'Miss, Miss, can we read?" asked the boys at Tupu Youth Library in Clover Park, south of Otara, on a recent Saturday. "There's no more rubbish . . . I wanna read." Kids begging librarians to let them read? What is this perverse magic?

The friendly security guard fills me in: if the kids pick up rubbish from the park outside, they can join in the ping-pong tournament in the middle of the library. If younger children read a set amount, they can hit the paddles too. And presumably, if there's a lack of rubbish, it's reading all round for ping-pong eligibility. Oh happy rubbish-free reading day.

It's true that playing ping-pong is not reading books but innovative Tupu ("new growth") is more like an informal youth community centre that includes books and computers than a strait-laced information-only library.

Local schools - teachers and students - were asked what they wanted during the design process. In a financially-poor suburb, where half the residents are under 30 and a quarter are under 15 and houses are full (or more than full), teenagers asked not only for access to computers, graphic novels, DVDs and music but also for a quiet place to do their homework.


Sixteen years after its 2001 opening, the place looks great. It's a welcoming, comfortable curved rectangle of manageable size, offering an assortment of quiet and play zones decked out in funky furniture. The clear-glass walls presumably help discourage felt-marker vandalism, while letting the kids treat the park as the library's back yard.

Dedicated youth and children's librarians help make young visitors feel at home and put on assorted holiday and after-school programmes. A big screen in the corner hosts gaming competitions.

During our visit, a bunch of cheerful boys aged about 8 to 17 - including one in what looked like the Tangaroa College First XV sulu (formal lavalava) - surrounded the ping-pong table. The Archie fan I brought along thought the library could do with more graphic novels "that aren't just superheroes and manga" and disappointingly, we didn't see any other girls.

Still, the high school English teacher who tagged along with us approved the selection of teen books. In the small adult section, I found a Knit Your Own Kama Sutra book. Startling.

Across the motorway, Manukau Library and Research Centre is easy to get to from Westfield Manukau, at one end of a civic square. The whole precinct looks rather prim, large and empty, full of tall-ish buildings - is Manukau still dreaming of its days as an official city? They haven't thought of everything: I got grumpy not being able to park my bike outside the library.

The library itself is lovely: relatively small at the bottom of an office block, its wraparound windows are decorated with blocks of transparent colour: pink, blue, yellow, green. There was a screen unnecessarily playing daytime TV but the water cooler is a nice touch. Overall, a sweet oasis in a concrete desert.