Aotea loves books

Boat shed at Whangaparapara

In my book Island Notes: finding my place on Aotea Great Barrier Island I quote the poet Gary Snyder – “we no longer sit around campfires with our grandparents. In the West, books and libraries have become our ancestors.”

Librarian Lenka Wright says islanders borrow 10,000 books and other items from the Auckland Council branch library in Claris each year.

“Some come in at least twice a week and the more books they can get their hands on, the bigger their smile.

“A visit to the library is a social occasion for many, who come to talk books, but also about what’s going on in their lives. Our patrons love the individual approach, that they wouldn’t get in a big town. And that they can access any item in the extensive Auckland Libraries collection.”

Lenka says the most popular genre is crime. “You would have thought that readers on a small remote island, away from the hustle and bustle of town, would be interested in some light reading. But perhaps the relaxed lifestyle needs to be balanced with the thrill and action the crime books offer?”

But my investigation into the history of libraries on the island shows there’s no shortage of intrigue and drama …. and a whiff of suspicion about officialdom.

The library at Port Fitzroy was almost built under cover of darkness when the community board of the mid 1980s was slow to approve planning permission. In the end, schmoozing politicians, fundraising dances at the boat club, community labour and donated timber were needed to get it over the line.

The current library, in a sunny reading spot opposite the shop, replaced a cupboard in the mail sorting room on the wharf and later a generator shed “shared by slaters and spiders”, according to Kay Stowell’s article taped to the library window. Books were sourced from the National Library Service and then by membership subscriptions and donations.

When its 1800-odd books are weeded, discards are left outside for passing yachties for a small donation.

Home grown libraries service the north and south of the island.

The Hayman Memorial Library at Mulberry Grove was also nearly thwarted by bureaucrats, when the siting of buildings became complicated by the need to protect hundred-year-old pohutukawa under the district scheme.

The collection in two tiny, removable huts was grown through short-term loans from Auckland City library, donated books and those gleaned from second hand shops on the mainland. For many years books were issued by volunteers from the Rural Women’s Association.

According to a faded, unattributed flier in its window “there are approximately thirty regulars and an indeterminate number of irregular ones, although visitors to the island, attracted by its isolation, remoteness and beauty may also borrow. The proximity of the library to the motel – immediately across the road – means there is no shortage of holiday reading.”

Perhaps the island’s distrust of the creeping hand of government explains the many cupboards, fridges, boatsheds, op shop shelves and let-yourself-in basements that have popped up offering books, free from borrowing cards or magnetic readers.

When I peeped through the windows of one op shop, I spied a stack of Mike Scott’s crime thriller Bait for sale. He is one of at least eight Aotea-inspired authors who have published books during the past few years to celebrate our ‘wild and free’ lifestyle.

The team at Small Island Big Ideas has rounded up many of them to appear in the Finding our Voice storytelling festival next month.

The festival kicks off in the Currach Irish pub on Friday night. Master storyteller Rodney Ngawaka will share a tale no doubt passed down around campfires for generations, then half a dozen writers will deliver a stand-up true story, followed by a set from spoken word poet, rapper and Mulberry Grove School old boy Louis Sammons.

On Saturday and Sunday, there’s in-depth conversations with local and ‘big name’ authors of women’s fiction, memoir, thrillers, comedy drama, coffee table pictorials, historical fiction, travel and environmental writing at the Claris Conference Centre.

There will be home-made made donuts, island roasted coffee, a pop-up bookshop and author signing table between sessions.

October 6-8 is the weekend for the island to get lost in words. Early bird tickets available until this weekend at

Written by Tim Higham

Something to read, everywhere.