Gezelligheid is a Dutch word that does not directly translate into English. It is a rather abstract sensation of individual wellbeing that is shared with others; a positive atmosphere, flow, or vibe that warms personal encounters. Time spent at the family bach, a cozy cafe with old friends, or a crowded pub during an All Blacks match may conjure this elusive quality of warm togetherness. Or you may even find yourself like me, feeling a bit gezellig after spending time at the local library.

I’d never really noticed it before, but libraries are community hotspots. New immigrants popping in to get help printing out forms, job seekers spending time on the computers, young children learning to read for the first time, homeless people finding shelter on a stormy day, and busy office folks dashing in after work to pick up a pre-ordered book. There are travellers skyping loved ones on the wifi, kids racing each other to the library after school to use the iPads, and old men spread out in a sunny corner with the daily newspaper. Art students lugging home giant volumes of Dali, Twombley, and Monet while first time mothers juggle a screaming baby and a handful of parenting guide books. And by the door, a policewoman stopping by to look for a young kid who has run away from school, and a sad little boy hanging up a poster for his missing cat.

Librarians know that people in their particular neighbourhood are more likely to get out recipe books and biographies than books about philosophy. They know that Lucy has been waiting for the latest book of that series to come out, and that Mr Pierce would just love this book that just arrived. They also know that the man mumbling to himself in the corner is a patient from the mental hospital up the road because they see him every week, and they know that Mrs. Turner is now bedridden, so leave her pre-ordered books on the bottom shelf on Tuesday, because her son with the bad back will come by to pick them up.

Historic Exterior
Auckland Weekly News, 30 March 1905, ref AWNS-19050330-11-5, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

In a public library, it doesn’t matter how you look or where you’re from, or even if you have a library card—you are welcome. And for a brief time as you bury your head in a book amongst a small crowd of strangers, differences don’t seem to matter so much in the silence. These unique community spaces were not formed by accident, but are the result of intentional design, formed by people who saw the needs around them and left a legacy still enjoyed by local  people today.

At a time when New Zealand society was more formally divided into classes, a young man with a love of reading dreamed of a place to be shared by all. William Leys was eleven years old when his family moved to Auckland in 1863. He grew up in the Ponsonby area and started a book binding business at age 20, giving away the first 100 pounds he earned to a family member in need. With a “simple hearted desire to make his life of service to the community in which he lived,” he wondered how despite advances in industry, the poor seemed to struggle more than ever. In 1893 he wrote a pamphlet about the social benefits of the pension which circulated the country, and Prime Minister Seddon credited the popularity of this campaign as part of the successful introduction of the Old Age Pension Act in New Zealand.

William’s last letters were filled with concern for the troubled youth of Ponsonby. Children finished school by age 12 and had begun to frequent the local pub known as the ‘Gluepot’. Without education or resources to continue their learning, they became trapped in a cycle of poverty. William Leys dreamed of a community space that could extend educational, social, and recreational privilege to the local people. But before his dreams were realised he died in 1899 at 47, on his way to England to address his ill health.

The Institute and surrounding community progressed through times of great adversity.

Upon his death, William’s younger brother, Thomson W. Leys, used his network of influence as the co-owner and editor of the Auckland Star to gather support for the idea. William had left his small estate to this purpose, and, with a group of generous private donations and a gift of land from the Auckland Council, the Leys’ Institute opened its doors five years after his death. At the opening day ceremony, T.W. Leys made a speech celebrating the life of his brother, and the dream of the public library and institute he had bequeathed: “Intellectual culture is not the only end which we intend this institution to serve. We desire to minister to human needs, which are not less important.”

The Leys’ Institute hoped to meet these needs, by providing a place of belonging, stimulation, safety and opportunity to the local youth, opening up a gymnasium and meeting rooms for all people  to enjoy.

Although there was a five pound fine for breaking the silence in the reading room, a separate desk for women, and men had to take their hats off inside, it was a space to be shared by all. Children were free to come, use the gymnasium, and take lessons in the hall. There was an annual membership fee to borrow books from the library, but no cost to use the books in the reading room. No political or religious meetings were allowed to be held in the lecture rooms, and in a time where communist ideals and the divide between Catholics and Anglicans was enough to exile families from one another, a public space that welcomed people regardless of affiliation was radical.

