First purpose-built library in Christchurch celebrates 50 years

Ann Barsby. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Ann Barsby. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Following the birth of her daughter, Ann Barsby didn’t plan on sticking around for very long when she snagged a part-time job at the Spreydon Library.

A decade later the library assistant is taking a trip down memory lane as the facility celebrates 50 years since its opening in 1971 marked a new era of public library service in Christchurch.

A bookworm at heart, Barsby has witnessed the library scene reinvent itself in the past 20 years to keep up with the community’s ever-changing demands.

But even as society furthers into the digital era, she had no concerns that people would turn their backs on a good story, especially now with advances like e-books and Kindles.

“Technology is the biggest change, a lot more people have their own devices,” she said.

“The earthquakes changed the demographic of this area quite a lot. There used to be mainly older adults or young families, but people moved from town out to the suburbs.”

The Spreydon Library in 2008. Photo: Supplied
The Spreydon Library in 2008. Photo: Supplied
Spreydon Library was the first purpose-built centre in the city to be staffed by the city council with trained librarians.

Most libraries at the time were run by volunteers.

It first opened in 1929 from the remodelled Borough Council Chambers at the current Barrington St site as a volunteer-led community library.

It continued operating that way until Christchurch City Council started a new network of suburban public libraries following a boom in book stocks, starting with Spreydon from 1971.

The rebuild cost $52,061, with the library initially housing 17,000 books.

The Spreydon Library. Photo: Geoff Sloan
The Spreydon Library. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Under city council control, Christchurch City Libraries is now a network of 21 modern libraries across the city.

All of this would not be possible without the passion and efforts of librarian Ernest Bell, who campaigned to make libraries public and to improve reading in the community more than 70 years ago.

“If every library was its own little community run by themselves, they wouldn’t have the resources or funding,” said Barsby.

“Now we have a huge collection that floats between all libraries.”

For library assistant Joanne Rowe, the Spreydon facility is more than just a library - it is a place of refuge.

Over time the library has developed a strong bond with the community through daily activities, and events such as technology help groups, musical performances, book clubs, or JP services.

The Spreydon Library team in 1991, including Lyndsey Knight (left), Jenni Skelton, Christine...
The Spreydon Library team in 1991, including Lyndsey Knight (left), Jenni Skelton, Christine Annan, Barbara Moorhouse, and Hilary Renfree (back). Photo: Supplied
But Rowe said being sandwiched between Hillmorton Hospital and Salvation Army addiction services created some unique challenges.

As a warm and dry place to go, the library also attracted the odd homeless person.

“Sometimes they’ll spend the whole day there because they just want to be amongst people to talk,” she said.

“Some people come in intoxicated, in broad daylight.

“Some people are going through mental health issues; they could be having a bad day but they happen to be in the library that day, so you do what you can to help.”

Library assistants Barbara Moorhouse, Kim Slack, and Hilary Renfree outside Spreydon Library when...
Library assistants Barbara Moorhouse, Kim Slack, and Hilary Renfree outside Spreydon Library when it re-opened after a refurbishment in February, 1993. Photo: Christchurch City Council
The library has been through some trials and tribulations itself.

It was threatened with closure when South Library was being built until the city council did a U-turn.

Because Spreydon Library was already a huge part of residents’ lives, they rallied together and produced a 3500 signature petition against the proposal.

Having worked in a number of libraries prior to Spreydon, including central city, New Brighton and Sumner, Barsby was glad their efforts paid off.

As a passionate reader, especially in the fantasy genre, it meant she could continue working in a place she loved and be surrounded by thousands of book titles every day.

The Spreydon Library mmarked the occasion with a free social morning tea to share stories today from 10.30am to 12.30pm.

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