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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

Creating an interest in print culture

Creating an interest in print culture

A history of the creation of interest in print culture is largely that of institutions and organisations, and thus is relatively easy for the researcher to identify and access. Two aspects seem important historically and in contemporary terms: the education system (including its encouragement of reading as a function of the basic skill of literacy), and a generally held (though increasingly contested) notion of 'culture'. That is, those values which a civilised society deems its duty to uphold, and which have historically included literature. Victorians, such as Matthew Arnold, saw literature as a moral force in a world increasingly uncertain about the security of religious faith, and the academic study of literature, new in the 19th century, took on this Messianic tinge. In Britain, movements towards universal education and in particular adult self-improvement combined both these strands—the educational and the cultural—and these values were brought to New Zealand by 19th-century immigrants, who saw and used reading as a central part of their value system.

The history and development of the public library system embodies these attitudes, and is therefore an obvious source of information. Libraries not only provide books, but historically have also developed programmes of encouragement and education aimed both at adults and children. Encouragement of membership and use, reading sessions, special promotions concerning particular books or events and the generally high profile of the library in the community are factors that contribute. Sources for the researcher are, obviously, written histories and archival material concerning individual libraries. Examples include C.W. Holgate's An Account of the Chief Libraries in New Zealand (1886), John Barr's Auckland Public Libraries 1880-1950 (1950), and Dorothy Stafford's The Library from the Sea: the Nelson Public Library 1842-1992 (1992), which contain a wealth of detail and anecdote, as well as testifying to the commitment early communities had to literary culture. Mary Ronnie's Books to the People: A History of Regional Services in New Zealand (1993) gives an overview.

There are a number of more theoretical or policy-oriented works which concern the library and its place in society: for example, McIntyre's Building the Library into the Community (1969); Cullen and Calvert's Public Library Effectiveness (1992b); O'Reilly's 'Libraries': An Exercise in Definition (1968), and Euan Miller's The Library and the Community (1973). These may be more an expression of an aspiration than a reality, but are still useful in denoting the general climate. Evidence for individual promotional efforts are more difficult to trace, but a somewhat random sample, from M.J. Edmonds's 'Children's Book Week, 20-24 August' (1956) to Woodhouse's Great Library Success Stories (1994) is indicative of activities at a local level, and more material may be available through individual archives. The New Zealand Library (now Library and Information) Association has been active in this regard, with nationally organised campaigns, reading and activities, as well as being a publisher of research material. While the latter is easily accessible, the former is harder to identify, and local archives and personal memory may be the most profitable source.

Many libraries evolved out of private institutes or societies formed in the early days of settlement for the encouragement of civilised intercourse, with their functions later superseded by or subsumed into the official public library service. Histories and archives of organisations such as the Mechanics' Institutes, and the Leys Institute, mainly relating to last century and the first part of this century, recount their history and expand upon their general philosophy. Cultural, quasi-social organisations such as the English Association also played a part. There are a number of archival and published records of such organisations which record their aspirations and achievements.

Non-government organisations with a more overtly educational bias also contributed to the creation of an interest in print culture. As mentioned, Victorian ideas of self-improvement, sometimes combined with a political, often left-wing, agenda formed the basis of adult educational movements, such as the Workers Educational Association (WEA), Mechanics' Institutes, and university extension programmes, where book groups, literary discussions and lectures were an important feature. Works such as The WEA of New Zealand: What it Is and What it Aims At (1968) deal with the aspirational base of the organisation, whereas works such as J.B. Condliffe's The Beginnings of the WEA (1968) record an anecdotal history. Rachel Barrowman's A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950 (1991) gives a broad context to the ideological basis of this movement, while histories of individual universities (for example, Keith Sinclair's History of the University of Auckland (1983) and Barrowman's forthcoming history of Victoria University of Wellington) discuss the growth of university extension and continuing education movements.

Book groups, semi-formal organisations meeting in individual members' homes to discuss a prepared book, seem to have arisen from such organisations; the WEA and university extension departments have been involved in the provision of reading lists, sets of books, study guides and advice. And there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that informal groups, based on this model but without the institutional backing, have been a feature of middle class cultural life for some time. The enormous popularity of reading is both attested to and encouraged by literary festivals such as the Women's Book Festival and the Writers and Readers Week component of the Wellington International Festival of the Arts. Ann Mallinson's Recollections of Five Festivals (1996) gives an account of the latter, while in-house and archival memory of those involved in the former is a source to be tapped.

