Auckland was terrific. That city is definitely much closer to the equator; we had lovely hot, sunny days. And I found a new hobby.

On the Monday morning after Ben left for his conference, I walked up to Academy Cinema, an art house theater housed in the basement of Auckland Central Library on Lorne Street, to check their schedule. They were showing Flight of the Red Balloon, the original Red Balloon, and Prag around 12, 2.30 and 4PM. Check; it was still before 9.30.

I saw in the library window a book which had a terrific review in the NZ Listener; I recognized the cover. It's called "Real Gold", and highlights some of the gems residing in the back rooms of the Special Collections of the library, such items as old letters, paintings and drawings, photographs, maps and manuscripts. I got to talking to the consierge who encouraged me to go upstairs to see these. I hesitated, because I've never been inside any special areas in any library, ever, and I felt intimidated. But what the heck, the worst they can do is to tell me I can't see them, so I took a deep breath and went in. It turned out they love being asked, and one librarian in particular asked about my interests, and picked out two books, in addition to the 15C French manuscript I was interested in in the first instance. She explained to me how "Real Gold" came about, and told me about some of the other treasures in the book. We discussed technology and archival methods. And then she went back to fetch the three volumes for me.

The first book was Auguste Racinet's "Polychromatic Ornament", 1877, published in London. It's a collection of design resources/styles from ancient Egypt to China to Middle Ages with color plates depicting typical designs from each era and area. The book was huge, and heavy, but I didn't need gloves for this one, and I was allowed to photograph the pages. I was completely transported in time and place with each different section. I always knew I loved Persian use of plants and vines, but I witnessed how elements from Greece, Persia and even Celtic Knots crept into the West European Middle Ages. It was particularly fun to see how suddenly the colors became brighter after the discovery of Pompey.

The second book was called "A Catalogue of Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook", 1787. They were tiny swatches, about 10 cm by 10 cm, of tapa cloths from the Pacific, and some were in frailer states than others, but some still kept their brilliant reds and browns and blacks, remaining astonishingly vivid.

The last was the "Missale Romanum", a manuscript of the mass procedures book from Eastern France, 1471. (It broght me memories of total boredom around Easter when mass took up half of my life. I was also reminded of how nothing much seemed to happen between Easter and Christmas.)

When I was a junior in high school, I did a paper on Celtic manuscripts, and I got carried away and copied a complete page with the fancy capital letters. I always wanted to see something like this, but didn't think to go look for them in Ireland in 2003.

So the librarian and I talked about this, and she brought out the best one (pre-printing, so everything was done manually, whereas later ones were printed and colored in, and even later the designs became simpler) with the most amazing miniatures (that's what they call the illustrations regardless of the size). Some paint pigments had faded a little, but the gold was still as thick as the day it was painted. There is a good photograph of one of the miniatures in "Real Gold", but like any painting, no matter how good the photograph, there is absolutely no comparison to the original.

Special Collections has a blog of their own, called Rare Thoughts, but it appears you need an Auckland Library card number to create and account and comment. What a mind-blowingly fabulous experience. I think this might become a new hobby, to visit these special areas in libraries and view old treasures.

Four and a half hours later, I came out of the library feeling like I had just jumped off a time machine. I had a late lunch, and visited Parsons art book shop, and the neighboring Pathfinder bookshop, but these modern books looked so flat and uninteresting I couldn't stand them, so I bought a coconut soap at Lush, went back to the hotel, and had a good soak and doodled.

There were a dozen or so more books I would have loved to have viewed, but I was a little embarrassed about taking up so much of their time I decided to save it until the next time I'm in Auckland.

And the rest of the week proceeded uncharacteristically in-the-moment; I ignored my To Do list; I didn't go to all of my usual haunts, and I didn't even go to Auckland Museum. (I usually spend half a day in the Pacific Room and a couple of hours in their tiny Holocaust room.) I was hoping to go to a couple of art supply shops, but didn't. Instead, I spent an hour each morning in the sauna of the hotel, thinking about the pages I saw, just trying to remember them. Much in the same way I used to recount every second of a date the days that followed.

I did go see Flight of the Red Balloon, which was beautiful. I did check out seven bookshops, some twice, and I found some very interesting stuff on art theory, but I didn't have a serious appetite for them, because it seemed a thousand, or even ten-thousand, words, just don't compare with the experience of viewing one page of the Missal, or one design in Racinet, in person. And for free.

Auckland was terrific.

(Carol of Barnacle Goose Paperworks, you must give the Special Collections a go the next time you're in Auckland. I was thinking the whole time how you might find the experience rewarding, though I can well imagine you'd have more old books in Oz. The librarians in Auckland can also tell you about how Volume II of the Missal came apart, and how they had it mended.)


  1. Sounds like it was a fantastic trip -- wish I could have come along! I'm definitely hoping to get to NZ in the next few years. Wanna be my tour guide?

  2. Of course, I do, Connie. And by then they will be so familiar with me at Special Collections, we can just walk in and see some great stuff! And Auckland Museum, and .....


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