Community Contributed

I Lived in a Library

Manawatū Heritage2020-03-23T18:00:18+00:00
Memoirs from Iris Smith-Steensma. Annie Steensma was the first librarian at Roslyn Library, Rangiora Avenue. She worked in the Library, and lived in the flat attached to the Library with her daughter Iris from 1953 to 1964.

“Do fidem me nullum librum vel instrumentum aliamve quam rem ad bibliothecam pertinentem, vel ibi custodiae causa depositam, aut e bibliotheca sublaturum esse, aut foedaturum deformaturum aliove quo modo laesurum; item neque ignem nec flammam in bibliothecam inlaturum vel in ea accensurum, neque fumo nicotiano aliove quovis ibi usurum; item promitto me omnes leges ad bibliothecam Bodleianam attinentes semper observaturum esse.” Bodleian Library Oath (1602)

“Before being granted access to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, new readers are required to agree to a formal declaration. This declaration was traditionally an oral oath, but is now usually made by signing a letter to a similar effect.

 Ceremonies in which readers recite the declaration are still performed for those who wish to take them. External readers are still required to recite the declaration orally prior to admission. The Bodleian Admissions Office has amassed a large collection of translations of the declaration allowing those who are not native English speakers to recite it in their first language.” (Wikipedia) 

A bit more about this oath later. People who love reading will often say “When I was young I lived in a library,” but what they really mean is that they went to their public library as often as possible and borrowed as many books as the librarian would allow them to take home at any one time. 

Now, when I say “I lived in the library” what I mean is that I really did live in a library. My mother was in charge of a suburban library in Palmerston North. I have always been a bit unsure of how she got that job. It wasn’t as though she had ever worked in a library when she lived in Holland. Before she married she had been a nurse and worked in a health camp for children from slum areas in the cities, giving them a chance to breathe fresh air and put roses on their cheeks. And when I was seven my parents separated and then, to earn herself some money, she had taken in lodgers and cleaned, washed and cooked for them. Three years later when my parents’ divorce was finalised, she, with me in tow, emigrated to New Zealand. There she had a job lined up in an orphanage working in the kitchen cooking meals for all the children and staff. She had her own room in this home, but I slept in a dormitory with the orphans, a bit of a shock for an only child. 

You would think someone writing those three qualification, nurse, landlady, and cook, on a job application for becoming a librarian would be put at the bottom of the “suitable people list”. Looking back I don’t think my mother actually ever did apply for that job. Her story was, and she was good at exaggerating, that one day on her day off she went into the city library to return some books that she had borrowed. She carried them in a big bag which she left on a shelf near the entrance “How did you know that you couldn’t bring your bag in here, but had to leave it there by the door?” the librarian asked her. My mother explained that when she was a child her uncle had run a small private library and the librarian replied, according to my mother, “We are opening a new branch library in the Roslyn suburb soon and are looking for someone to run it. Are you interested in the job?” That is her story, and she was. 

For some months she spent each one of her free days working in the city library to gain experience. And that was it, the Roslyn library was declared open. It was in a large old wooden home which had once been a nursing home for the elderly. Changes had been made, walls had come down, supports put in and shelves built. Where there had once been small bedrooms there was now a large airy space with bookshelves all around crammed full of books. This was my mother’s work place. She could stamp, and shelve and mend books, but for her this was not all. I think it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for her and she grabbed it. It made her feel that she was a useful member of her community and, even more importantly, it gave her a sense of belonging in this country, her new home. 

An extra bonus for my mother and me was that there was a small flat attached to this library building. And it really was small. Picture it. Some wooden steps at the back of the library building led up into a narrow porch. On the left was a door opening into the laundry with a large copper for washing. A fire had to be lit underneath it for heating the water. Next to this, behind a door made of wooden planks, was the toilet. On the right side of the porch was the door, not a front or back door, just the door for going into our home. It led straight into a narrow kitchen. There was really no space in there for a table, although a folding-out one was hinged onto one of the walls. We rarely opened it up preferring to eat our meals in the living room, each with a tray balanced on our knees and the radio tuned into the news. There was just enough space for two chairs and a sofa, one which could be folded out and turn this living room into the guest bedroom. The walls and ceiling were painted white, it made the small room look brighter and set off the pictures, plates and antique blue and white tiles which were hanging on the walls. On the shelves there were old pewter jugs, Delft bowls, pot plants and other small ornaments, just a few things that she had brought with her from Holland. There was also a bedroom which my mother and I had to share. There was just enough room for two single beds. And let’s not forget the basic bathroom with a basin and a bath and a dangling light bulb on a cord. 

