Wellington Scoop

Unique and irreplaceable – so when will it be reopened?

closed and fenced library

The Wellington City Council has postponed its decision on the Central Library for another week. Its 14-month closure, with no date to reopen, is causing consternation in the community, and for good reason – libraries are not just a repository of books and magazines and movies and music; they are part of what it means to be a civilised society.

The book-and-movie-and-music lending part of libraries may be on the decline, fuelled in part by the inexorable growth of content on the Internet. But loaning physical objects to people who walk through the door is only a small part of what libraries do. They are the “third place” – somewhere that isn’t home and isn’t work, where you’re entitled to go by the simple act of being in a city. And in that sense, they are a unique and irreplaceable part of our culture and our society.

Libraries don’t charge you anything to walk through the door. They don’t insist that you buy a latte before you’re allowed to use the wifi. Unless they’re closing for the night, libraries don’t mind how long you stay, or whether you’re there to read a book or just look out at Civic Square and watch the rain. Libraries don’t tell you what to read, and they’ll go to lots of effort to help you find exactly the right thing to read if you’re so minded. They don’t behave like the Internet and track everything you look at and then follow you around trying to sell you things based on some arbitrary profile of what people like you should be interested in.

Libraries love it when you browse aimlessly and discover books and subjects you never knew existed. They organise their books according to principles that we all vaguely understand, but they still have spaces for the unexpected and the interesting and the diversions and the complexities of everyday life, in a way that the Internet has never achieved. Libraries don’t insist on giving you a newsfeed full of opinions just like yours, and they make us all richer as a result.

Libraries are places where school kids can go to study or just hang out, and where teenagers can pick up a book and imagine the adults they want to be. They are places where children can listen to stories and adults can have the unutterable pleasure of being the people who read those stories to small children. Libraries are a place of solitude for those who want it, and company for those who need it, and a place to be when you don’t want to speak to anyone but need the reassurance of knowing you’re not alone in the world.

To state the obvious, malls and cafes and streets and our homes and our workplaces are not libraries. Libraries are unique, and vastly under-rated; it doesn’t matter whether you’re wealthy or poor or merely in-between, because they will always welcome you through their doors, and despite not having paid a cent to be there, you will always leave richer.

And it’s for these reasons we are so concerned about the fate of our Central Library.

The other un-acknowledged thing that libraries do – particularly central libraries in the hearts of cities – is that they create a sense of place. So while people point out that books can be read and stories told and daydreams be indulged in a multitude of places, we also need libraries to help create our cities. And this is what is most distressing about the city council’s decision to keep the Library closed – it is un-making our city.

Wellington is crammed between the hills and the sea, strung along a thin strip of reclaimed land, with no natural centre. That’s partly geography and partly the arbitrary decisions of the people who laid out the roads and the buildings and the railway lines. But it is what it is, and it’s the coolest little capital partly because of those constraints. And as a result, there’s no obvious place to go that says, I’m in the centre of Wellington. So in the 80s we closed a road and built Civic Square as that place.

In spite of its critics, there’ve always been a few different elements that made Civic Square work: the sheltering buildings, the presence of enough people working in those buildings to give the place some life, and the architecture of the Town Hall and the City Gallery and the Library, all cohering into an unlikely whole, linked to the sea by a bridge that is whimsy cast in concrete. And not to over-romanticise the place, it also has its share of bad design decisions and faults, from wind tunnel effects to a paving surface that could closely resemble a prison exercise yard in the wrong weather.

But still: it was the natural heart of the city, where kids could play and protesters could gather and bands could play and politicians could pronounce. The city was richer for having a Civic Square – but the closure of the Library has all but killed it.

And that is the real problem with the council’s 14-month procrastination about the fate of the Library. Because it’s a public place where anyone can go and no access cards are needed and coffees need not be purchased in order to be there, it helps put the civic in Civic Square. Granted, we can go to the City Gallery and wander around, and in the fullness of time and/or when Hell freezes over, we’ll be able to go to concerts and events in the Town Hall again. But those are occasional things, not everyday things; at least, not everyday things in the way the Library is.

And the longer the Library is closed, the less we have a sense of place for Wellington.

We need a Library – but we also need the Aotearoa equivalent of a town square. If the Library is dispersed around the town and becomes merely a utilitarian function operating out of a collection of repurposed storefronts, then the city will lose the very thing that the construction of Civic Square was meant to fix. Stand in the middle of Civic Square today and look around at the empty buildings and the scaffolding and the empty precinct, and you’ll see how little the place resembles the vibrant heart of a dynamic city.

Now, the council have said that they want to redesign Civic Square. But here’s the thing: we don’t trust them. And their track record is appalling.