Government patronage of the arts has been organised around the Arts Council, previously the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, now Creative New Zealand, and there is a large body of material, both descriptive and philosophical, which has resulted in the Council's responsibility towards encouragement of print culture. Some of this energy has been directed towards writers and thus is only indirectly within the ambit of this discussion, and, in general terms, in the absence of any in-house history, the researcher will have to rely on archival material. But there is a great deal of material dealing with specific initiatives. There are strategic plans and policy discussion documents, such as The What and Why, Who and How of the Arts Council (1968); Policy into Action: the Seventies (1970); A Policy for the Arts (1973); The Arts Council in the Community 1981-88 (1988). The Arts Council has commissioned research in the area of print culture, such as the 1993 Research Report on the Literature Programme: Publishers' Survey (and complementary . . . Writers' Survey); the purpose of the research is often polemical, as in New Zealand's Best Kept Secret: The Arts (1995), a collection of facts and figures which show the depth and breadth of New Zealanders' involvement in the arts and the impact arts have on everyday life. The Arts Council also supported a number of periodicals: The Arts in Education News-sheet, the Pacific Island News-Sheet, The Arts Advocate, and Arts Times promoting its work, and culture generally in the community.

What is not recorded is the contentious area of the Arts Council's role as arbiter and also, in a sense, as creator of a distinctive New Zealand culture. Debates over who gets funding for what are associated with the aims and outcomes of creating an interest in print culture, but can probably only be approached through the institutional memory of the participants, and its occasional overflow on to the pages of the newspapers.

Literary prizes, and patronage generally, have long been a means of enhancing the status of and thereby the interest in literature, and are discussed in more detail in the following section of this chapter. Exhibitions play a similar role by publicising aspects of print culture, whether it be reading or literature, as well as forming a historical record of past attitudes. Descriptive catalogues are sometimes available for the researcher, e.g. New Old Books: An Exhibition of Recent Additions to the de Beer Collection (1996), Working Titles: Books that Shaped New Zealand (1993), and Fabulous and Familiar: Children's Reading in New Zealand Past and Present (1991). Travelling exhibitions have disseminated materials to provincial areas and the Book Council has been active in this respect, often in cooperation with the public library system: examples include 'A Library Exhibition of New Zealand Poetry' (1976) and 'A Library Exhibition of Small Presses in New Zealand' (1977). The National Library has recently also become active in this area, with its Carnegie Libraries exhibition currently on tour. Evidence of earlier events of this kind are, again, likely to be found in archival and local newspaper records.

The New Zealand Book Council is an organisation overtly dedicated to the promotion of interest in print culture, and has exercised a widespread influence. It has functioned in a number of areas, well represented by archival and published material. Founded in 1972 as part of Unesco's International Book Year, its first brochure stated its aims as 'to encourage the wider use, ownership and enjoyment of books; to encourage research into all aspects of book publication and distribution; to encourage increased provision of books by public authorities of all kinds' (Booknotes, no.117, Autumn 1997). Its first major initiative was Operation Book Flood in 1973, an exercise carried out in association with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Two Auckland schools notable for low rates of literacy were 'flooded' with over 500 books, and the resulting effects on literacy and reading skills monitored (see Elley, Cowrie and Watson's 1975 interim assessment).

This set the tone for the Council's role as a publisher of research papers backgrounding print culture and its various manifestations. The Changing Shape of Books: A Collection of Papers Presented at a Seminar Held at Victoria University September 15-16 1973 (1974) summarises the Council's approach. Other Council publications have provided a focus on individual authors, for example Lynley Dodd Talks About her Books (1990). The Writers in Schools scheme is typical of Book Council initiatives; an explanatory booklet (1993) sets out its parameters with the Arts Council. The Writers Visiting Prison project, described in an explanatory handbook (Penny Mahy, 1995), is another. More generally, the Book Council has fostered regard for books and reading in publications such as Brian Brooks's New Zealand Community (1973), 'a list of books which contributors believed had the greatest influence on their lives and their community at large'.

The Book Council has also been active in promoting commissioned research associated with the promotion of print culture, such as Esslemont's Survey of Book Buyers in New Zealand (1979) and the supplementary pamphlet Book buyers . . . published in the same year. Some of this work has been done in cooperation with the trade, such as Maconie's Survey of Teenage Reading (1969). It has contributed to general social debates, as in Books You Couldn't Buy: Censorship in New Zealand, by C.E. Beeby (1981). The Book Council's quarterly members' newsletter Booknotes (originally Book Counsel) contains a range of material relevant to print culture, reading and the literary scene, and thus both promotes and records initiatives in these areas of interest.