As a friend recently said to me “Your home looked so foreign.” But not to me, this was where I lived for the next eleven years. The library members became my mother’s huge extended family. She knew everyone by name and also their taste in books. Not all new books would be put directly on the shelves. If she knew that someone really enjoyed books by a favourite author, or even in some cases a favourite publisher, she would put those books aside for them on a shelf under her librarian’s desk. There was one elderly lady, a spinster, who would read every new book published by Mills and Boone. Her eyes would light up on seeing the cover when my mother produced yet another one for her from its hiding place. They usually depicted a beautiful, chaste young woman swooning in the arms of a handsome self-assured young god of the world. The titles such as, “Westward to my Love”, “Heart of a Rose” and “My Tender Fury”, promised so much, but the stories always ended the same way, with a satisfying happy ending. My mother would date stamp the book, it had to be returned within a fortnight, and hand it over and one happy borrower would hurry home to make a cup of tea and open the first page of her new romance. It would be read quickly and back in the library within a few days. This spinster had once explained to my mother how she had never been married, but from these books she knew what romance and love were really like. 

There was however one book that my mother never tucked away under the desk. This was “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D. H. Lawrence. It had first been published in 1928, but not in England where it was regarded as an obscene publication. It was not until 1960, after a six-day trial at Bow Street Magistrates Court in London, that the book was declared to be no longer obscene and could be published. Three million copies sold quickly and eventually some would come to New Zealand. When these arrived in the central library in Palmerston North a serious discussion was held by the staff. It might be legal to publish this book, but did they really want pornographic literature on their shelves where any member of the public could get their hands on it. So copies were kept under the desk and should anyone actually want to read this notorious book they would have to ask for it, a bit like a secondary school boy asking for condoms in one of the few pharmacies in town. One could be labelled as a pervert for life. My mother was also given a copy of this book to take back to her library. She put it in her large bag and cycled home. Then she unlocked the front door of the library and went straight to the shelves and put Lady Chatterley amongst the other adult books. If someone wanted to read this book there would be no need to blushingly whisper the request, they could just go and find it where it ought be, shelved under L for Lawrence. 

She didn’t just take care of the literary lives of the adults, but also of the children. Each school holiday she would have Story Hour. The library was on the corner of two crossing suburban streets and just before ten o’clock you could see children running from all directions shouting at each other to hurry up because Mrs Steensma was about to start reading. They mispronounced that foreign name, but it was their catch cry for a holiday treat. My mother would sit on a low stool with the selected stories for the day piled up beside her. The children would gather around her on the floor. She loved reading out loud, she threw her heart and soul into it, acting out all the parts. It didn’t matter how well the children already knew these stories, they just loved hearing them over and over again and would join in when they could. “And even if you can’t see them Or hear them at all, A person is a person No matter how small.” I could hear them chorusing these words through the open library door. Dr Seuss’s “Horton Hears a Who” was one of their favourites. 

I could also hear my mother reading and would cringe with embarrassment. No teenager wants a mother who is different from the rest, and my mother was, she was foreign. Her English was good, but she had a strong Dutch accent and I didn’t feel comfortable with that. I wanted so badly to fit in with the other teenagers and not be the girl who didn’t quite belong at school. My mother was no help to me at all. I completely ignored the fact that I had an accent too. It is probably my punishment that I have never totally lost it. People still ask “Now where are you from, dear?” Once that “dear” meant that I was a young girl, now it means that I am an elderly, white haired woman and still a foreigner. 

The young children grew up in this library with my mother guiding their literary lives. They moved from “Little Black Sambo” and “Ferdinand the Bull” on the shelf under the window to “Milly Molly Mandy” and Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” which were on one side by the door. As their reading improved they moved on to the next set of shelves and where Rosemary Sutcliffe and Malcolm Saville were lined up with Pamela Brown and Arthur Ransome. And then it was time to move on, to “put away childish things”, and get an adult membership card. Guided by my mother they moved from childhood into adulthood as she introduced them to books that she thought they might enjoy, but she never introduced them to Lady Chatterley. Although this lady was there waiting to seduce new readers, my mother knew they would find her soon enough. 

It wasn’t just her library members that my mother looked after, but also any visiting author. It was not as though many famous authors came to Palmerston North, let alone to the suburban Roslyn library, but I remember one, Nevil Shute, an English author who had moved to Australia and had written best sellers, he was briefly stopping off in our town. First he visited the library in the city. The staff there had put on a wonderful display of all his popular books right in the entrance hall, books such as “A Town Like Alice” and “On the Beach”, where he would see them as soon as he walked in the door. Some of these books had been made into films which had recently been shown in New Zealand cinemas. Films and books, these made the man doubly famous. He was shown around by the staff, was suitably impressed, and had a cup of tea. Then the head librarian drove him in his own car to our suburb, our library, and my mother. She talked about her work and how popular her small library was with everyone. But where was the special display of this famous author’s books? There wasn’t one. Nor were there any of his books on the shelf. “Your books are so popular”, my mother explained, “They are all out on loan at the moment.” This pleased the great author. Actually all his books were piled up hiding in our bedroom. They had been taken off the shelf by my mother, leaving a large empty gap, and she had brought them home. “You can’t let him think that no one wants to read his books,” she reasoned. She really did care for the feelings of others. 

