The children at Ranui library were behaving beautifully when I poked my head in the door one recent weekday after school.
Despite a lack of parental supervision, there was purpose in the air and a thirst for learning. Some children, maybe intermediate school age, were talking at library-appropriate volumes about "lynda.com", which turns out not to be Wonder Woman's website but an online training provider (access it for free with your library card). Another child, slightly younger, was watching a YouTube video on a library computer about "how to rob five stores without killing!" which, as Grand Theft Auto aims go, is exceptionally endearing.
This library only opened in 2013, after 13 years of inhabiting an inadequate "shoebox" across the road. At its centre is a comfy slouch-couch in front of a gas fireplace — genius. Yet something doesn't feel quite right.
The Jasmax design is full of tall, grey, oppressive walls. The openness of the mezzanine floor is cool rather than welcoming: blunt spikes discourage people from sitting on the half-wall so they won't fall into the children's section below. The neighbouring stairs, flanked on both sides by yards of polished concrete, feel narrow, hard, sombre, restrictive, even prison-like.
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So, to an outsider at least, this building feels like a monument imposed, rather than a place the community has been allowed to make their own. The one glorious exception is a large, wonderful portrait of Moana's Maui in the teen section by library assistant Angelina Taungahihifo.
Was my snap judgement right? Artist Edith Amituanai once gave the library a five-star review on social media, so I called her up and asked her about it. Amituanai is Ranui's unofficial ambassador, thanks to her photography of her suburb, and her day job as local youth worker which allows her to help rangatahi "paint murals in the community and have a chat to them".
"We love our library," she says. For a young, low-income suburb, it's vital: free computers, free Wi-Fi and, perhaps even more importantly, a free place to hang out indoors and meet each other.
Unprompted, Amituanai says the library is "amazing" not necessarily because of the building — although she's clear it's a massive improvement over its predecessor — but because of the people. While one or two past librarians saw the children as a "nuisance", the best librarians take a keen interest in their regular visitors: they can tell local twins apart, and they'll let Amituanai know if they've found a course which might interest a particular child, or if they've seen a kid she's looking for, to have one of her chats.
Though Amituanai doesn't like the rust-like corten steel facade — she finds it harsh and faddy, dumped on its surroundings — she points out something I missed: the tall tree mural by Nic Moon beside the fireplace is made of 500 handprints from local people. I was wrong. The community literally made its mark on this library before it opened. They own it, proudly.