Never judge a book by its cover or a library by its exterior. I grew up near a small town in Northern Ireland called Downpatrick which had a library that was never going to make any ‘beautiful public libraries’ tumblr lists. Brown in colour and brutalist in its architectural ‘style’, the outside of the library gave little clue to its wonders I found within. I can trace my life’s reading trajectory to that library, graduating from picture books to Enid Blyton, to a brilliant but now-little remembered series called ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators’, to Alastair McLean, to Stephen King, books that explained Northern Ireland’s tangled history as well as the world beyond my town. When visiting last year, I took my eldest son, Charlie, and my youngest nephew, Finn, into the library and smiled as they dove merrily into the big pile of children books located just where they’d always been.
For the last four months I’ve been in Bougainville, a set of islands on the farthest outskirts of Papua New Guinea. Just like Northern Ireland, Bougainville is slowly but steadily recovering from its own conflicts and divisions. Its conflict formed the backdrop to Lloyd Jones’s wonderful and intensely moving, Mr Pip, a book about an inspirational teacher and the transformative powers of a book. Bougainvilleans themselves are writing about their experiences. Leonard Fong Roka’s vivid memoirs about his experiences during the conflict pack the emotional punch of a pile-driver.
Most of the time I’ve been in Buka, a small sleepy town of a few thousand people. The internet is lousy, my TV selection makes me want to hum the Bruce Springsteen song about ’57 channels and nothing on’ and I’m glad I brought lots of books to keep me company.
On my final day, I discovered a library. I’d driven past the place almost every day, not knowing what was located within. Perched atop a hill is a decommissioned old fuel depot. There’s a house behind the chain-link fence, a rusty old oil tank and sets of concrete steps leading to nothing more than thin air as if in search of a metaphor for something.
Inside is Buka’s first public library.
The place is called the Unity Library, and it is the initiative of an Australian called Lesley Palmer. Over the last year or so, Lesley together with a small team of Carol Harris, Judith Bona and Deborah Mumia has assembled over a thousand books, rigged up some posters and created an enclave of wonder and imagination. She’s tracked down some of the books on Bougainville’s recent history, including its part in the Second World War in the Pacific. I’d read one of the books already, a gritty military history about the Americans and Australians. It’s how I learned that Bob Hope visited Bougainville and the American troops created baseball diamonds out of the jungle.
The library is still a work-in-progress but Lesley has big plans and she needs help to realise them. She needs atlases, dictionaries and she’d like to stock more books about Bougainville so that Bougainvilleans can get the opportunity to learn more about their own history. We talked about getting some authors to come up and do some workshops on writing and literature.
I’ve paid my membership fee, have my library card and looking forward to going back. I’m out of PNG for the month and am going to bring her back some books to fill out the shelves even more.
Got ideas about supporting Buka’s library? Drop me or Lesley(firstname.lastname@example.org) a line and check out facebook.com/unitylibrarybuka