A large collection of human bones were uncovered on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street during the 1850s. They belonged to the early Waitaha inhabitants (1000 – 1500 AD) who had buried their dead in their ‘urupa’ (cemetery) on this site. Although the land was ‘tapu’ (sacred), the colonial surveyors were not put off their task to prepare the site for a future sale to a prospective buyer. Nor did it prevent the Mechanic’s Institute purchasing the land in 1859, and building on top of the urupa, Christchurch’s first reading room (library) in 1863.
Before the Mechanical Institute’s Reading Room, vestiges of libraries were set up in the town and its port. The Colonist’s Society in Lyttelton offered a reading room where one could peruse colonial newspapers from Sydney, Adelaide, Tasmania, along with the New Zealand Journal and the Gazette, the London Times, Spectator, and the Illustrated News as well as educational lectures in chemistry for example, from the winter of 1851.
The room’s opening was written about in the most earnest manner in the Lyttelton Times, June 7th, 1851,
“Nothing is more obviously wanted, and we earnestly hope that our fellow townsmen will evidence by the spirit with which they uphold and expend this institution the existence of that intellectuality for which they have gained credit. In writing for them, it is needless to expatiate upon the advantages of this new adjunct to the machinery of the community – they are sufficiently aware of but we would plead with them against resting here. A reading room – a circulating library is not all that is wanted and therefore, while quite alive to the importance of steady deliverated advance we would strenuously advocate the formation were long upon this nucleus of something akin to the numerous Athenaeums and Literary Societies of the mother country.
The room will be supplied for the present with part of the library intended for College at Christchurch and files of four of the best English papers have been promised as a donation. A Committee of Management has been appointed and instructed to use all despatch in making the necessary arrangements for opening the room, which will be well lined, warm, and lighted and is very nearly ready. It has been kindly placed at the disposal of the Society by Mr. Godley.
Our Christchurch friends are pursuing the same object. Members of the Society in course for formation there will be privileged to avail themselves of the Lyttelton Reading room as Honorary Members.
The equally early Christchurch Reading Room, announced their AGM in the Lyttelton Times June 27th, 1855:-
The Annual General Meeting of the Christchurch Reading Society will be held at the Magistrates’s Room, Land Office, Christchurch on Saturday, July 7th, at 11am to pass accounts and for general business. It is requested that all books maybe returned to the same place on or before the above date. Two volumes No.s 8 and 16 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica are required immediately, the person in whose possession they are will be pleased to return them without delay as they are private property.
Christ College also offered a library which local subscribers could join by invitation only.
A Reading Room for the Working Class
Primarily, the Mechanical Institute’s formation of a reading room was for the city’s working class. It followed the lines of the Mechanic Institute libraries built in Glasgow in 1823 and London in 1824. The Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street site was the perfect central location for this sort of public building. Its quiet atmosphere was perfect for a library reading room.
Before the building was completed, the Institute was in the city’s Town Hall on High Street for almost four years.
Samuel Farr designed the simple wooden building which was completed and opened in 1863.
A decade on (1873), the Mechanic’s Institute handed proprietorship over to the Canterbury University College which required a larger area for their library. The patronage of the small reading room grew to such a point that it was decided a larger addition should be built. A competition was put out to design a larger, permanent building which would sit behind the original reading room. Christchurch architect, William Barnett Armson’s elaborate Victorian Gothic Venetian design won the competition.
From Victorian Gothic to Local Brick and Sandstone
However, the building’s construction costs were over budget so the university was forced to go back to Armson and ask him to modify the design. The end product was a simpler, square shaped building constructed in local red brick and sandstone. It featured pointed arched windows, striped voussoirs and detailings, some of which was of black brick. The roof was hipped and decorated with a central ventilator turret. This new building was linked to the original wooden building with a long wooden corridor which also served as an entrance to the buildings. The building was opened in late 1875.
A letter from a frustrated Christchurch resident dated March 10th, 1875 to the Star newspaper complained about the lack of progress made in building the new addition to the library,
We are glad to see that the authorities of the Public Library are at last alive to a sense of their position. The question that Mr Gould asked on Monday should have been asked months ago. Procrastination seems to be a common failing amongst the architects of this city. In all cases there are excuses in plenty, but in the case of the Library no excuse whatever seems to have been offered. Advertisements have appeared several times, but not even a bush has been cleared away to make room for the new buildings. What the committee can have been about we know not. The library is as urgently needed as any other building. Schools are springing into being all around but the grass still grows where the Public Library ought to be rearing its walls. Even the Cathedral is progressing slowly; not so slow, however, but that it may be completed long before the Library, if the present state of things is allowed to continue. It is positively shameful that nothing has been done. the land is ready, likewise the funds. The new accommodation is sorely wanted. Day by day, the reading room is inconveniently crowded by a host of readers. The space required for this room alone is three times the present amount. It is impossible to read there in any comfort for to economise room, the chairs must be placed as close together as possible. Once an attempt was made to shut off a space at one for a ladies’ room,but that has long been swallowed up, and now no separate retreat for the gentler sex is available. Another room should be set apart for this purpose alone but where is it to be found? Certainly not in the existing building. These things have been long endured by a suffering public – but until a morning contemporary facetiously complained a few days ago, no notice was ever taken.