A recent non-institutional initiative, author Alan Duff's Books in Homes scheme, also suggests the link between literacy and the promotion of reading. Begun in March 1994, and supported subsequently by government funding, private sector sponsorship and philanthropy, Books in Homes has similarities to the Book Council's Operation Book Flood of the 1970s. In an effort to encourage both literacy and an appreciation of books and reading, 110,000 books have so far been distributed to 111 primary schools for individual pupils to keep. The textbook publisher Scholastic is associated with the project, supplying the books at cost.

The extent to which the 'self-interest' of purely commercial activities are included here is an interesting question. The publishing industry and bookselling trade may promote themselves from purely profit-oriented motives, but thereby also promote an interest in print culture. Early Whitcombe & Tombs catalogues, primarily pieces of advertising, nonetheless included short essays on literature: on 'New Zealand authorship' by A.H. Grinling in the 1927 catalogue, and 'A survey of the Dominion's productions' by H.H. Driver in 1930. Whitcombe's Monthly Review of Literature, which became Books of Today, appeared from the early 1930s until 1970. Public occasions such as book signings, involvement in book festivals, and cooperation with radio and television book programmes are also relevant. A number of organisations have been associated with the book trade: the Book Publishers Association of New Zealand, the Association of Booksellers of New Zealand (now Booksellers New Zealand), the New Zealand Book Trade Organisation. Many of these have produced trade periodicals, such as The Publisher and New Zealand Publishing News, and also publications of more general interest, such as the New Zealand Book Publishers Association and the Association of Booksellers' Books of the Year (1964-67), or the Dunedin Publishers Association's Books in Dunedin (1949-62). The Wellington bookseller Roy Parsons published Parsons Packet, part catalogue, part review journal, from 1947 until 1955 of which a selection edited by Parsons and Bridget Williams appeared in 1984.

As a part of their protection of their industry trade organisations have taken part in debates over issues central to print culture, e.g. censorship and import controls, leaving published and archival records. Market research into aspects of readership has often gone ahead with the industry's support, providing useful statistical data and reference resources such as New Zealand Books in Print (1957- ).

The newspaper industry is an obvious subject for investigation, both in itself—as a transmitter of print culture—but also in the more specifically literary context in promoting book reviews, book pages, literary competitions, and literary advertising. Dennis McEldowney's (1991) and Mark Williams's (forthcoming) chapters on literary patronage and literary criticism in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English are relevant here. There are also a number of local histories of individual newspapers, such as: 100 Years of News: As Presented by the New Zealand Herald 1863-1963 (1963); 120 Years, 1866-1986: The Nelson Evening Mail (1986); 100 Years of Newspapers in Dannevirke (1988). While largely anthologies without any commentary or argument, both point to a body of significant potential research materials.

There is a close relationship between the encouragement of interest in print culture and the education system, which cannot simply confine itself to the mechanics of literacy, but has always seen a responsibility for the more general promotion of reading as a desirable social activity. Organisations such as the Children's Literature Association of New Zealand have concentrated on providing teachers with resource materials with which to encourage reading: publications such as Gilderdale and Bowden's World Beyond World (1976); McLaren and Fitzgibbon's New Zealand Picture Books (1979); Brenda Knight's Teenread '85 and In and Out of Time (both 1985); and McLaren's New Zealand Books for Children (1980).

An area where there is little material concerns the history of readership. Australian research which provides fruitful models for New Zealand includes works such as 'The colonial reader observed' and 'Libraries' in The Book in Australia (1988), 'Books, readers and reading' in Australian Cultural History (1992), and Books, Libraries and Readers in Colonial Australia (1985). Dulcie Gillespie-Needham's 1971 PhD thesis 'The colonial and his books: a study of reading in 19th-century New Zealand' is one of few local studies, while Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa's Australian Readers Remember (1992) suggests a promising but as yet untapped source of material in this area—that of oral history.

Autobiography, biography and personal reminiscence are also a source in this area, whether of such people directly associated with books and reading such as Phoebe Meikle, Dorothy Butler, and Alan Duff, and those of teachers, librarians and booksellers. In general, any autobiography or biography of any literate New Zealander is also a potential source as they inevitably encounter print culture.

Implied in much of this material is a consensus of what constitutes the literate and cultured citizen, and a history of trade and institutional cooperation in pursuit of this commonly agreed good. This is unlikely to be a feature of the future, as a society of far more disparate and contestable values emerges—one in which ethnicity, gender, and class challenge the consensus. Popular culture will similarly question and challenge the notions of high culture implicit in the last century and a half's attitudes towards readership.