Libraries give our suburbs heart

19:30, Aug 06 2014

On an unusually warm Saturday morning at South Christchurch Library, I'm returning three CDs, two DVDs, two books and a magazine.

There are tired dads with small kids giving mothers a break. There are happy groups of three or four meeting in the cafe. There are eight kids playing games on public computers and others using free wi-fi on their own devices. There is a Steampunk display.

There may even be one or two people browsing books.

For a few years or maybe longer, Christchurch was engaged in building better libraries than anyone else. They would be more than hushed warehouses of books. They would be community centres, with cafes and resources. They would be architecturally elegant. They would enhance suburban life.

Living in Auckland, we felt a little envious looking at pictures of the New Brighton Library, the South Christchurch Library and the Upper Riccarton Library. A city that built such libraries must be a civilised place to live.

We were both wrong and right about that last point. More importantly, these high-quality suburban libraries felt like positive expressions of local democracy. It was about the creation of an informed public, and not just through books and newspapers, but through free internet access.

South Christchurch has been our local since we moved here. I doubt there has been a week since when I haven't popped in for something, other than when the earthquake closed it. It shut for temporary repairs for five months in 2012 and we tried other branches. No offence to Spreydon, Fendalton, Papanui or the innovative temporary library on Tuam St, but nowhere else felt right.

Somehow, a casually beautiful Warren and Mahoney library that opened in 2003 was down to a seismic capacity of between 10 and 20 per cent only nine years later. The council's temporary fix took it up to 34 per cent and gave it a three-year extension. The latest news is that it will cost about $6.5 million to fully repair and strengthen it, more than it cost to build in the first place. Call that another classic post-quake paradox.

I like to think that Christchurch's big democratic idea about libraries survived the earthquakes and will survive the latest round of belt-tightening and debt-anxiety. A new uber-library still seems to be planned for an empty spot next to the Press. All of mayor Lianne Dalziel's statements and conversations about the future of Christchurch put suburban libraries and swimming pools at the top of the list. As they should be.


The Press