The first in a two-part series revealing insights into the working life of a librarian.
For privacy reasons, all names – including place names – have been changed. Te Whare Pukapuka o Poutama is a composite library.
It’s 9.30AM on a mid-January Monday, high summer, school holidays. Kaitiaki Pukapuka Tamariki at Te Whare Pukapuka o Poutama, Brenda Nelson, is putting out the daily events stand, as library users in jandals, sunglasses, superhero costumes, swimwear, and the odd pair of pyjamas, pour in the doors.
Children clamour to have holiday reading challenges stamped. Having been in many of their lives since birth, Brenda knows a lot of their names, and most of them know hers. Every second parent wants to know either if there is something suitable happening for their particular child’s age and stage today, or if they can get their child into something they are too young – but “certainly smart enough” – for.
Right now, it’s story time or Land of Stories as the sign says. A fairly new children’s library assistant, Jane, is placing primary-coloured, easily wipeable, vinyl cushions in a big circle. There will be book giveaways for all attendees, thanks to a friendly publisher relationship. Brenda has yet to see Jane present a whole session, and has blocked out time to do so today. She is about to put the closed sign on the children’s service desk and join the growing crowd of stroller-pushing mums settling in, when Siobhan, another of the children’s library assistants, rushes behind the counter looking flustered.
“There’s something happening outside the window that’s drawing a lot of attention,” Siobhan whispers. Given the direction she is indicating, Brenda has a strong instinct regarding who is involved.
Brenda has been observing some irregular comings and goings around the building for a few days, and is fairly certain a woman is rough sleeping behind the box hedges skirting the front windows. Sure enough – easily identified by her shock of hacked off, bleached yellow hair – this is who is drawing attention.
A growing cluster of mothers is observing the woman through the floor-to-ceiling windows that surround the picture book area. They have a clear vantage point of the sundry portable belongings – including a foil cooking tray, and bottle of bleach – she has laid out on the grass outside.
“Is she alright?,” one well-dressed mothers asks Brenda, as if Brenda is the woman’s keeper.
Meanwhile, Jane is trying to settle her audience with a karakia about everyone coming together to be happy and have fun. She is fighting the uphill battle of being a new face to an audience of semi-regulars.
“Where’s Siobhan!?” says a three-year-old who visits every week.
Brenda implores the gathering crowd to redirect their attention to where Jane is breaking into a spirited rendition of the perennial favourite, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, stomping her feet, and slapping her knees to the rhythm.
Still convinced she can deal with the woman outside and return to reviewing Jane’s performance, Brenda leaves the library, heading out into the sweltering morning.
She approaches the woman smiling, observing the tangible spikes of suspicion radiating off her, as the woman scurries to throw a tattered denim jacket over her arrayed belongings. When Brenda points out that the woman’s location is perhaps not as private as she may wish it to be, the woman is furious. Already acutely aware she is being watched, she informs Brenda that the women inside are “actually a bunch of prostitutes”, who are “pimping out their children to paedophiles”.
“You can tell by the look in their eyes,” she asserts, fixing Brenda with a granite stare.
“Oh, no,” says Brenda, intending to placate, but immediately regretting it, “that’s the children’s library. They’ve come for story time.”
The woman snorts as if it’s the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard. “Don’t underestimate their evil,” she warns, as if she’s witnessed it firsthand. “You seem like you’d be very easily taken advantage of.”
Brenda tries to maintain eye contact as she lowers herself to the ground, all the better to equalise their standing. Although the woman has been hiding here for at least a week, now found, she seems quite willing to make herself known. Eyes in the sky, and apparently addressing a much larger crowd than Brenda, she charges into a non-stop stream of consciousness. Her frantic testimony of a life of violence, that has led her into prison, and out onto the streets, is peppered with expletives and reference to a range of religious movements and conspiracy theories. She talks about brothers who’ll protect her, and children she has lost track of. Occasionally, her stories contradict each other, and she can’t seem to decide whether to threaten or reassure Brenda with her intentions.