My mother may have been in charge of her library from Monday to Friday, but at the weekend it was mine, a place into which I could escape. I would take the back-door key, let myself in and get lost. There was a whole infinite world on those wooden shelves just waiting for me to explore. One novel in the fiction section was about how human babies were one day suddenly born with small tails and every baby from then on had one. Woe and behold if you were born the previous year, the only way you could then pretend to be younger than what you really were, was to wear a fake tail. Some even had clockwork mechanisms to make these tails swish naturally, but sometimes this would fail with a dreadful whirring sound. How does an author come up with these ideas? 

I had loved fairy tales when I was small, but a book like this made me realise that imagination doesn’t stop with childhood. “Clean and Decent” was another book that intrigued me. Nearly 300 pages describing “The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water-Closet” from the time of the ancient Greeks until today, well, 1960 when it was first published. This must have been what first sparked my interest in Ancient History, those Roman baths and plumbing. It made me aware that history was not just a list of meaningless dates, but that it was really all about people. 

It wasn’t only the public area of this library that I explored at the weekend, there was also The Stack-Room. Yes, this place deserves capital letters. It was here where the city library brought its old books, the ones that were no longer being borrowed by the public, but which, on the other hand, someone might possibly want to read in the future. If not, the next stop for these geriatric books would be the rubbish tip. Therefore the stack room was a bit like the anteroom to a book crematorium. 

Here the shelves did not go right around the walls, instead there were rows and rows of them coming out from the back wall, one beside the other, with only just enough space to walk in between. And they were full of ‘once upon a time’ read books. I loved browsing here, there were leather-bound volumes of “The London Illustrated News” dating back nearly a hundred years. I discovered Victorian England between its pages, I kept up to date with the latest Victorian fashions and read the dispatches from the Boer War. I even had my favourite columnist who wrote fascinating articles, one was about women and the dangers of going to the seaside and swimming in long skirts. At this time bikinis were just starting to appear in a few New Zealand shops. 

Sometimes I was sociable and would invite a friend to join me in this dusty world. Helen and I discovered a mezzanine floor where objects were stored that had been donated to the main library possibly to be displayed in a future Palmerston North museum or art gallery. There were no steps or a ladder to climb up to this floor. The only way was to clamber up between two shelves, one foot on each straddling the narrow empty space below. 

It was up there that one afternoon we discovered some paintings. They were large portraits in oil of Maoris painted in great detail. We knew what they were, these paintings were signed by Goldie. He was a famous New Zealand artist. From the canvas the painted eyes looked right at us as we brushed off the dust with our hands. You felt that you could almost feel the tattooed wrinkled faces and the smoothness of the carved greenstone pendants. What were they doing hiding up here? 

It wasn’t until many years later, after I had left home, that there was a panic in the city library. I assume that everything had to be checked carefully at the time when the library was being relocated to larger premises. Listed on an inventory were these Goldie paintings. No one knew where they had come from nor by whom they had been donated. Where could they possibly be? When my mother happened to hear about this she just said “They have been up in the stack-room for years. Didn’t you know?” Helen and I missed an opportunity. Works by Goldie now sell for over a million dollars each. Dare I ask “Where are they now?” 

Now here is an English translation of the Bodleian Library Oath which is at the beginning of this story. “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” (Wikipedia) Promise not to remove volumes from the library? Would any public library survive if you couldn’t borrow books and read them at home stretched out in a comfortable chair or curled up in bed on a cold winter’s night? And of course we took books home. Actually I think my mother and I probably overdid this “removing books from the library” a bit. After any new book had had its date-slip and card-pocket glued inside the front cover and it had also been stamped with “Palmerston North Public Library” in purple ink it would go straight home with us and be added to the pile of other books beside each of our chairs. 

My mother’s theory was that she couldn’t possibly recommend books to her library members unless she had first read them all herself. For her this meant all the latest crime stories and she preferred the American ones, like the those by Mickey Spillane, because they were “more spicy”. She read Robert Bloch’s “Psycho” in just one evening and startled wide eyed with fear at me when I came home and she heard me open the door and come in the room. However, I don’t ever recall her bringing home any Mills and Boon romantic novels, there was just no spice in them at all. She confided to me once that she didn’t like to read old books that had stained pages. She assumed that people had read them while eating with sticky fingers. Her actual words were “I don’t want to read a book in which someone else has used a ham sandwich for a bookmark.” Well, my mother was a vegetarian. 

Smoke in a library? No, my mother had her work ethics. She would have been a chain smoker 

 given the opportunity, but she drew the line at smoking in the library. However the first thing she did when she came home at the end of the day was to desperately light a cigarette and inhale deeply. Life was not always easy for a mother and a teenage daughter living together in such a confined space. We often got on each other’s nerves and had heated arguments, but her sense of humour and her cigarettes, “De Reszke”, named after a famous baritone, cork tipped, always helped her to solve all her problems. Over the years my mother’s smoke turned that white ceiling of our living room into a rich shade of nicotine brown.

Hardcopy held Ian Matheson City Archives (A25/1 - 2017/22)