Samoa House Library was created in response to The University of Auckland’s decision to close three specialist libraries: Fine Arts, Music and Dance, Architecture and Urban Planning. As members of ‘Save the Fine Arts Library’ campaign, we organised to raise public awareness of the decision and to halt the closures. While our campaign was successful in raising awareness and sparking public debate, on 30 August 2018 the Vice-Chancellor of The University of Auckland, Stuart McCutcheon, announced that the closures would go ahead.
We conceived of Samoa House Library as a space that could function not only as an enduring and visible act of protest, but also as a constructive alternative to the University’s financially- driven resource allocation, providing a place that embodied the values that we saw being disregarded. Most crucially, the University did not consider the value of specialist libraries as sites of community-building and peer-to-peer learning, which we consider to be at the heart of a healthy arts ecology.
Samoa House Library opened on 22 September 2018 with a few shelves and a small collection of donated books—a little over a month after we first conceived the idea of an alternative arts library. Since then, our collection has expanded to include over 4,000 items, all donated by members of the public or by arts institutions. Each book is hand-catalogued, using a system that organises the collection by donor, rather than subject matter or author. This collection forms the core of Samoa House Library; its structure is intended to reflect the preoccupations, interests and influences of our communities.
Our kaupapa recognises the importance of such a collection around which a community can cohere and develop, but from the outset we were also interested in how a library might function as a platform for developing alternative modes of thinking and learning. We recently concluded our first education program, curriculum, in which fourteen practitioners shared texts that have been pivotal to their thinking. curriculum was an attempt to displace the dominant university model of learning through a questioning of the relationship between teacher and student; the practitioners were given an open brief and we emphasised a shared approach to teaching and learning that was akin to the structure of our general meetings. Each week consisted of a Wednesday evening reading group and a Saturday discussion, using the text as a platform or springboard to discuss its broader context.
The following text is collaboratively written by members of the Samoa House Library board.
The Samoa House Library collection reflects a politics of care—a creative action driven by those affected by the loss of the libraries. What feels important now is to centre a plurality of voices—whether reserved in the pages of a book, exchanged through physical or virtual dialogue, or held in the depths of individual thought. Samoa House Library is a space built out of a desire for transformation through imagining, inclusion and participation. It feels imperative for a place like this to exist outside the mandate of the neoliberal university.
The loss of precious resources like the Elam (Fine Arts) Library was a sobering experience, one in which the implicit violence of the University revealed itself. We spent months trying to halt the closure of the libraries, many of us balancing this labour with study and work. The disappointment and fatigue we felt at the end of this process didn’t last long. The loss taught us something about the potential of our imagination; the potential to form a new collectivity through action, intuition and listening.
During ‘Save the Fine Arts Library’ (SFAL) meetings, conversations were driven by the urgency of the problem we faced. Many SFAL members were recent graduates of the Elam School of Fine Arts, which meant that the conversation often felt like an art school critique. We recognised the importance of attempting to understand the complex problem of the library closures from as many angles as possible, and trying to solve it through a diversity of tactics. We often felt that our conversations evinced the kind of criticality and sustained focus that we really missed about art school. We failed to stop the library closures, of course, but in a strange way we’re glad that we had a good reason to have these conversations as they’ve formed the foundation of our approach to learning as a collective.
This space we’ve made is an earnest assertion of value: the value of collective knowledge, safe communal space and open discourse. Taking action against the University was like negotiating a complex obstacle course in complete darkness. We were frequently met with criticisms of our naïveté and entitlement. Our open attempts to make sense, challenge or make change were patronised by university management. Secrets were kept. Timelines were not divulged. Communication was near-nonexistent.
‘Community’ is a hot word in 2019, for obvious reasons. Individualistic thinking and insularity are destructive; we do not exist in isolation. Communities develop strong roots when they converse in active and meaningful conversation and reach out to other bodies to form relationships and egalitarian support structures. There is strength, comfort and encouragement when anxieties and fears are shared. Held within one's own mind, these worries can whirl and whirl, doing irreparable damage. Community is the best response to the cold anonymity and toxicity of neoliberalism.
Books gather people in public space; they are anchor stones for communities of bodies and knowledge. The Elam School of Fine Arts library engendered so many interactions with deep human implications, felt impressions that spread out beyond the individual. It is impossible to graph this. The role of a library, then, goes beyond a collection of books. It acts as a vessel for open and shared knowledge, through the interaction of bodies, ideas, and the weight of history.
A library is often thought of as a place that encourages a solitary, silent sociality. Each reader withdrawn from the world and plunged into the sense of a text’s sentences or an image’s surface. In curriculum, this silence opened up into speech.
Texts were the medium through which we could access each experts individual experiences, the core themes they were preoccupied with and the broader critical conversations that informed their work.
Each ensuing conversation took its cues from texts that we were asked to read, giving us a way of engaging with each guest without the awkwardness of questions being put too directly — our ignorance was displaced from a general non- knowledge to a more thoughtful, specific inquiry. Our reading informed our curiosity.
A seed is not aware of its own germination
a book is not aware of the trees
and the forests sigh on the shelves
and wither without the touch of human hands
a reading group is a gentle spiral
the curl of the koru and the bend of a stem reflects the nature of soft rebels
a shape for beauty, not profit
a shape for a system that considers, not
for undirected growth
words settle on the pages, on the books, on
the shelves for the first time, like a
new seed never before seen in the
it is a new thing, an order of books collected,
a reimagining of a sleight-of-hand
trick that holds the world back from
a gated garden that grows
weeds in the fence of uncertain learning
the thoughts, words, titles, names, love, care,
support and compassion are
passed out through the city’s tongues
spreading its inky limbs, lined like foot soldiers
on a bookshelf
waiting for us to find them, sincerely,
and these words do, find us, somehow.
dog eared and weathered and organic and
dusty surviving the loss of memory
structural collapse, maybe not much to look at
broken spine and faded colours,
they find their way towards you, in this
haphazard house of books
among the waiting tomes and folded pages
the promises of a world yet unseen
let us meet here in between these white lines,
these transient alternative spaces
between one word’s ending and
another’s beginning. Might we find
the support we need.
‘What did you have for breakfast today?’
‘What’s the story behind your name?’
curriculum hosted eight reading groups in which participants collectively encountered a text chosen by one of our expert guests. We thought it was important to encounter the text on our own terms, prior to the group conversation with our guest. Each reading group met at the library on a Wednesday evening with coffee, tea and snacks. Some texts were read out loud, each participant reading until they decided to stop. Others were read in silence, with pauses to consider questions and comments. Once it was suggested to read along with and over someone reading out loud, to emphasise key points in the text.
This format—a small group, sitting on the floor, without the ‘teacher’ present—allowed for the personal or anecdotal response to a text to be immediately acknowledged and explored communally rather than solitarily. Conversation often moved away from the text itself, and in more intimate groups became a space to get to know one another. To catch up. For a library, not much ‘reading’ happens at Samoa House. People use the space to work, meet, browse, socialise, organise. These reading groups re-emphasised the social aspect of reading, reflecting how our visitors have determined to use our space: a space to share, around reading.
As of September 2019, the Samoa House Library board members are: Kathryn Aucamp, Hannah Davis-Gray, Joshua Harris-Harding, Olyvia Hong, Divyaa Kumar, Bridget Riggir-Cuddy, Shiraz Sadikeen, Tom Tuke.
Samoa House Library is an evolving alternative educational platform and fine arts library that emerged in response to the closure of the creative libraries at the University of Auckland in 2018. The library is in constant motion, built by and for our community.