Through the windows, Brenda can see time passing on the Cat in the Hat clock hanging above the service desk. The story time is almost over, and mums and bubbas are settling in for a good kōrero. Brenda can almost lip read them – “He took his first spoonful of solids last night…”; “It’s musical beds all over again…” – sharing all the tiny moments that are only of interest to other people going through exactly the same thing. If not for the library, where else would these connections be made?
Brenda can see Jane directing a mother, holding hands with a toddler and carrying a baby in a sling, to the potty training section at Dewey number 649.62. Brenda is fully aware that a respite care group of high needs rangatahi with varying superpowers and disabilities will arrive in the library any moment. She is eager to get back on the other side of the window to assist with the delicate transition between two very different audiences.
She can see a picture book – Margaret Mahy’s The Witch in the Cherry Tree – stuck between the back of one of the bookshelves and the window, and wonders if it’s on the missing list issued every Monday. A small person wearing a fire helmet and a rainbow tutu catches her eye, waving excitedly, grabbing their koro’s hand to point Brenda out. When she waves back, it breaks the woman’s train of thought.
“My friend is calling me,” Brenda points out. “I’d better get back inside.”
The woman shrugs, as if it’s all the same to her where Brenda goes.
“You know you’re welcome inside the library,” Brenda says.
“I know that,” the woman snaps.
“I’ve got a group on the way,” Brenda says, “So, I’m gonna leave you to it now… I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
The woman observes her just a beat too long before answering. Then, “Leonora,” she says clearly trying it on for the first time.
“Leonora,” repeats Brenda, stiffly rising to her feet, brushing dry grass from her skirt, “that’s a beautiful name.” She’ll find out a week later, the woman’s name is actually Aroha, but only when she is trespassed from the library for punching a computer screen clean off its stand.
Brenda makes it inside two steps ahead of the late morning group, farewelling mothers and drowsily nodding babies on her way down the aisle. She spends some time playing the ukulele to a pair of siblings with Rett Syndrome, which sees them – to varying degrees – locked inside themselves, with little control over their limbs. Aria keeps knocking her own glasses flying, despite their being elastic-banded to her head. Her brother Frank sits, staring intently, grinding his teeth on a purple chewie pendant shaped like a Lego brick.
Their teachers are delighted with the siblings’ attention to repeated recitations of Tīrama, Tīrama, Ngā Whetū. Though generally, stranded in a world of repetitive, non-productive movements, punctuated by loud and often unintelligible verbal expressions, for 30 minutes, Aria and her brother, Frank, are becalmed by constant repetition of a familiar tune. If Brenda stops strumming for even a moment, they become agitated; so, it’s strum, calm, strum, calm, over and over, until the caregivers need to mobilise the group back towards their transport. Aria gets very frustrated, needing to be soothed and cuddled all the way up the aisle out, while Frank is easily led back into his own silence.
Retreating to the Children’s office, Brenda reflects on how much easier the siblings were to communicate with than Leonora. She finds her mind wandering forward to the afternoon, allowing herself to visualise the successful execution of a scheduled chamber music performance. She fantasises about a room in which audience cooperation allows for optimal performance transmission. Contrary to popular belief, libraries are not the impenetrably silent places of old, and this requires careful management.
On cue, the unmistakable mewling of hungry newborn starts up, out in the library. It stops quickly and, checking out the window, she sees Siobhan offering a tri-pillow to a breastfeeding mum. It’s got nothing to do with reading, but everything to do with growing readers. Judging by the size of the infant, Brenda senses a “baby’s first visit to the library gift book” will change hands shortly. They get the words into people’s heads any way they can around here; it’s never too early, and never too late.
Those words might differ, depending whether you’re a baby in utero, the māmā who’s just given birth to them, the teenager they grow into, or the adult whose life runs either straight, or hopelessly crooked. Still, connecting the right words with the right reader has always been core library business, even if it means librarians making those words up, taking them outside, hunting them down, singing or repeating them over and over again, in whatever languages they need to, as they go along. It’s all about the stories.