By Stuart Strachan
Now that our fine new library redevelopment is finally open, it is timely to reflect on what the library means for our community.
Blueskin Bay has had a library in some form or other since 1867. Along with the store, two schools and St Barnabas church, it is one of our most enduring institutions, surviving the demise of two hotels, at least four churches, two railway stations, the police station, the post office, the Evansdale store, and the Orokonui hospital. Its 150th anniversary will come in 2017.
All communities, if they are to thrive, need both continuity and change. Change we have had aplenty, but for the Blueskin Bay community to continue in good heart, some solid timber from the past needs to be preserved and cherished, as well as new institutions developed. A well-founded library is an exceptionally good indicator of community well-being, and is all the more important in a digital age that can just as easily isolate as unite.
Dunedin's libraries are amongst its best-loved amenities, outstripping museums and even the botanic gardens in popularity.
Though always highly valued, Blueskin Bay's was easily the smallest and had begun to fall behind modern expectations. Uncomfortably, even grossly, cramped, it was no longer possible for the 1992 library, despite the best efforts of staff, to be much more than a place to select and borrow books, and then quickly leave.
These days, libraries are expected to be so much more – social spaces, information exchanges, centres of learning, and places where print and technology can interact creatively. The new library, almost three times the size of the old and with an enlarged stock of over 8,000 items, will allow just that. It will become what it should be, a place to browse and linger, gather new information, experiment with technology, and allow new activities – in short, a place for all: parents with infants, school children, retirees, beneficiaries, as well as those in paid employment.
About 140 attended the grand opening on Saturday, 4 May and, from the excitement, most share this view, looking forward to a much better library experience. If any should doubt this, they need only look to the enlivening effect the new Waikouaiti and Port Chalmers libraries had on their communities, or on a bigger scale the new Information Services Centre at the University of Otago.
To have left the Blueskin Bay Library as it was, adequate though it seemed to some, would in the long-term have condemned it to slow decline, even irrelevance. Redeveloped as part of a larger community space it is now far better placed to meet community expectations for many years to come. If the delighted response of the young children on Saturday, immediately settling down on cushions with books, is any gauge, the library is now well on the way to fulfilling its role as a principal, vibrant hub of a growing community. We are most fortunate to have it.