Beside the limited space for the reading room, other chambers are now required. We should like to see a ‘games’ room in existence. A great many of the members are lovers of chess and other games of this kind. We think that no public library is complete without a room amply furnished with these necessary and delightful amusements. And we are quite sure that the authorities would see it constantly filled. Now we come to another pressing reason for an immediate increase of accommodation. Some hundred of fresh volumes have been added to the reference or standard library. These must be read on the premises. Though not the premise, not in the regular reading room, but in the room in which they are shelved. They must be kept distinct from the circulating books and thus another capacious chamber is required for this department also. At present they must be enjoyed (?) in a room which is the only working room the library possesses. Here the books are unpacked, marked and who, we should like to know is to read with any pleasure in a working room? And yet until the meeting of Governors on Monday, nothing seemed likely to be done in the matter. Hundreds of volumes are expected; they must be stored somewhere in the present library or remain unpacked and the shelves are terribly overcrowded even at present. And this is the state of the great library that is to be ; the library ‘that is intended to rival the Melbourne library on a small scale.” We think with Mr Justice Williams, that the delay was perfectly inexcusable, and the only hope that the committee will see their way at once to commence the erection of the library, despite all considerations except those dictated by their duty to the public and that they will hurry on as quickly as possible with what has become a pressing necessity and an urgent need.
Unemployment was such in Christchurch in 1878, that when an advertisement was placed for the appointment of an assistant librarian to the Public Library, at a salary of 30 shillings per week and free board, 120 applications were received.
By 1879, vandalism by library users became another problem as reported in the Star, July 4th, 1879:
For some time past, some of the visitors to the reading room of the Public Library have been in the habit of destroying the papers on the files and also the English and American periodicals which are placed in the room. Instead of being content to read from the files, these destructive individuals simply tear the papers off for greater convenience in reading, and in some instances hack them to pieces. Yesterday our reporter inspected a heap of papers treated in this way, none of which had been filed more than one month, and some of which had only been put on in the reading room a few hours before. Amongst the journals hacked to pieces were copies of the Graphic, Illustrated London News, Punch, the Sketcher, Home News, Saturday Advertiser and several other New Zealand papers. These were so torn as to be utterly useless for reference, and as a consequence, the files are rendered incomplete.
Such a well used set of public buildings required maintenance. In 1888 the library was closed for renovation and a thorough spring clean:
Today, the Public Library has been re-opened after having been subjected to what thrifty housewives would perhaps call a thorough spring cleaning. Wayfarers can see that these external walls which are of wood have been treated with several new coats of paint, and have now all the appearance of belonging to a new building. In the interior the painters have been hard at work and their labours have been followed by those of the floorscrubbers and between them apparently not a nook or cranny has escaped the general renovation. The walls through have been nicely distempered.
In the large reading room, one of the tables has been cleared away and to more than make up for its absence a long desk has been fixed against the west wall. In the middle of each table has been placed a tablet, on each face of which the library rules will be found. On other notice boards in this room are still the railway timetables and other useful memorabilia. The available space in this room has been slightly increased by the removal of the cabinet of geological specimens, which can now be found in the smaller reading room. In the corridor the improvement most noticeable are the new gas burners with nice lamp glasses. Close to the entrance door a framed sheet of corrugated glass has been fixed and here, visitors are requested to strike their matches instead of striking them on the walls as has heretofore been too frequently their practise. It is hoped that this provision of a proper place will save the newly distempered walls, which are certainly an improper place.
In the brick building, devoted to the Circulating and Reference Libraries only a thorough cleaning and dusting have been made and the linoleum covering the floor has been repaired where necessary. On the glass entrance doors has been printed in gold, “Open from 10am till 9pm” an intimation which it has been found necessary to make as conspicuously as possible in consequence of many people frequently knocking for admission and endeavouring to get in when the libraries are not available to the public. Advantage of the closing of the library has been taken by Mr Strong, the Librarian, to hurry on with the new catalogue of work requiring much time and patience. It is about half finished and the index of authors and subjects is being worked up.In connection with the Circulating library, it may here be stated that the books number about 10,200 and that 300 volumes of the works of such popular authors as Dickens, Thackery and others are on their way from home to take the place of those nearly worn out. The library is regularly in receipt of about 40 volumes of new works each month, exclusive of bound magazines, which number about 30 volumes more. In the Reference Library, the number of books is about 9000.Now that the evenings are beginning to draw in so very perceptibly, the number of those who seek recreation and instruction from books should be largely increased and the list of subscribers to the library should grow proportionately. 
