• Helen Woodhouse in her happy place in the library - the reference section.
  • Helen Woodhouse is often found at the upstairs help desk in Takapuna Library.

Helen Woodhouse and the magic of happenstance

Lifelong Learning Interview

Helen Woodhouse had never planned to be a librarian. Yet she was awarded the Fellowship of LIANZA (Library and Information Association of Aotearoa New Zealand) in 2010 for significant influence and leadership in New Zealand's literary heritage, and is highly regarded as manager at Takapuna Library and in literary circles.

Helen has worked in Takapuna library for more than three decades. But who would have thought, as Helen started what’s been an action-packed career, that libraries would transform from book repositories to multi-faceted centres of the community and lifelong learning?

Helen exudes enthusiasm for her chosen career. She has a particular love of research which dates back to when she was a student working part time at Napier City Library, then in the textbook section of Whitcombe & Tombs, and later at Victoria University in Wellington. But her interests and energy extend far wider.

She’s had some extraordinary mentors along the way, and names of literary luminaries flit through our conversation, illustrating her genius for making connections and grabbing opportunities as they arise.

One of her early mentors was Maurice Gee who was city librarian in Napier when Helen was a student. “I didn’t know he was a writer,” she confesses. “In fact I didn’t know there were New Zealand writers, except perhaps Katherine Mansfield. I saw In My Father’s Den on the shelves but I didn’t read it – it felt like it would be intruding on a personal memoir. It was only later that I started avidly reading New Zealand writers.”

It’s a nice irony then, that she was nominated for the LIANZA Fellowship by the Society of Authors for her support of New Zealand writers, among other things.

Helen’s positive and proactive approach to making things happen was influenced by other librarians she worked under – and by the owner of a health food shop she once worked in. She credits him with some of her “can-do” approach to life and work. “He had a vision and went for it,” she says. “I learnt how to put ideas into practice, and that if you want something to happen, you make it happen, and don’t let small imperfections get in the way.” It’s an approach she’s taken into her library work, where she’s been behind the success of the Friends of Takapuna Library, the North Shore Libraries Foundation and a number of other initiatives.

Helen’s interest is in research but her focus has always been on connecting with and helping people.  What has driven her as a librarian is “the people. I love being in the community, getting to know all the links and growing connections within it. That adds layers of quality [to what you can achieve].”

In early part time jobs, she loved helping students find the right book for their needs. “People were quite scared of the library,” she remembers. “There was a feeling that librarians were the guardians of all knowledge – and I wanted to make them comfortable.” Little wonder then, that the sole mis-step in her career was a back-room position at The Alexander Turnbull Library as a serials cataloguer. The best part of that job was “tracking down when a serial changed its name so I could ring and talk to someone!” she laughs.

She arrived in Auckland in her late 20s, and joined Takapuna library (pre-super city, and pre-local body amalgamation) in 1984. She asserts that the “huge” interview panel at Takapuna only employed her because she held an HT licence. “When I mentioned that, I saw their eyes light up,” she laughs. “They liked me because I could be a girl Friday.” It was then a relatively small stand-alone library and she had to be able to do everything, including (as the North Shore was then the hub of publishing in the country) going on book buying expeditions to the publishers. “I loved that!”

Later, with Takapuna part of a larger North Shore City network of libraries, she was involved in major projects like computerisation of the library, and the building of a new library.

“What I’ve loved is the happenstance; the things that can happen if you are open to possibilities.” Which of course Helen is. She says she’s not creative – but if an idea is mentioned, she’s not only able to “bunny-hop” it (as she describes it) into something bigger; she’s also often been the one to make it happen. She modestly refers to it as “the magic that happens with other people on board”.

The North Shore Libraries Foundation was conceived by City Librarian Geoff Chamberlin as a fundraising entity to provide funds for “over and above things” for the relatively cash-strapped North Shore libraries. But it was Helen who for a decade drove the Celebrity Debates that raised the bulk of the funds.

