If the success of Wellington’s library system since the Central Library’s closure is to be believed, the new library (artist’s impression above) will be a success, says Dave Armstrong.
Dave Armstrong is a Wellington-based playwright and satirist.
OPINION: With so much bad news hailing the capital recently, it was nice to see some good news, as plans for the $190 million renovation of our Central Library were revealed. Will the budget explode, will private contractors not meet deadlines like they did with Transmission Gully? I don’t think they should face any penalties, just very severe fines from a severe librarian.
There were some who thought we should just hustle the old library and start over. But there were good heritage and environmental reasons for developing the old one. As Wellington learned the hard way by getting rid of its trams, the newest isn’t always the best.
The renovated library looks great from the architect’s designs, with more light than before and an airy Te Whanganui a Tara room, “showcasing our city’s collection and culture”, perched above from the ground with a breathtaking view of the harbor and the city of Wellington.
But you have to be careful with architect’s drawings. I remember the Basin Reserve flyover sketches looked very attractive, with nice young people hanging out together near the huge concrete pillars. “Hey, what are you doing tonight?” “Thought I could put on my $800 sneakers and hang out by the flyover pillars.” The reality, of course, would have been: “I was walking under the flyover when a person jumped out from behind a pillar and stole my bag.”
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We’ll have to wait until at least 2026 to find out how good our renovated library will be. There will be five entrances, not two as before, and a performance space. This makes perfect sense as Wellington has a few major writers’ festivals, but the library hasn’t been involved in any major way as a venue.
Although I liked the building before, the only time I attended a writers event was on the ground floor where the acoustics were muddy and there were major distractions, with walkways and arrivals of borrowers.
Wellington residents will also be delighted to hear that there will be a cafe in the renovated library. Hooray! Libraries and cafes go together like the National Party and wealthy middle-aged Pākehā men. I loved picking up books and then reading a chapter or two in Clark’s cafe.
Although I look forward to reopening, our city has changed a lot since the library was forced to close in 2019. Covid has seen the number of people working and shopping in the CBD plummet. Will the new library attract more than a million visitors per year as before 2019?
I know I will be visiting less than before, not because I have a problem with the new version, but because the council has done a fantastic job of making their suburban libraries more accessible. With the opening of the distribution center and the abolition of book reservation and return fees, getting books out in Wellington is a dream come true.
You order a book, decide which suburban library it will be delivered to, and then receive an email when it arrives. And everything is free! If a book is popular, you are told where you are in the queue. Imagine if our buses, garbage cans, recycling and water were as well managed as our libraries. Libraries are much more than printed books, and our libraries currently offer free eBooks and audiobooks, as well as many other online resources. Some people say that printed books become redundant, but I doubt it. Reading an e-book often turns you to an author whose more obscure works are only available in print.
When it comes to music, you might think you can access everything on Spotify, but there’s still music, including a lot of New Zealand, that you can only easily access via a library CD.
When the central library closed, the council created pop-up libraries. These have been very popular. If my biggest complaint is that it’s hard to find a seat at times, then that’s a pretty good problem to have. All three pop-ups have good book collections, but also use technology and create social spaces for users. They may be giving us a glimpse of what parts of the renovated library might look like when it opens.
The challenge the council faces with the renovated library is to balance the need to have many books in a central location with the need to have a social hub, where people can meet, do their homework, attending events and accessing multimedia technology.
Researchers and scholars will want access to books, journals and archival materials. More casual users may want more sociable areas. I’m sure there will be a debate all over town and it will be a challenge to keep everyone happy.
But if the success of Wellington’s library system since the Central Library’s closure is to be believed, the new library will be a hit with users and satisfy most of us most of the time. And it might even revitalize our CBD in ways David Jones could only dream of.