The Children's Library of Upper Riccarton

First Days

Opening Day it was decided would be the 1st March 1954. As with any such event much midnight oil was burnt to get all the many tasks done. The shelving was built and painted by some of the husbands, again with grace and generosity, buying materials out of their own pockets. As the room had to be shared in between times, with Plunket, bank and Power Board agency, curtains were made on expanding wire and hooks, so the bookshelves could be covered when the library was not in operation. Storage room for the accounts and catalogue cards was found - under the sink bench! And all the books, now repaired, catalogued and sorted shelved or arranged in display.

So much effort had gone into creating the library that there was little energy left for any ceremony and few of the women had had time to consider what they had done was both unusual and impressive. The interest from the newspapers - the opening day blaze of publicity - quite surprised them. "Riccarton Mothers Start a Children's Library" was the caption on one of several photos published. Read another caption "The library was opened mainly through the efforts of a group of six mothers who, becoming concerned about the popularity of comics, decided to do something themselves to ensure plenty of good books for children in the district." Equally overwhelming was the response from local children and their parents. In the relatively small space of the children's library the opening day crush was enormous. But also exhilarating. The President's Annual Report for that first year later recalled the opening event and "the great joy to the apprehensive committee to at last see the realisation of all their hopes, dreams and hard work."

Riccarton Mothers Start

Expectations of a membership base of about 200 children were quickly swept away - 100 joined on the first day alone! Membership could be obtained in two different ways. Parents could either pay 7 shillings per year and children had to pay no further charges. Or, membership was free but 3d [three pennies] had to be paid for each book borrowed. This was unlikely to break the bank for most parents as each child was limited to one book per visit. In this policy, the committee modeled their system on the Canterbury Public Library system, seeking to be as much like a professional library as possible! It also reflected an era when mass printing, relying on the letter-press process, was far more cumbersome, and books were a far more rare and precious thing, each valued in their own right. An age where there was a certain reverence for a book, any book. If a child was an avid reader he or she could swap his book three times a week for the library was opened on Monday, Wednesday and Friday after school each day. Of course not all wanted to swap. One little chap, greatly remembered, came in each week to renew the same book. "Don't you want something different". "No" said the resolutely shaking head, month after month, as he held tightly to the much loved book!

The library was hugely popular, surpassing even the children's section of many of the more established voluntary libraries linked to the Canterbury Public Library children's library pool system. To handle the large numbers of children turning up each day the committee, which had grown to 20, rostered on four women each afternoon. The task of processing new books and making repairs to older ones was mainly carried out by working bees each Tuesday morning. The committee was also active in fund-raising - a fruit cake raffled that year produced a generous local response, enough tickets being sold to raise 33 pounds.

By August, only six months after opening, the newspapers could report "On Wednesday morning, a working bee was held to prepare 50 [pounds] worth of new books to be placed on the shelves during Children's Book Week. A grant of 20 [pounds] was made by the Waimairi County Council and the rest has been raised in the district. This children's library now has a stock of 1200 to 1300 books and 990 members are enrolled".

To celebrate a most successful year, for the first birthday, on March 1st 1955, a committee member made two large cakes. After a young borrower had blown out the candle each visiting child received a piece. A local newspaper reporting the first birthday of the library noted, "between 15,000 and 16,000 books have been issued to young members" and "new books to the value of 50 [pounds] have been added to the shelves as a birthday present to the library." Given that books were issued one at a time, and the library was only open a few hours a week, it was a remarkable figure, around 100 children queuing up to borrow books each session.

If there were early fears that the men in the main library at Upper Riccarton might deprecate the women, in some sort of supercilious male way, they were unfounded. Joan Fazackerly, the President, in her first Annual report not only conveyed the children's sections appreciation of the men's co-operation but [a most evocative if unusual expression] "better still their amazing lack of non-cooperation." "In not one single instance have they even put one obstacle in our way." By the end of the second year she could report they had broadened the scope of the library with a section of "Books of Special Interest" and received an grant of 100 pounds from the J. R. McKenzie Trust fund to purchase books. It was the beginning of a very fruitful relationship, between the Trust and the Children's Library.

Over the next four years the Library continued to prosper and the group of mothers who created it remain strongly loyal and committed, even as their numbers were swelled by new mothers, equally passionate about their children's reading and education. Said one newspaper report "In less than five years the children's branch of the Upper Riccarton Memorial Library has grown into the busiest in Christchurch. The 15 children's branches of the Canterbury Public Library between them issue 22,000* books a year - yet from one small crowded room in the Riccarton Library 14,000 books were distributed last year." [*Canterbury Public Library statistics showing growth of children's issues in the preceding years would suggest this figure was probably out of date. This said, the number of children's books issued by Upper Riccarton was not matched by any other library in the pool system]. That there was a real demand for their service and that children would avidly read good books if they were provided had certainly been amply proved.

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