The debates started one library week, the theme of which was the ‘The Great TV Turnoff’. Helen thought, why not do a debate, and invited high profile celebrities to take part. The first was held in the library; over time they grew in stature and popularity until they packed out the Bruce Mason Centre, and were recorded live for Radio New Zealand. That decade of debates, says Helen, was “all a bit wild and wonderful”.

“Sometimes it’s easier to say no. I could have said no [to running the debates]. But if you say yes, all sorts of other connections open up,” she says, succinctly summarising her approach to work and life.

The Foundation continues to play a valuable role for libraries on the Shore. The first fundraising paid for the digitisation of the libraries’ New Zealand photographic collections. More recently the Foundation has paid for things like the Jeff Thompson sculpture and the Trubridge furniture at Birkenhead Library, and the repositioning of the Barry Brickell tiles in the new Devonport library. It is currently working on a project for Glenfield Library.

Helen also pushed Geoff Chamberlin's Friends of the Library concept to build networks within and around the library. And she conceived and organised authors’ evenings at Takapuna library, demonstrating conclusively at the first event that such events could draw a crowd and sell local authors’ books.

It was these events, “happenstance”, and connections that she made along the way that led to her close involvement with and respect from the literary community. Helen says that all started when publisher Christine Cole Catley asked if the library could hold the key to the Sargeson house so prospective visitors had a convenient local pick-up point. “Through showing willing”, Helen was invited to join the Trust, on which she still sits. Through the Trust, where she was for a time the only trustee who didn’t know Frank Sargeson, she met up with Michael King who was also on the Sargeson Trust and whom she’d known at university. Later, this connection led to her becoming involved in establishing the Michael King Writers Centre, from which she has only recently stepped down.

Outside library work, Helen also worked as a researcher on specialist topics for Mastermind. That was an “amazing” experience, she says. Not only did she enjoy the excitement of television in its heyday, but she also learned much about question writing: questions had to be graded easy, medium and hard, they had to be of specific lengths, and every question had to be reference checked from three sources. Helen sat in on filming so that if any answer was challenged by contestants, she could cite the references used. “It was such fun,” she says.

She has also been involved in the Auckland Writers Festival, the Montana Book Awards, has sat on a panel for Book Reviewer of the Year, and was one of the early movers in the fight to save the Lake House.

Libraries have of course changed during Helen’s career. The biggest change, she says, is “the one you never dreamed of. When I arrived at Takapuna we couldn’t imagine that people could access their libraries from their home or that people from London could ask us to do research on a family from the North Shore.”

Libraries, she says, “got into the internet very early”. In the early 1980s, at Auckland Library, Helen was trained in Boolean searching – very early computerised searching. As an aside, she mentions that she wanted to call one of the celebrity debates ‘The internet highway leads nowhere’ but the idea was rejected on the grounds that no one would know what the internet highway was. Such was the speed of change, she says, that by the time the debate took place, they almost certainly would have understood the reference.

Balancing the greater use of technology is the move for libraries to become more community oriented; to draw people in for books or research, but also offer programmes co-designed for and by the community. Isolation and loneliness are increasing issue in contemporary society. “That’s where there is a need; that’s our future,” says Helen. She sees “lovely opportunities” for the library to work with other organisations.

The moves to community involvement are evident in all North Shore libraries – daytime book group discussions; Rhymetime sessions in Korean at Glenfield library; Tea and Topics talks at East Coast Bays, or coding sessions for kids and teens Devonport to name just a few. At Takapuna regular events that celebrate local writers and new books are complemented by exhibitions, collaboration with community in the recent Intergenerational Dialogue or Korean tea ceremony, and, currently, running Tech Time classes covering cybersecurity and making the most of your smartphone. These classes may be about “digitally enabling people” but they crucially also provide opportunities for people to connect with others.

“Libraries have always moved with the times,” says Helen. “They are now books-plus. We are more than just a repository for books, and we’ve tried to be more and more encompassing and open. People come in for information that is much broader than books, and we offer access to information in whatever form.”