The Children's Library of Upper Riccarton

Library services in Christchurch in the early 1950s

For a city long associated with its cultural and educational institutions public library services in the greater Christchurch area in the early 1950s were surprisingly impoverished. The public library services lagged well behind the library services of the other main centres.

For 70 years, until administration was transferred to the Christchurch City Council in 1948, the Canterbury Public Library was under the control of Canterbury College (later University of Canterbury). Totally dependent on endowments and fees for purchasing books, a "pitifully inadequate" system, it had failed to attract patronage, with only 9% of the city population of 123,000 estimated to be members of the city library in 1950. This was well below the New Zealand Library Association benchmark of 30% of the catchment population in any area enrolled in the local library. Unlike Wellington, Auckland and Dunedin, the Christchurch city library had no suburban branches. Partly as a result of this, it appears, over a dozen independent community libraries had been established. These were created and run by volunteers and included the libraries at Addington, Opawa, Beckenham, St Martins, Sydenham, Spreydon Woolston, Sumner, Redcliffs, New Brighton, St Albans and Papanui.

The services for children, whether in the city or suburbs, were particularly limited. Nor did many schools have proper libraries. Whereas Auckland and Wellington budgeted 1,500 pounds per year for the purchase of children's books, and Dunedin 1,000 pounds, Christchurch budgeted only 530 pounds. The newly appointed City librarian, Ronald O'Reilly, in a report to the Christchurch City Council, noted "the suburban libraries spent little on children's books - some of them nothing at all, and the total children's membership of all the Christchurch Public Libraries is estimated at 4,390 (Dunedin 1949/50 - 8,498)." He also commented that many parents told him that they were not comfortable about their children catching buses and trams into the city centre after school, at the busiest time of the day.

Ronald O'Reilly's report recommended the problem be addressed by the city upping annual expenditure on children's books to 1,500 pounds per year with and additional immediate boost of 500 pounds for suburban stock and to build up the city children's library "which is in a shocking physical state and insufficient in number of volumes." As a result the Canterbury Public Library launched a pool system supplying each of the voluntary suburban libraries with children's books, to be available without charge to the children. This saw a rapid increase in issues to children. A problem was that a further 50,000 residents of the greater Christchurch area lived in adjoining boroughs and counties - Riccarton, Heathcote, Halswell, Waimairi, and Paparua - and their libraries were not eligible for Christchurch City Council funded projects.

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