150 Celebrating Christchurch City Libraries 1859-2009 RSS feed

The Library in the Heart of the City

Christchurch City Libraries has always had a significant central city presence, beginning in 1859 as a Mechanics Institute collection in temporary premises in the then Town Hall in High Street. In 1863 the library moved to a wooden building on the corner of Hereford Street and Cambridge Terrace. This site remained its home until 1982. In 1901 the wooden building was replaced with a handsome brick building which still stands.

Hereford Street/ Cambridge Terrace 1901 to 1981

The Library buildings pictured from the Hereford Street bridgeThe Hereford Street library reflected its Victorian origins with dark panelling, gas lighting and a formal atmosphere. As the library service expanded the building was modernized as best as possible:

  • 1914 electric light
  • 1924 a new wing with a separate children’s library
  • 1951 renovations to include a new children’s library, reference library and enlarged lending library
  • 1956 the gallery filled in to create the New Zealand room
  • 1970 a mezzanine floor added and, the final desperation – a prefabricated annex.

A succession of innovative and energetic librarians refused to let the constraints of the building hold them back from offering new and exciting developments in service. These included growing the size and range of items for loan, giving children their own special space and activities like storytimes (including on the radio), speeding up the borrowing of books with an automated system, a specialist New Zealand Room, a bindery, reference services and loan collections for country areas and suburban libraries. From 1913 until 1951 the library was under the leadership of Ernest Bell, a British-trained librarian whose devotion to the library resulted in many innovations and improvements to its services. He was followed by Ron O’Reilly who continued the trend of innovation with new and improved collections of art and music. John Stringleman became city librarian in 1968 and under his leadership the planning began for a new central city library building.

New Library Opens

Central Library - 1982It was with great excitement that the librarians moved to the new library on the corner of Gloucester Street and Oxford Terrace. Designed by Sir Miles Warren and built by the well known Christchurch firm of Charles Luney, the new building reflected a strong emphasis on public accessibility. The street frontages had “shop windows” allowing people to see clearly the activity of the library, as well as giving the building a light airy feel for customers.

The old Library closed its doors on 24 December 1981. Planning for the move to the new library included a book sale of cancelled stock and allowing customers to borrow as many books as they could over the Christmas break.

In late December 1981 and early January 1982, in an operation of military precision, a team of librarians and 25 student helpers moved the stock into the new building. A shuttle of vans from the M.E.D (Municipal Electricity Department) and plastic fruit crates rented from the Apple and Pear Board were utilised for the task. It took nine days to empty the shelves of the old library.

The staff held a final farewell party in the empty old building on January 8. As they stood around toasting the past and the future the festivities were interrupted by a confused customer who made it as far as the returns counter before realising the library was empty of everything but partying librarians!

The doors of the new library were opened to an excited crowd at 10am on 11 January 1982. Public excitement with the new library facilities was reflected by the fact that membership grew dramatically, from 90,000 when the new library building opened to pass 100,000 after 3 months. Growth in usage has continued steadily over the years and the library has continued to respond to the increased patronage.

In 1995 new technology and the need for space resulted in a programme of extensions and renovations to free up room for more public facilities. The Bindery moved out of the building to a site at Smith Street in 1992. The public meeting room became the location for the Aotearoa New Zealand Collection.

In November 1997 the renovations and additions were completed. New services included a magazine area, parenting room, Māori Collection, Research Room, photo-copy services and self-issue machines as well as additional catalogue and computer terminals. Library closing time was extended on a Sunday from 1 to 4 pm.

Into the 21st Century

Central Library entranceChanges to the Central Library building early in the new century reflected the dramatic impact of the internet and the libraries’ strong commitment to biculturalism. The refurbishment which took place beginning in April 2001 saw the introduction of striking colour features on each floor, glass walls to open up the second floor, new carpeting and public furniture and a dedicated public computer area. A new Ngā Pounamu Māori Centre was created on the second floor and was decorated with 19 tukutuku panels which were gifted to the library by local Māori weavers who involved library staff in the project. The Library Resource Services which handled collection buying, cataloguing and processing moved out of the Central Library building to a new home in the BNZ building in Sydenham.

Using the latest computer technology to make library services and information as accessible as possible for customers has always been a high priority for the library. This is reflected by the many catalogue and internet terminals available on every floor of the Central Library and the fact that the building is a wireless internet hotspot. This free service was successfully trialled from April 2007 and is now part of the normal library service. It is currently being extended to community libraries. Other high tech services such as self service book checkout machines, photocopiers and internet training facilities were all trialled in the Central Library.

Today the library is open 7 days a week. From the lunchtime rush of workers to the regular stream of students and visitors throughout the day, the Central Library continues to provide an information and recreation hub in the heart of the city.


Library travels with my Father