The council used to be great at creating public spaces – Frank Kitts Park, the waterfront, Civic Square, Waitangi Park, Midland Park. But somewhere along the line they lost their urban design moxie, and all that’s left is endless bickering about projects that never seem to happen – yes, we’re looking at you, Frank Kitts Park 2.0. And even if progress eventually occurs, it’s years and years overdue and tens of millions of dollars over budget – the Town Hall being the poster-child for the dysfunction, although there are plenty of other contenders.

If the council was an urban design company and the last decade was their curriculum vitae, we wouldn’t employ them to redesign the local playground, let alone give them a project of the significance of Civic Square. And that’s why there’s such a huge level of distrust over the fate of the Library.

But in reality, we not only want our Central Library back; we want Civic Square back as well. And nowhere in the endless consultation and hand-wringing have we seen a single option that seems a sensible and practical and affordable way of achieving that.

So in the meantime, how about we observe the first principle of any intervention: First, do no harm. Until the council can prove that they have a plan for Civic Square that is sensible and practical and affordable and which will restore it as the town square of Wellington, then how about we do the simple thing, and just repair the Central Library and get it open again as soon as we can. (And that doesn’t mean after six more years.)


  1. Wendy, 28. May 2020, 10:25

    100% agree PCGM. Sums it up perfectly, but will councillors listen?

  2. Julia, 28. May 2020, 11:23

    Fantastically put. I hope the Council will read this and take note. Well done.

  3. Al, 28. May 2020, 11:25

    With unemployment rising, having a safe warm place to go to for study, reading, research and self improvement is essential. Now more than ever, the loss of our beloved Central Library will be felt by our community. Thank goodness for Wellington.Scoop’s contributors and commentators for continuing to write on this issue.

  4. Ben Schrader, 28. May 2020, 13:51

    Justin Lester arguably lost last year’s election by prevaricating on the Library issue and letting his CEO manage the decision-making – initiating the current stasis. Andy Foster has the chance to redeem the slow start to his mayoralty by stepping up and making the re-opening of the Library his No 1 issue. And he needs to make it happen in the short and not the long term. Most Wellingtonians don’t give a stuff about the Convention Centre – we’re not the target market – but we do care about having a fully functioning Central Library. Our elected representatives must know that by now! If they can’t make a decision about proceeding, then they have a moral obligation to let us all know why.

  5. michael, 28. May 2020, 14:42

    Councillors seem to be fed information to suit whatever agenda the officers want. There is a need for more transparency throughout the council. In accordance with their WCC Code of Conduct, councillors “should be as open as possible about their actions … and should be prepared to justify their actions”. And they “should act in a manner that encourages and values community involvement in local democracy”, which seems to be lacking these days.

  6. Pseudopanax, 28. May 2020, 17:53

    Thank you PCGM for such a brilliant piece… articulating what thousands of us are feeling Truly Madly Deeply. Surely the Library/ Civic Square deserves the same urgency as the repair of the broken sewage pipe from Moa Point to the Landfill. We seem to be no further on since that Day of Infamy in March 2019 when the then Council CEO bullied the former Mayor into closing it after a few hours notice. What a depressing legacy of both individuals. Mayor Foster and Wellington Councillors..PLEASE Hear Our Prayers!

  7. Barbara Hodson, 28. May 2020, 19:55

    Great article. No city should be without a library. I believe it is one of the most important places in a city. What is wrong with the Council that they can’t do something about it?

  8. Peter S, 28. May 2020, 20:54

    What’s really annoying is that the council should have started public engagement the day after the closure! Now we have lost a full year waiting for the elusive engineers’ report. It was obvious what the approximate cost to fix the library would be, since many buildings have been earthquake strengthened before (it is not a new area of engineering). The exact cost from (say) $30M to $60M is a moot point really. If it has to be done, it has to be done.

  9. michael, 29. May 2020, 10:59

    We have waited months for a report the council will not release to the public, only to hear that the estimates provided are ludicrous and unacceptable. So what’s next? More reports and peer reviews?

  10. D'Esterre, 29. May 2020, 22:40

    “Justin Lester arguably lost last year’s election by prevaricating on the Library issue and letting his CEO manage the decision-making – initiating the current stasis.” It certainly influenced the way I voted. And it will most definitely influence how I vote next election, if Council dithering continues. I want action on the library, and pronto.
    Please, Mr Mayor and Councillors: listen to the ratepayers and reopen the library immediately. Then you can put together a plan for its strengthening, to be carried out over the next few years as funding permits.

  11. wendy, 30. May 2020, 15:49

    As I see it, the fundamental problem is the way power and influence in decision-making currently flows down from WCC, not up from the public. Communities and residents must be involved at the beginning of the decision-making process, where their input can have some authority and buy-in on the outcomes, rather than being given council determined options to choose from at the end of a process.

