The Children's Library of Upper Riccarton


Any organisation benefits from an input of new blood. And new faces brought new energy and new ideas. A considerable sum had been accumulated in the account and this allowed the new committee to immediately look at purchasing new stock. Professional help came in the form of staff from the School Libraries Service and from Christchurch City Libraries, who was able to effectively "weed" out books no longer likely to go out very often and help up-grade the stock. Another person greatly valued was one of the volunteers Denise Direen who came with a background and qualifications in children's literature and experience in advising school libraries.

Although it was never likely that the Sir John McKenzie Memorial Children's Library was going to return to the heady days and high patronage of the first two decades, under the new committee a very healthy growth in the number of members and issues was recorded through the middle 90s, with annual issues just below 10,000 in 1995 and 1996. The president, Trish Heaton, in her annual report by 1995 was able to list 15 librarians, "we have a hard core of willing and enthusiastic volunteers on our library roster and others are co-opted as necessary."

A trial had begun in opening the library two mornings a week. Since the previous AGM 146 new children had become members. She was also able to report that the library was the statistically most used of the community [voluntary] libraries in Christchurch. In 1997 Ann Whitnall, now the president could report on the new carpet and the installation of an improved heating system bringing the library out of the "ice age", these obtained through a Community Development Scheme Grant. New paint-work and pictures on the walls, for so long bare, as well as colourful book bins and mobiles, had "certainly made it a more pleasant environment to work in and, I am sure, for our young clients to browse in." Much care was given to the selection of books, there being keen awareness children no less than adults can be discerning readers. "Probably the most popular display is the N.Z. Post Children's Book Awards". Due to an article written by Frances Ouwerling and Denise Direen and published in school newsletters, and another in The Press and "wanted" posters, the following year the librarians ranks had grown to 27 volunteers.

Christchurch was growing ever more cosmopolitan in its ethnic mix and this was reflected in the children wishing to become members and also the volunteers coming forward to help. Indian, Chinese, Korean children were amongst those who became members in the 90s. In recent years there have also been Afghani refugee children, including those from families rescued from a sinking boat on the high seas in the highly publicised "Tampa incident". The Sir John McKenzie Children’s Library, with its intimacy of scale, has been able to offer something of a caring sanctuary for immigrant children from these and other cultures keen to acquire knowledge, without the school type pressures.

Tulsi Gopal one of the many volunteers over the years with young borrower Tulsi Gopal one of the many volunteers over the years with young borrower.

The volunteer librarians - who themselves have included an Iranian, several of Indian descent, as well as Chinese and Korean parents - have found they are playing an added role in helping children new to this country find their bearings amongst the books and language culture of their new home, a role which given the eagerness of these children to learn was particularly satisfying. Typical of the moments that made voluntary work at the library so fulfilling was the helping of such a girl from one such family find books and prepare a homework assignment - enormous was her excitement and great the delight of the librarians when a few days later she burst into the library beaming all over. Her project had received an A grading, the first A she had ever received in her life.

Another facet of the modern age was the much greater concern about healthy and safety issues, for the children and for those working in the library. The Christchurch City Council took an active lead here, with information, training and surveys of premises under its jurisdiction. As well as physical hazards the library became more aware of the special trust involved working with children and that some form of formal application and vetting of those who volunteered was appropriate.

With the relatively younger age group now running the library there was also more transience, with greater propensity for volunteers to move out of the district or to take up new work in hours that conflicted with the time they had previously volunteered. Nor do all new volunteers stay long - in 1999 the sudden loss of many librarians simultaneously (for a variety of reasons) seemed likely to lead to closing the library on some days previously opened. But another active campaign through flyers and posters, saw 7 new volunteers come forward.

A community grant allowed a whole set of new open faced shelving in the preschool area and during the 90s and early "00s" all shelving, was replaced with the new more attractive style units now available. To have the necessary legal identity to be eligible for grants the library registered itself as a trust in 1998. In 1999 much work was done by Dawn Averill, bringing the non-fiction section into line with mainstream libraries by making the Dewey System more operational (it had been introduced many years before but in a simplified version). In subsequent years Dawn also gave up many hours of her time, working her way through book stock checking every book for wear and tear and repairing as necessary. Others who played a major role in the 90s, over and above taking their turn at the counter, were Denise Direen and Frances Ouwerling, particularly, in selecting and buying books; Tulsie Gopal, was joined by Toni Herbert (until another baby arrived) and then joined by Brian White, in the age old task of chasing up over-dues. In more recent times Dawn Averill has taken on this task with great dedication. In August 1999 Anne received a Community Service Award for dedicated service to the community. Miriam Simon was elected secretary in 2000 and continues to full this role with Ron Whitnall now treasurer. In the last few years issues have again declined to below the 5000 level, a natural source of concern to all.

With the opening of a new community library in Upper Riccarton in December 2005 the future for Sir John McKenzie Memorial Children's Library's is uncertain. What is certain though is the tremendous contribution it has made to the children of Upper Riccarton in the 50 years since the first library was opened at the back of the Upper Riccarton War Memorial Library on March 1st 1954. In that time it has issued over 500,000 books to the many thousands of children that have been members. And not by computer but by the traditional methods of a card catalogue system! And not with paid labour but entirely by the voluntary labour of scores of caring and committed mothers and the occasional father or other person.

The words each generation use have changed over the years but the commitment that inspires the voluntary librarians remains constant. Ann Whitnall in her president's report to the 42nd Annual meeting of 2000, no doubt spoke for the feelings of countless others over the years when she wrote "As I look around the library I am filled with a sense of pride and achievement knowing that we, as volunteers, have created a facility for children that is modern, user friendly and one which can offer the very best in reading material. We can feel justifiably proud of what we are offering our young clients."

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