Samoa House Library:An inner city library for the people
By Briar Pomana (she/her)
I still remember my first trip up to Sāmoa House Library. My friend Mugiho showed me the spot after a casual day of loitering on Karangahape Road. She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of the place. Mugiho and I have always bonded over our shared love of reading and art. We often meet at the Auckland Art Gallery and have a wander before sipping on what is normally an overpriced iced chai. This time though, I was intrigued immediately at the name of the library - Sāmoa House? What did that reference to? Was this a spot for young moana-centric creatives and learners like myself? I was brimming with anticipation. Mugiho assured me that the stairs leading up to the library were worth it.
We trudged along in our second-hand leather boots, tote bags falling off our heaved shoulders with each flight. When we finally arrived I looked at Mugiho with ambiguity. From the outside, it looked like a typical office in the city. It was dark and dingy with the only light source emanating from the inside of an old door. Under normal circumstances, and if I had been alone, chances are I probably would’ve left after the first flight of stairs. But Mugiho entered and so did I. The space was glorious! A few folks were lounged out on bean bags discussing some worldly matters. A few were at old desks by the front window, writing as if their lives depended on it, and everywhere, with shelves buckling under the enormous weight, were books. As all wanderers in a place like this do, I traced my fingers along their spines. Some seemed to tingle at the touch. I headed straight to their Māori literature section and noticed some familiar covers. Their names called me toward them like pōwhiri. Mugiho and I exchanged giggles at the treasure trove and continued with our independent curiosity.
Sāmoa House Library seemed like the kind of place you’d choose as the backdrop in a screenplay. Where a lowly writer girl with mousey features (but at the same time with somewhat of a sexual presence) would come with her reusable jar of cold brew coffee to write an unsuccessful manuscript. This is not so far-fetched. There might be a weekly crew that would meet frequently after a long day at work, or failed relationships to debrief over cheap beer and pizza amongst the mountains of literature. The library was a kaleidoscope of quotes and theories. It seemed like a safe place for girls with buzzed hair and boys with soft hands. Where notebooks could finally be filled and those who were lonely could take a lowly nap.
The library is a relatively new addition to Karangahape Road. It was founded after the proposed closure of Elam’s Fine Arts Library in 2018. Opened in 1950, Elam itself is a school known for its uber-cool students that hang out in packs, leaning against bus stops and hole- in-the-wall bars. Famous artists that have come out of the institute include Michael Parekōwhai, Rita Angus, James Lowe and Lynley Dodd to name a few. It is an epicentre for those who are daring enough to dream and create. The library at the school was high up in the trees behind St Paul's Church on Symonds Street. Guarded by a dramatically steep hill, the school and its students are a reminder of the immense talent that lurks in our country.
When word got out that their beloved library would face closure, students, alumni and staff took action immediately. I can actually remember signing a few ‘Keep our Library Alive’ petitions on the corner of Wellesley and Symonds by the traffic lights one day after a Māori media class. For those that rallied, the closure of the library was just another erasure of the arts. Funny how even a whole arts school, the importance of which I would argue is a fundamental part of our national identity, can be sidelined. Interestingly, the original Elam Library was home to the biggest collection of fine arts books and texts in the southern hemisphere. For some, closing the library was a clear indication that research conducted by fine arts students was not to the same calibre as other degrees. Bullshit. Initial murmurings of what would happen to the multitude of texts and resources were rather uncertain.
Among the suggestions was the idea that if the books that were not wanted at the main University of Auckland library, they would be shredded and disposed of. Of course, this is a nightmare for any book lover. But it wasn’t just book lovers who were distraught over this decision. Understandably, it felt like an entire community was losing something of immense value and beyond monetary gain. Once the decision was made by the University of Auckland to close the library, social media flooded with commentary in favour of keeping the building and the books. The University of Auckland dismissed these, stating their indifference from the outset. It seemed something important, but on the fringes, was lost - once again at the hands of institutes and people in power.
Salene Schloffel-Armstrong, an urban geographer who specialises in public library spaces, wrote the following in the Pantograph Punch, one year following the closure of the Elam library and encapsulates beautifully the story of transition from once space to another: “In imagining a future for Sāmoa House Library, I thought it may prove useful to situate the University of Auckland library closures and the subsequent emergence of this new space against a backdrop of global trends... There are numerous examples globally of libraries being embraced and recognised as contemporary community spaces, and these projects may illuminate a range of possible futures for Sāmoa House Library.” It would be foolish to not mention the liminality of Sāmoa House Library. The community that wraps itself around this ‘office space’ of old books and bean bags is what makes this library feel like home for so many artists, organisers and book junkies. Without the support of its volunteers and imagined/not-imagined group of friends that end up lounging in its bookshelves, the space would not be half as great as it is. Sāmoa House library is what all libraries hope they can be: a lighthouse.