The Institute hosted the Literacy and Debating Class, Shakespeare and Rhetoric Club, Chess Club, Football Club, and Camera Club, and T.W. Leys himself was president of the Ponsonby Boys Brass Band, which toured the country in the summer of 1922-23. Each year, a well-loved series of ‘winter lectures’ took place, and a wall underneath the library features hundreds of signatures of some of the regulars and visitors who took the podium, which in later  years included Dr Seuss and Joy Adamson, the lion taming author  of Born Free.

The Institute and surrounding community progressed through times of great adversity that could have broken the resilience of a neighbourhood already struggling with poverty. Through the war years, the raging influenza epidemic of 1918, and the Depression, no family was spared the grief of calamity. But at the Leys Institute, children who had lost friends and family found a place of welcome and safety. In 1909, the Library developed the first children’s collection in Australasia, the books housed in a room found down a little staircase, nestled between the bookshelves. In the 1960s Leys’ staff introduced New Zealand’s first “Improver’s Collection,” a programme designed to teach illiterate local children to read.

At a time when New Zealand society was more formally divided into classes, a young man with a love of reading dreamed of a place to be shared by all.

T.W. Leys spent six months personally sourcing and cataloguing the 5000 books for the library, while fulfilling his duties as editor of the Auckland Star, a newspaper which continued to donate books to the hungry readers in the neighbourhood over the next fifty years. “If the ardent student gets through one volume a day, he has literary pabulum to last him for about 14 years. Long before that time we hope to have another 5000 ready for him, because we mean to keep up-to-date, so that he need not apprehend failure in the supply.” T.W. Leys made this promise in his opening speech, a guarantee that has been kept to this day.

However, when one of the founding trustees died, the Institute had no choice but to join the Auckland Public Library system. In 1964, a formal ceremony handed over the building and its collections to the Council. A Professor of English at the nearby University of Auckland made an emotional speech—he had grown up in a poor family in Herne Bay and had spent his childhood in the reading room at Leys’ Library, filling his head with the knowledge that would have been otherwise unobtainable to him. He attributed his success to  the opportunities afforded to him by the hopeful legacy left by the Leys brothers.

Before the last of the Leys family trustees passed away, their  final act was to raise $1,000,000 for the renovation of the Institute  to upgrade and restore some of the facilities, to ensure the full use into the future—and in 1991 they handed the library over to full council management.

Today the Institute is part of the massive Council network that services the public. But under the library, unseen by the patrons, is a network of rooms connected by a little wooden staircase. In this annex lies a collection of treasures: toys, well-worn books, and forgotten photographs. There’s dusty records, ink wells, and gas lamps, a very old map with an old hand written note ‘please keep,’ and a wall of colourful crayon drawn signatures inscribed by patrons of the library over one hundred years—a record of the memories of the community that has gathered in this place over many decades.

Wide Portraits

These days, children come for Wriggle and Rhyme and story time in the children’s wing, and women gather for book club each month. Meditation groups meet upstairs, while dance troupes practice their routines in the hall. Local students volunteer their time to do the shelving, and elderly patrons fondly reminisce about Coral Ridling, one of the librarians who founded the ‘Improver’s Collection.’ The Leys’ Orchestra still rehearses in the children’s section of the library, and the twin portraits of Thomson and  William Leys hang side by side, overlooking it all, as they have  since 1906.

Can gezelligheid leave a legacy? An older patron thinks that despite all the change, the library still holds the same warmth. At the opening of the Institute, T.W. Leys spoke of the far-reaching weight of his brother’s ideas: “Though all that was mortal of him lies in a lonely grave at Ceylon, what he dreamed of and worked for will remain to the great advantage of the inhabitants of this city long after we have passed away.” Leys’ quiet legacy lies in the bones of this well-loved building, a place for all people who, through times of great adversity, found welcome within its walls.


Abigail Egden

Abigail Egden is a writer, filmmaker, and anthropologist. She finished her Anthropology degree at University of Canterbury in 2016, and moved to Auckland to continue a research project that she is adapting into a documentary film. She also works for the Ākina foundation, helps create the Neat Places city guides and works as a library assistant at Leys Institute.