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(Image: Archi Banal)
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BooksOctober 24, 2023

Why libraries are so much more than ‘buildings with some books in’

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Library fans respond to last week’s comment by Christchurch mayor Phil Mauger. 

Last week The Press reported that Christchurch City Council was in “shit creek” financially and was considering reducing the hours of local swimming pools and community libraries to save money. While mayor Phil Mauger didn’t name any of Christchurch’s 20 library branches specifically, he did allude to some smaller libraries being at risk, and then referred to them as being “a building with some books in”. It’s a comment that Christchurch librarian Kevin Adams told The Press was “both ignorant of the facts and incredibly insulting”, and he is not alone. The outrage – and the uncanny (also exhausting) sensation of déjà vu – sounded up and down the country, bringing to mind Auckland’s recent history of having to leap to the defence of a building with some art in.

We asked a few more Christchurch locals and library fans to justify their favourite building with some books in. 

Tūranga: Christchurch Central Library.
Tūranga: Christchurch Central Library. Or, “a building with books in.” (Photo: Adam Mørk)

When I moved to Ōtautahi from Tāmaki Makaurau nearly a year ago, my local library was one of my very first outings. I was feeling pretty overwhelmed and sad trying to get my bearings in a new city (especially one so DAMN weird and flat), but was calmed by the thought that there was a library not too far away. After we unpacked all the boxes, I headed to Spreydon’s finest – the city’s first purpose-built library – one sunny afternoon. I remember being met by the loveliest beaming librarian who welcomed me in, signed me up for a library card, showed me how to work everything, got me sorted with a Metro card and gave me a bunch of maps and timetables to get around the city. She probably didn’t know it then, but she was the very first new person I met in Ōtautahi, and that library provided an instant anchor at a time when I felt totally lost at sea. But yeah, whatever, just a building with books in. / Alex Casey

When I visit new places I go to their libraries. And I hardly ever go only to be surrounded by books (though for me it’s like coming up for air: see also, bookshops). I’ve used libraries for meetings (often with fellow office-less freelancers), for respite from schlepping around, for the internet, to print stuff, for reading, for research, for business and for pleasure. But perhaps most importantly to show my son that wherever you go in this world, there are buildings with books in them, that we can borrow, for free! Libraries are the intersection where all the good things that people do – imagine, learn and look after other people – meet. I live in Wellington where we’ve temporarily lost our Central Library and it sucks. It is heavily and heartily missed. But Wellington City Council’s investment and work to create new pop-up libraries is evidence of why they’re needed as an absolute core public service. / Claire Mabey 

And rugby stadiums are just grass with men running up and down. And council offices are just rooms where people are paid to spend other people’s money. / Fiona Farrell (an author who for over 25 years was a regular user of one of those “buildings with books in”)

The only people who would say that libraries are nothing more than “buildings with some books in” are people who don’t use libraries and who don’t understand the communities that do. What a boring, boorish lack of imagination, and an astonishing lack of insight. Perhaps Mauger could read a book? I recommend Karen Munro’s Tactical Urbanism for Librarians, which outlines the value of “third places” – places that aren’t home or work, and that are inclusive, sociable, neutral, playful, accessible, with zero cost of entry, like a home away from home. A physical copy is (checks) currently available in the nonfiction section in level three of Tūranga. / Erin Harrington

Every library – EVERY library, I believe – is a community centre. People meet up there. Book groups and others use libraries. The homeless and lonely come for some degree of warmth and human contact. The financially straitened come for free (or at any rate cheap) books. Does the council really propose to disadvantage the elderly, marginal, struggling among its ratepayers? — David Hill

I have never lived anywhere with a functional council. I say scrap the lot of them and CENTRALISE, BABY. — Sam Duckor-Jones

Photo: Getty Images

Libraries are where I discovered my love for language and books – my parents took my sister and me to the library every week and it is a joyful family memory. I now take my son. Libraries are not a “nice to have” and they are more than buildings with books. Libraries are nurturing, inclusive spaces at a time when we need such spaces more than ever before. — Louise Wallace

While I’m not really a fan these days of the Manic Street Preachers, I have always liked and respected their intelligent and politically engaged lyrics. Their song ‘A Design for Life’ from the album Everything Must Go opens with the line, “Libraries gave us power.” I first heard that song and album as a teenager after checking it out of a library, actually. The Hamilton public library. That was how and where I sourced and discovered a lot of music as a teenager. I give much credit to the library for my freakish “London taxi driver’s brain” for music — the library made new sounds accessible, enabling me a thrilling and wide-reaching sonic education I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to reach. 

My love of libraries started even earlier than that though. I grew up in a small town and it could feel pretty isolated. The Ngāruawāhia public library was an oasis, a safe place. Books were my friends, and offered windows into other worlds and ideas. Insights into new or different ways of seeing and learning. 

I was gobsmacked when I heard the mayor of the place I have recently moved to is considering making cuts to smaller libraries and public swimming pools. He said that some of these smaller libraries are “just a building with some books in it” and that people could just catch public transport to another library. Try telling that to disabled, elderly and low-income patrons for whom this might not be so simple. Libraries are actually many people’s “third place”, that vital place which is a social and community space separate to home and work. One thing we have learned from Wellington losing its central library is the importance of smaller libraries. They provide a sense of community close to home that goes far beyond being “just” a space for books. 

I probably wouldn’t have gone on to have the sort of career I have if it wasn’t for public libraries, particularly that small town community library in Ngāruawāhia. 

Also, let’s remember that New Zealand has a shocking, dreadful amount of drownings every summer. If people, especially our tamariki, don’t have access to public swimming pools, how are they supposed to learn how to swim? We can’t cut these resources. / Kiran Dass

Inside the building, between the books, the library is a safe and warm place. Often when my kids were tiny, we would walk to the library for the warmth. The physical warmth was only part of it. Sometimes the librarians were the only other adults I might speak to in a day. We would time our visits to see other familiar adults too. One of my treasured memories is visiting on a Tuesday morning when the Esol students would come across the road to practise reading English in the children’s section and I could provide a small but willing audience to smooch up next to them for a listen while I got a few minutes to read something for myself. Yes, there are books, but never “just” books. / Sarina Dickson

Of course the mayor was completely wrong when he said smaller libraries are “just buildings with some books in”. But even if he were right, and they are just buildings with books in – amazing! Buildings with some books for every age group and interest. Books that book-loving, public-minded professionals have selected, purchased, catalogued, organised, and covered in protective plastic. Books you can browse and discover, request from other libraries, return to any library, recommend to friends, decide you don’t want to finish, keep for a month, 30 at a time – completely for free! Books whose very presence in the building is supporting authors, illustrators, editors, designers, printers, and publishers. They all rely on libraries buying their books, and readers reading their books, in order to make a living and create more books. Books that will inspire people to read more, or maybe even create books themselves. Books that are meaningless unless they’re discovered and shared and debated and read. How amazing for every community to have buildings with some books in. / Elissa Brent Weissman

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