Life on the other side

Karleen Fraser has retired from Tauranga Library after 34 years serving the reading needs of the region’s residents. Photo: Bruce Barnard.

She’s only been retired for three weeks, but there’s a lot to get used to for 74-year-old Karleen Fraser.

The backpack that she used to carry her good shoes, cardigan, book and lunch to work on the bus has gone – replaced with a soft, black leather handbag. It hasn’t grown on her yet, and she touches it frequently to make sure it’s still there.

After 34 years of sharing her love of books and reading with the region’s residents, Karleen has closed the chapter on her career as a librarian at Tauranga Library.

She never imagined being a librarian. She was working in an administration role at Tauranga City Council in the early 1980s when it underwent a restructure and she was offered the job of driving the mobile library bus.

“My reply to that was ‘I don’t particularly like librarians and I don’t like libraries’,” she says, “but I was willing to give anything a go.”

A few weeks later she had her heavy vehicle licence and was on the road, taking books out into communities, including schools and rest homes, for the next seven years.

“I just loved it.” Among the many quirky stories she has about her stint on the mobile library bus is the day she dozed off in the back while parked outside Matua School waiting for a class visit.

“I had about quarter-of-an-hour to wait and I must have dropped off while reading a book. Next minute I hear the van start up and it drove off. I had a panic button on but I was so scared I didn’t push it. We didn’t go far and then the driver got out, shut the door and walked off.”

It turns out the bus was blocking access for a truck that needed to get into the school so the driver, not realising Karleen was in the back, found the keys in the ignition and simply moved it further down the road.

Following another restructure, Karleen found herself working in the library itself, issuing and returning books and dealing with enquiries from the public.

“I love working with the public and I’ve made so many friends. I also love the comradeship of our library team – it was really special.”

Karleen has had her fair share of interviews with local media over the years, including a story about the unusual bookmarks she has found in books returned to the library.

“There’s been bacon rind, condoms (wrapped) and toilet paper - that’s quite a common one - or used serviettes. One day I opened an expensive art book in the reference section and someone had squashed a meat pie in a brown paper bag in between the pages.” The vandalism of books makes her understandably cross.

Karleen started at the library not long after it moved from a card catalogue to a database catalogue and has seen many changes in technology over the years.

“We don’t fill out membership forms any more – it’s all done online.” Karleen’s favourite technology is the self-issue machines.

“It took a long time for people to get used to them, particularly older people, and some people would still rather come up to the desk and have someone issue their books. It’s a way for them to share their news and we enjoy a natter with them too.”

Today’s libraries are hustling, bustling places where you’re unlikely to be told to ‘shush’, but it wasn’t always like that, says Karleen.

“The library was a much quieter place when I first started, but now we have children’s programmes, toddler time and school visits. It’s lovely. It’s rowdy, there’s laughter, there’s kids, there’s singing. When I was shelving in the children’s section I’d start singing the songs: ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’,” she laughs.

To those who say libraries have had their day, Karleen says: “Rubbish!

“More and more people come into the library to use the computers for research, use wi-fi and take advantage of scanning, photocopying and printing services. There are many, many clubs and groups and, of course, they still get a tremendous amount of books out.

“Books are personal. I like to snuggle down with a book and get into it. I understand why people want to take Kindles away with them because they are little and light, but I don’t think we will ever be without libraries.”

The decision to retire this year was a tough one for Karleen.

“It was stressful. I was sad but I thought ‘I’m 74, I better retire before I haven’t got any life left’.”

The death of her son-in-law, Mount Mainstreet manager Peter Melgren, last year, closely followed by a diagnosis of myeloid leukaemia for her grandson Sheldon, also put things in perspective.

Retirement means more time to spend with family, including husband Keith and her blue Abyssinian cat Cruse, as well as gardening, reading and travel.

She’s adjusting to not having to get up early to catch the bus to work, carrying around her faithful backpack, and not having the same lunch she took to work every day for 34 years – a Vegemite sandwich, a banana and three rice thins.

Karleen would arrive early to work each day, walking around the library and turning on the computers before sitting down with a book and waiting for her colleagues to arrive.

“I would sit on the kids’ two-seater settee with a cup of coffee and a book. It was my quiet, special time.”

In a farewell tribute to her in their current newsletter, library staff describe Karleen as having a big smile and a cheeky sense of humour. They recall her being “slightly accident-prone; incidents like falling off the bus or wearing two completely different shoes to work were no surprise when they came from Karleen.”

She admits to a few stumbles on the way to work, usually with her backpack up over her head.

The backpack has been retired now too, replaced by a handbag at the insistence of her daughter.

“I keep forgetting about it. Sometimes I take my wallet out and leave it on the seat of the car. I’m very aware of it now,” she laughs.