Birkenhead has an idiosyncratic literary history: Hone Tuwhare was once a borough councillor while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once visited Birkenhead resident and former meteorologist Clement "Inclement" Wragge to talk about Maori navigation and Atlantis.

A Scot, whom Sir Arthur described as a "blue-turbanned, eager man, half Western science, half Eastern mystic", Wragge was the first to use people's names for cyclones but named his own son Kismet.

This week, Birkenhead Library celebrates its 68th anniversary, as chronicled in loving detail on its Wikipedia page (7000 words!). Yet Wikipedia knows nothing about its current handsome library building, opened in late 2009. The record ends with the pre-construction squabbling about its location - it was a clash of the Nation's Mothers (among many others) as Judy Bailey battled Thea Muldoon. Unsurprisingly, Sir Rob's lady won.

Built on Nell Fisher Reserve (named for Birkenhead's first full-time paid librarian), the building offers a wonderful harbour view, a comfy newspaper nook and a teen collection in prime position. But it's not my favourite-favourite library.


Its long, narrow shape feels restrictive and an imposing, building-length white-patterned wall, plus those ubiquitous wooden David Trubridge light fittings, feel oh so tastefully impersonal. The split-level space is only saved from total neutral-shaded anonymity by a large, delightful ribbon rainbow created by local schoolchildren. More art, please.

Still, all the Birkenhead people I know (two families) love the library; siblings take turns pushing its elevator buttons. Archoffice won a New Zealand Architecture award for it; the judges thought it "invigorates a sense of place in amorphous suburbia", which sounds unnecessarily snooty since Birkenhead's not a dormitory suburb but one of Auckland's many character villages.

On three sides, the library faces that awesome, terrible Rawene carpark slip; the harbour beyond a prominent Birkenhead Medical Centre sign and an outfit offering pole-dancing exercise. Amorphous, my foot.

If I were local, I would work or study at the blond-wood perimeter desk at near-silent Birkenhead (as one young visitor wrote: "It is the bets [best] place for doing quiet things"), but if I wanted to browse among a happy hum, I would travel three clicks down to Northcote Library.

Northcote has a garden out the back (sensible kale and spinach matched with swan plants); pukeko pictures galore; tables within easy reach of its Maori books; the city's largest Korean-language collection and - best of all - a welcoming, comfortable vibe.

"Yous are great at what yous do," writes one Facebook fan.

Designed by the celebrated David Mitchell, the 1982 building is light-catching, angle-roofed and unpretentious. Fringed by wisteria, it sits low on a friendly courtyard beside an art gallery, out the back of the Northcote shops. There's lichen on the neighbouring wrought-iron frangipani fences: thanks to good design, it's all growing old gracefully.

Inside, an alphabet wall frieze starts "A" for "aroha". In Hotere, Tuwhare asks "hell, what/ is this thing called aroha". One answer might be: Northcote Library.