    Consultation should be collaborative not autocratic, and to achieve this the WCC should be willing to challenge their underlying principles and effect change to work alongside communities – not ‘above’ them. Overseas experience has shown that, rather than being disillusioned, cynical, apathetic, confrontational, and over-consulted, empowered communities become dynamic, inclusive, united and have a greater sense of place.

  12. Northland, 30. May 2020, 17:07

    Great article PGCM. You have captured my thoughts exactly as to why the Central Library is so important to Wellington.

    My children often comment sadly about how there is no Central Library to go to any more. They often came to borrow books, yes real physical books, but they also came to hang out, to feel warm and welcomed, to be inspired and proud of the building itself, and to feel a sense of community with other Wellingtonians.

    Wellington needs its library back, and back soon. We need to get Civic Square functioning again, and we need to seriously stop the procrastination. I thought Andy Foster could deliver these things, could I really have been so wrong?

  13. Andrew H, 30. May 2020, 19:37

    Very good article. The Council is incapable of making significant decisions. Besides e-scooters, they haven’t done much.
    I used to work remotely in the Central Library once or twice a week and I was always surprised how many school children were there after school. Many were having tutorials from Vic Uni students earning some additional cash. Three uses of the building at one time.
    Come on WCC, get your fingers out and make a decision.

  14. Marion Leader, 31. May 2020, 8:24

    When councillors consider the library, are they given any reports showing how useful it is? I don’t suppose that this lot of councillors know the usage which Andrew H describes and which i have noticed many times myself.

  15. Polly, 31. May 2020, 8:29

    Well said and I agree with so many including Barbara and Andrew – the library should be No 1 on the priority list. I trust Wellingtonians are making this point on the Council’s 2020/21 Annual Plan. As for the “sea level rising” against the current library site – resource consent has been given for an office block on Site 9 on the waterfront!

  16. Former Wellingtonian, 31. May 2020, 11:00

    It is a tragedy that the City Council has allowed this to go on for so long. It is all about priorities and this should have been at the top of them for a new Council. As an out of town borrower, I used to relish coming in to Wellington and getting things not available in my small town. My own local library incidentally, during the lockdown and even Level 2 when it is not fully open, is offering a librarian delivery service or even a librarian’s choice where they chose books for you based on your previous checkouts. As PCGM says, a library is a lot more than just books and a building. Just get on with it WCC.

  17. Mary Hubble, 1. June 2020, 11:35

    Great article. When is the meeting that is supposed to consider the Central Library building’s future, and will it be open to the public? Any thoughts on how the people of Wellington might go about convincing the council they should not make decisions on this critical piece of civic infrastructure without adequate information on the options and costings provided and debated in the public arena? Are we expected to swallow the absolute nonsense that this is ‘commercially sensitive’ so we can’t be allowed to know anything about it? Let’s have some real transparency. [The meeting will be on Wednesday starting at 1.30pm. It will be on Zoom and can be watched on YouTube, where you can also see previous meetings including last week’s discussion about the Library.]

  18. michael, 1. June 2020, 14:07

    Maybe the only way forward is for action, such as an injunction against the council making any decisions regarding the library until the public are properly informed, or a complaint to the ombudsman. It seems clear the WCC have failed in their duty under the Local Government Act 2002 to provide the public with “with reasonable access to relevant information in a manner and format that is appropriate to the preferences and needs of those persons … for example reports … considered before the decisions were made”.

  19. James, 1. June 2020, 16:17

    There is a new paper up for discussion on Wednesday which sets out a different consultation process which might result in a faster decision. It says there are “concept structural designs for three potential remediation schemes” as well as “a condition assessment for the building services,” so I hope the ratepayers will get a chance to see these before too long.

    The full paper is available on the WCC website here.

  20. Doug Calhoun, 2. June 2020, 11:53

    James. Thanks for the link. Council officers should be sent off to take a plain English course. Why use one word when ten will do!

    Translation: “We have a new, faster plan. Funding will need to be available in the 2022 financial year.”

    No wonder councillors can’t make decisions. It takes up most of their time just trying to read and then understand what the papers are saying.

  21. Sally, 3. June 2020, 11:33

    Great article PCGM. Agree with article and comments made here. The loss of our central library for all of those reasons not just the books, is tragic. The time wasted already and the time being projected without a central library is like an earthquake did occur, sacrificing a generation to be raised without access to our city’s community heart – what a great loss!
    Council please Hear your public asking to get the strengthening done immediately, then work out your long term plans. This dithering is affecting your community. Above all Care, then be bold, decisive and effective, look at Jacinda …

  22. James, 5. June 2020, 6:29

    Various engineering reports have now been published on the Council website.