On February 19th 1884, a ‘wide feeling of indignation amongst the public threw out the question’ as to calling a public meeting for a public library. The meeting was promptly acted upon by the Mayor and City Council. A public meeting for the citizens in Christchurch met at the Oddfellows Hall to consider the Public Library question. In 1890, at a meeting at the town hall resolutions were carried in favour of a Free Public Library and the formation of a Public Library Association, with the Mayor as President and Mr Justice Williams and Sir Roberts Stout as Vice Presidents. A Committee was appointed to inquire and report as to the best means of carrying out the resolutions. 
The librarian’s residence was built in 1894.
In the Star, June 1895 the paper announced that the library was reopening under new arrangements by which subscribers are to be allowed access, on certain conditions, to the bookshelves.
The barrier which fences off the book shelves has been moved forwards so as to enclose the front of the counter and the magazine tables also. Subscribers and subscribers only are admitted within the barrier. Books are not transferable, and when returned are to be handed to the clerk at the desk, and no books are to be issued to subscribers until those that they have previously taken out have been returned. there appeared to be general satisfaction among subscribers at the new arrangements.
In 1901, plans were begun by the architectural firm, Collins and Harman to build a new Public Reading Room on the corner of Hereford and Durham Streets. This meant that Samuel Farr’s two storey wooden building built in 1863, would be removed to make room. The addition was completed in 1901.
The original, first collection of books was enlarged to a second collection in 1913 which could be borrowed. In 1914, the gas lights were replaced by electric light in the buildings.
In 1924, Collins and Harman were commissioned to design another second two storey addition to be sited west of the 1875 library. It would provide a separate children’s library and large sandstone letters, “Children’s Library” were to be carved in stone above the front door. Although it complimented the earlier corner building’s red brick and cream sandstone materials, it did not share the fine Gothic style and detailing.
The collection of children’s books was built up by the British trained librarian, Ernest J. Bell during his employment from 1913 – 1951.
Anyone who wished to use the library could pay a small subscription, 10s a year or 6s half year in 1914, which entitled them to borrow one volume at a time, for a period of two weeks. There was a ‘circulating department’ arranged on the system known as ‘Open Access’ under which readers had direct access to the shelves and about 28,000 books.
The ground floor Reference Room c. 1930 offered unrestricted access to approximately 20,000 volumes. On the first floor, the magazine room was set apart for subscribers only.
In 1948, the Christchurch City Council took over the library. In 1952 the original and second collection were merged and became free to borrow. In 1956 the open gallery was filled in to provide space for the New Zealand Room.
Eventually, the children’s library was moved to the Armson corner building. For many years, the efficient women librarians dressed in floral smocks, worked tirelessly sorting the books as they exited or were returned to the shelves. Only the stamping of the due dates with rubber stamps on the issue slips and hushed whispers of visiting children punctuated the quiet calm of the formal Victorian atmosphere.
In 1979 a mezzanine floor was added to the building. Outside, a prefabricated building was built to relieve space pressure – it was clear that the library needed to be resited for space reasons. The library was moved to the Gloucester Street building in February, 1982. The old library was leased out as a commercial space.
In 2011, after 109 years, the long association this site held as a place of knowledge and recreation for the people of Christchurch came crashing down, and became the first victim of Christchurch’s public libraries.
- Hocken Snapshop (10th Jul 2012). 0353_01_002A.jpg. In Website Hocken Snapshop. Retrieved 4th Jan 2013 21:34, from http://hockensnapshop.ac.nz/nodes/view/3928
- Canterbury City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0080.
- Collins Graphic Series Postcards, Private Collection.
- The Weekly Press, Sept. 27th 1899, p. 54. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 8, IMG0019.
- Christchurch March, 1918. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: Arch-52-PH-2-8A.
- The Star, March 26th, 1888.
- The Star, September 3rd, 1890.
- Photographer Ferrier. Image: Private postcard collection.
- City of Christchurch Yearbook, 1906- 07. Image: Christchurch City Libraries Photo CD 19 IMG0010 IMG00101.
- Photographer Frederick George Radcliffe. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 35-R339.
- One Photograph, Black & White, 17 x 22 cm Christchurch City Libraries, 1335 PhotoCD 8, IMG0018 Archive 52.