Why are we spending $89 million on a new central library at the dawn of the electronic book age? What is a library these days and what will it be decades from now? WILL HARVIE reports.
In 2008, Christchurch City Council wrote a document called Libraries 2025, which mapped how the city's library network would develop until then. On the wish list was a new central library, but the cost was high and the idea never went far.
Then the February 2011 earthquake struck. The central library on Gloucester St came through reasonably well. An engineering evaluation found some parts were less than 10 per cent of new-building standard, but the building was fixable.
With so many other costs facing the city, the council decided to repair the building for the short term and think about a new central library later. And then the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority intervened. As part of the 100-day blueprint for the central city, Christchurch would get a new central library - double the size of the existing building. And it would be on the Square, the most prominent site possible.
The signal was obvious. A cathedral of knowledge and learning would join the cathedral of Christ and the temples of commerce at the heart of the city. Surely that says something about the new Christchurch.
And in June, it was announced how this statement would be funded: $60 million from council and $29m from Government and philanthropic sources.
Here's the question, however. Should we spend $89m on bricks and mortar at the dawn of the e-book age? Aren't printed books disappearing, to be replaced by electronic book readers and e-books? Doesn't the internet change everything bookish, the way digitalisation has ravaged the music industry and shaken television, the news media and so much else?
If the books of our future are digital files on a computer server, do we need a four-storey, 11,750 square metre building in the most prominent of places? Can't those servers be in Harewood? Or Idaho?
Readers can already download books remotely. Imagine what will be possible in 50 or 60 years, the presumed lifetime of the building. Will printed books even exist?
Some are willing to guess.
Lincoln Gould, chief executive of Booksellers NZ, which represents 90 per cent of the nation's booksellers, says "there'll still be printed books for a very long time". Later in the interview he says "forever".
Sam Elworthy, director of Auckland University Press, says "You'd be foolish to think that printed books are about to die." Data from the United States show that e-book sales have topped out at about 25 per cent of the book market. Trends there also show people with e-readers buy both printed and e-books. In fact, people with e-readers buy more books than those without, he says.
And 30 or 40 years from now? Forget the wide-eyed futurologists, he says. Disciplined researchers can see no more than five years ahead. "Predictions of behaviour 30 and 40 years down the track . . . are ridiculously off pace."
This argument goes both ways, of course. We can no more foresee the future of a building than the future of the book. Elworthy, nonetheless, says "I think it's great that they're building a great, big building."
Christchurch Libraries and Information Manager Carolyn Robertson, is equally adamant that printed books will exist far into the future and the city needs a new central library. Her vision isn't an old-style "book warehouse" operating on the just-in-case principle (put every book you've got on a public shelf just in case somebody wants to borrow it, however obscure).
Oh no, modern libraries are like South Library on Colombo St. Yes, stacks of books, but also a council service centre, meeting rooms of various sizes, video conferencing spaces, free internet and wi-fi, computer gaming consoles, tables, soft furnishings, a cafe. "You get a whole raft of activities going and you put some programming in" - reading fun for pre-schoolers, computer-skill courses, homework clubs, ethnic meet-ups, groups for teenagers and seniors and, well, the list is almost endless. Then provide librarians with specialist skills to help patrons solve their information needs, including access to specialist collections, local archives and government services. Cera calls the central library a "community hub of knowledge, research and heritage"; Robertson a "non- commercial neutral place". This is the library as the anti-shopping mall.
And exactly the sort of thing the best libraries are doing overseas, says Christopher Stewart, an assistant professor of library and information science at Dominican University, Illinois, and former dean of libraries at Illinois Institute of Technology. One of his books is The Academic Library Building in the Digital Age.
"Libraries educate and empower individuals and communities," he writes by email. "They do this, of course, not only by providing access to information in a variety of formats, but also by providing a range of opportunities for learning and engagement."
One key theme is "greater flexibility and responsiveness to changing user needs", Stewart writes, and it's echoed by Christchurch's chief librarian: "One of the important elements is future-proofing, so that . . . we can ensure it's still going to work [in the future], that we don't build a building for now," Robertson says. "Or, God forbid, for yesterday".
It sounds great, but the existing central library was built in 1979 with the best intentions and won Maurice Mahoney an Australian Libraries Association award for "the best design of a central-city library in Australia and New Zealand".
Robertson credits her predecessors for a "lovely building" but says it was "too small when built" and not flexible enough. Major alterations over the years helped, but she was thrilled when Cera announced she'd get a new building."
But if the city council didn't get the central library right in 1979, how can Robertson be confident she'll get it right in 2014-15? She laughs to acknowledge the point. "We really have to challenge ourselves," she says, and talks about local and overseas research into library best practice, hiring an architect with specialist library experience and rattles off libraries that she admires: Birmingham (UK), Seattle, Aarhus (Denmark), Helsinki.
If she gets it wrong and Christchurch readers no longer need shelf after shelf of books - "I can't see it myself," she says - then the city will have a civic asset that it can use for something else. She'll provide as much flexibility as she can.
Councillor Aaron Keown has other ideas. "I don't think the book will ever disappear," he says, but buildings are another thing. "We need to think differently for our library."
Keown points to the former QEII sport complex. It opened to fanfare in 1974 and required a massive overhaul by the late 1980s to get it "back up to speed", he says.
For him, the project to emulate is a proposed basketball facility in Westminster. It would have up to six courts under an inflatable dome that's proven effective in cold parts of North America, costs $5m and is guaranteed for 25 years. When that time has passed, recycle the materials and build something new that meets new needs.
He didn't actually propose an inflatable dome for the Square. Rather he endorses the dome's lifetime. "We've got to be more dynamic in the way we do a library . . . There are so many ways we can do a building these days."
Robertson says Cera designated the central library as an anchor project for a reason: "It's an important civic building that needs to be at the heart of the city".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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