Helen Nia-Blake is currently working as an intern with us at the New Zealand Book Council, through the Victoria University of Wellington BA internship programme. Here, she writes about her lifelong love of libraries.
A library is a library wherever you go.
For me it holds the same comfort as McDonald's does when you’re a tourist in a foreign place. A place that is familiar, warm and welcoming. You can enter a library, sit down, and charge your phone. If you’re cold and lost, disheveled, or just looking for a place to rest, no one will look at you twice. In a library you can find the comfort of an old, favourite novel, a picture book, a computer, or just a toilet. Most of the time, people want to be there, no one is forcing you to go to the library. A library welcomes anyone. When you look around, you can usually see a cross section of society. There will always be people young and old, single or in groups, studying or just chatting. My mother was a librarian, so I have spent a lot of time in libraries.
The College of Education library in Palmerston North is really my first memory of being in a library. My mother worked there full time and as a child I would spend my sick days, weekends and most of my school holidays there. Although a university may seem like a stuffy place for a seven year old, the library offered a world of opportunity for my imagination. While the books on the shelves held little interest to me, the calm quiet atmosphere made me feel comfortable. I felt mature and independent, even though every 20 minutes I would be asking my mum for coins to use at the vending machines. A library aims to make itself as inclusive as possible. It doesn’t only have books and old ladies shushing. From what I remember there were always interesting displays in colorful paper, message boards, and at this library in particular, a Zen garden filled with bamboo and a little waterfall.
When we moved to Wellington, my mother started working at Newtown Public Library. What excited me the most about this library was a tank on the desk with an axolotl, one of the world’s most compelling and absurd creatures. There was also a cat that chose to enter and exit through the returns slot.
Jumping forward to my teenage years, I went to the library on my own volition. When you’re a teenager, you don’t want to be at school, you don’t want to go home, you don’t have any money so you really had no where else to go if you just wanted to hang out. There, my friends and I would find a quiet corner to gossip and to spend hours there after school until it was dark.
One school holidays my mother and I took a trip to New York City and the library was the first thing on our agenda. As we walked inside, I eagerly (nerdily) raced up the stairs and noticed above my head beautiful fresco paintings. I quickly ran back to where my mum was and shouted in a not so library friendly voice “you are going to lose it when you see this”. She remembers this moment vividly as she felt both delighted by my enthusiasm and embarrassed by my language and loudness.
When I turned 17 I moved to Melbourne. There I spent a lot of time in the Victorian State Library. It was sprawling and grand. It had marble floors and stone staircases that lead into an historic art gallery space. There was the reading room, which was filled with books and a mezzanine that ran around the top, where students (myself included) would lurk around, waiting for a seat to free up to pounce on immediately. I was enamored by this place from the beginning. It was centered in the middle of Melbourne CBD, right next to China Town and the central train station, among the swarms of businessmen, skateboarders, buskers and vendors. However when I sat by myself in the library, I felt at home. Although surrounded by strangers I was never lonely, instead I felt a sense of commonality.
A library has been whatever I needed it to be. It has been a safe haven in a city, a place for awkward study group meetings, whispered gossip with friends, a place where you can pat a cat or admire some frescoes, fall asleep or learn something new.