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Finding Library Futures, 1: TimeQuest – A Scientific Romance for Libraries

Auckland Libraries - Timequest

Auckland Libraries – Timequest logo

This school holiday season has seen Auckland’s library branches join forces to deliver a programme of activities built around a single citywide storyline, “TimeQuest.” Working with the city’s Service Development advisers Anne Dickson and Danielle Carter, I wrote the short text which frames the whole season:

Auckland, 2379. It’s the end for planet Earth – a red sun burns in the sky and the ground is parched of life.

The last survivors are preparing to leave for a new home on the other side of the galaxy, when the scientist Maia completes her greatest invention – a time portal that can take you to any moment in Auckland’s history.

Her plan: to send you back in time to recover the best books, art, and objects from New Zealand’s past.

Where will you go – and when?

What will you choose to save?

TimeQuest – Raid the past to save the future.    

The TimeQuest project began when the Auckland Libraries Service Development team found that the school holidays coincided with the Auckland Heritage Festival. We saw the opportunity to add a science-fictional thrill, tipping the hat to shows like Doctor Who and movies like Ender’s Game.

We discovered illustrator Nicola Brady at Auckland’s Chromacon Festival of Illustration, and hired her to provide a unique image of postapocalyptic Auckland, with a fallen Skytower, to create a dramatic scenario and remind library users that heritage can be dynamic and critical as well as conservative.

TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady

TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady

Effectively, we’re asking: can libraries move from school holiday “themes” like “Heroes and Villains” or “Jungle Adventures” to provocative, tailor-made narratives that unite a city’s children and immerse them in the world of a story? After all, drawing people into the world of knowledge and culture is public libraries’ core business…not just keeping stuff on shelves.

More poetically, the argument might run: Cities like Auckland already fund, commission, and celebrate public art. In fact,

John Radford's sculptures in Auckland's Western Park

John Radford’s sculptures in Auckland’s Western Park

Auckland Council paid sculptor John Radford to create half-buried sculptures which are replicas of lost buildings from the city’s past, so you can even argue that the city’s administration believes in an archaeology of dreams…believes in it enough to fork out ratepayers’ cash, indeed.

In the same spirit, of public bodies celebrating culture for the whole community, why can’t we embed story in the infrastructure of the city – just as Radford’s mock-ups are physically embedded in Auckland’s parklands?

At the deepest level, the TimeQuest storyline is about libraries’ core mission of embracing all human knowledge and culture, then reaching out to invite every member of our community to explore that world on their own terms.

That’s why the storyline allows for mixed and multiple age-ranges. Why we made its rebellious scientist-hero a Maori woman, creating role models that challenge preconceptions and speak to New Zealand’s unique bicultural heritage. Why TimeQuest is about performance, play, and craft as well as reading age-appropriate books from Horrid Henry and the Time Machine to The Time-Travelling Fashionista.

The initial storyline was designed to be inspiring, not restrictive – here’s a few examples of what Auckland’s librarians came up for themselves in local branches:

  • Time travellers from the year 2379 are on their way to find out information about the culture and life of the tweens and teens of today. They’ve asked us to make a teen’s room that they can teleport to the future. Help us to design and decorate a representation of what a teen’s room looks like in 2013.
  • Life in 2379 is rather bleak. With the sun burning out, life on earth is dying. The time travellers have come back to 2013 to gather enough knowledge and resources to save the future generations. But they will need enough sustenance to do this. Tweens and teens will be asked to investigate the vitamins and minerals humans need to keep healthy and strong. They will then be blending up some fruity concoctions for the travellers to take back with them to help them save the world.
  • Time travellers, to slow the sun and save the future you have been asked to bring back to the future Maui, the Māori hero of How Maui slowed the sun. Listen to the story and help Maui to catch and slow the sun again by making your own fishhooks and ropes.

To help structure the activities and support librarians, the TimeQuest mission pack included nine pre-written sample activities which staff were free to use or adapt. One of the simplest missions we devised for Auckland was “go back in time and choose an item to rescue from your library” (There are variants with rival teams of time travellers and even Nerf gun equipped shootouts during the mission).

TimeQuest is the beginning of something bigger. A world where the high water mark of library services to kids and teens is not author talks and schools visits and rhyme time (glorious though a good rhyme time is!). It’s taking seriously, in the 21st century, the commitment to passionately engage the general public with everything a library means and offers. To reach out and touch something beyond the routines of everyday life.

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