenager, will sometimes read online, but prefers a physical book. “You can’t beat the feeling of having that book,” she says. “The books are magical.”
Jude Loulanting, meanwhile, is here for a book because she’s had enough of scrolling Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. There’s no thinking involved in social media. “If you’re reading, you’re actually imagining the environment and the characters and what they might look like, using a little bit more grey matter.”
She’s just returned to New Zealand from 16 years in the Gold Coast, and this is her second visit to the library. “It’s just nice to be in the community. I mean, I don’t know this area, I’m new to Hamilton, so just getting into the community,” she says.
“The library is lovely. It’s warm. It’s got people, it’s got movement, it’s got energy.”
Librarian Purutanga’s not tied to any one genre with her reading, but likes Stephen King. Olesen likes a happy ending. “With the world being as it, it is quite nice to escape somewhere.”
She can get through a book a day, but two a week is the norm. She would only read an electronic book if the print version is unavailable.
Purutanga reads ebooks when travelling. “They’ve got their place.”
But print versions come with the ability to see how far you are from the end. They’re also tactile.
“I don’t know, it’s much easier to pick up a book,” Olesen says.
“There’s something therapeutic about that, isn’t there?” says Purutanga.
Olesen’s thing is opening the bins in the morning to a pile of shiny, new books. “They’ve not been opened and they’re all pristine and you’re like,” she lowers her voice to a theatrical whisper “so pretty”.
You see the same much-used book a few months later and almost want to apologise to it, she laughs.
“It’s Narnia really, isn’t it,” Purutanga says of the world of books. “It’s like, you can open the door to any little realm that you want by reading.”