Parnell and Ponsonby: Tamaki Makaurau's innermost suburbs sit on their hills like two genteel sentinels, incongruous in their adopted aristocratic Anglo-Irish names, flanking the central city to the east and west, separated from the CBD by its moat of motorways.

Unsurprisingly, their libraries are classy establishments. Leys Institute is hailed as the city's oldest suburban library and has stuck like a limpet to the Three Lamps end of Ponsonby ridge (aka Te Rimu Tahi) in the same handsome building for 112 years.

I tell you unselfishly (I'm worried about a mad rush of fellow freelancers crowding its desktop power outlets on Monday) that it's one of my favourite libraries. Its architectural style, like the Auckland Ferry Building, is "Edwardian Baroque" but the ferry building's squat has been elegantly stretched up and sweetly decked out in Italianate cream and salmon.

Inside, despite the Corinthian columns and Murray Grimsdale's Ponsonby Rd murals, it seems more cosy-Gothic: high windows, dark panelling. The lovely children's room offers a world map populated with charismatic megafauna (polar bear, lion) and a view of the neighbour's clothesline (undies, hoodies).


In a steampunk touch, portraits of the founders William and Thomson Leys in Victorian bow ties and waistcoats sit above the sci-fi/fantasy and graphic novels. I'd like to have met the Leys brothers. Both were print professionals: William - the visionary in soft-red mutton chops who dreamed up the Institute to provide books and "rational recreation" to loitering youths - was a bookbinder. Bearded Thomson - who, through drive and actual money, got the thing built - was the editor of the Auckland Star. They both look kindly but Thomson has more gravitas. I imagine William would give you an icecream, whereas Thomson would open you a savings account.

The Parnell Library is now housed at the Newmarket end of town.
The Parnell Library is now housed at the Newmarket end of town.

The Parnell Library, younger by eight years, has been more giddily nomadic. In 1924, it got a new fit-for-purpose building on Parnell Rise, complete with Roman-wannabe label: "Pvblic Library". Fabvlovs. The names of eight literary stars are also literally etched in stone: the foreigners - Homer, Socrates, Dante, Goethe - and the "Home" team: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Burns, Dickens. Who would we put up now? Mansfield, Sargeson, Tuwhare, Frame? Hyde, Baxter, Ihimaera, Grace?

Parnell Library itself hasn't been there for 21 years; the building now houses Alison's Acquisitions, an artificial flower wholesaler commendably sacrificing name clarity at the altar of alliteration. Instead, since 1996, the Parnell Library hasn't really even been in Parnell, occupying a front corner of the red-brick building first built for the Jubilee Institute for the Blind in 1909 near Newmarket, beside the Auckland Domain. It's small, pin-drop quiet and a little bland, in spite of a wonderfully fierce T-Rex holding a book bag on the wall.

But it holds lots of light, has a big yellow storybook chair and wistful green drapes. Happily, the Maori section is positioned right by the (other) local history section, rather than hidden away where people won't find it. Tena koe, te whare pukapuka beside Pukekawa.