Tūranga, the new central Christchurch library, has had over one million visitors since it opened a year ago.

Shush: Libraries are saving New Zealand book culture, not dismantling it

Yesterday, we published an essay by novelist Lloyd Jones lamenting the change in New Zealand’s book culture. Today, Alie Benge responds with a passionate defence of the modern NZ library.

Lloyd Jones is worried. He couldn’t find the New Zealand fiction section in Tūranga library, and now the walls are crumbling. New Zealand’s literary scene has all but blown away.

Tūranga library had a million visitors in its first year. In the online catalogue I found multiple copies of new, energetic Kiwi voices. There was Hera Lindsay Bird, essa may ranapiri, Tayi Tibble, Laura Southgate, all mostly loaned out. They had six copies of Rose Lu’s book, all on loan, with eight holds on them. Perhaps Jones couldn’t find the books because they were all being read. Libraries aren’t dismantling book culture, they’re making it accessible and equal.

It scares me to write this response. Little old me against Lloyd Jones, a powerhouse of NZ letters, and a writer I admire. My copy of Hand Me Down World has a half-scratched sticker with a Dewey decimal number on it because I bought it at a library sale. But what we’re talking about here is class and exclusion – issues that can be invisible to those at the top. Libraries’ primary function may be to lend out books, but they’re also warmer than some people’s homes. You can stay there all day without having to buy something. At work, I’m constantly referring people to libraries because they want to apply for a job but don’t have a computer. The video games that he claims ‘don’t need a library’ are unaffordable for many people.

In terms of sustainability, Tūranga has board games, puzzles, and Lego. Multiple families share the same resources, rather than owning separate piles of plastic bricks that will outlive humanity. The same goes for photocopiers and printers.

Jones argues that people should join social clubs if they want community. Again, these things cost money. They’re also structured around hobbies or interests, so what if your hobby is reading? In a library, you can choose your level of engagement, and you don’t have the same obligations that a club requires, like regularity or uniforms. In high school I was part of a group of unfortunates: the children of teachers. We had to wait until 5pm to go home because our parents were in staff meetings. We were different ages and usually wouldn’t have met, but we were bookish, so of course, we became friends in the library. We did our homework together, talked about books, developed insane, unrequited crushes on each other, and developed a game called Library Tag, which was played between the stacks; the idea being to chase each other slowly and quietly enough that the librarians didn’t realise what we were doing. These afternoons in the library are my happiest memories of school.

Libraries can be community-focused without giving up books. We don’t swap one functionality for the other, the two feed into each other. Jones’ article reminded me of people who complained about phones having too many functions. When our Nokias got cameras and Tetris, people shook them in their fists and said, “I just want to make calls!” His argument could be used to say Whitcoulls on Lambton Quay is forgetting about books because they added a cafe on the second level. Jones hasn’t considered that someone using the video games might wander through the stacks afterwards.

Crowds flood into Tūranga. Photo: supplied

Libraries are equalised spaces. Everyone has the same access, and it’s all free. It’s so democratic! It’s so anti-capitalist! We all just hang out and share things and nothing is asked of us. The walls of the parapet aren’t crumbling. They’re being made into something new, safer, more diverse, more inclusive.

Book culture is in trouble, but not from libraries, or by Pukapuka Aotearoa reviewing an All Black’s biography. It’s from the elitism and exclusion pushed by Jones, and comments like, “few teachers understand literature. Even if they recognise a book when they see one, they cannot confidently identify literature’s purpose.”

To bolster book culture, the last thing we need is more elitism. Books that literary folk might sniff at, like biographies and genre fiction, are gateways to the kind of work that Jones writes. What is achieved by pushing classist attitudes towards people’s reading choices? Who gains from that? Few New Zealand publishers accept genre fiction. Genre authors struggle to get into writing programmes. During the launch speeches for Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book (three copies in Tūranga, all on loan) a couple in front of me rolled their eyes every time someone mentioned faeries. I wondered why they were even at the launch, late on a weeknight, with their free glasses of wine, casually dismissing one of New Zealand’s greatest living writers. Too many of us are snobs, and it’s not cute.

We need a population that reads. It’s the practice of empathy, even if they’re reading Percy Jackson instead of Mister Pip. We need kids to read books about plucky teenagers saving the world, because they’ll have to save ours. We need to read the experiences of diverse people, as well as records of the past and hopeful visions of the future. We need to open the gates a little wider. Libraries are the ones saying, ‘come in, read what you want’.

Jones wished the library luck by saying, ‘What chances do they have of succeeding when all the support they might have counted on is reaching for its hat to pass out the door.’ That support will be from those who’ve come in to wait out the rain, and the people writing resumes on the computers, and flicking through video games. Maybe when they’re done, they’ll pick up a book.

Alie Benge is a Wellington-based nonfiction writer.

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