‘In a way, the quakes have pushed us to develop our community role’: Interview with Carolyn Robertson of Christchurch City Libraries, New Zealand

There can be no greater challenge to a library service than a natural disaster – except perhaps that same disaster repeated.

That’s exactly what faced Carolyn Robertson and her team at Christchurch Libraries when, in September 2010 and again in February and June of this year, earthquakes struck their home city on New Zealand’s South Island.

Yet, as Carolyn explained to me recently, ‘In a way, the quakes have pushed us to further develop our community role. They’ve actually strengthened Christchurch Libraries’ vision of equity of access.’

Carolyn Robertson of Christchurch City Libraries, New Zealand
"We understand the word “library” in the widest possible sense." - Carolyn Robertson, Christchurch City Libraries

I visited Carolyn, Christchurch City Libraries and Information Manager, at the city’s South Library earlier this year. It’s one of the liveliest and most modern I’ve seen in on literacy adventures throughout Northern Europe, the USA, and Australia as well as New Zealand.

The community has clearly taken to this bright, multipurpose space which includes a great café, children’s play area and an exceptional periodicals collection. The only evidence of the quakes is a display of letters from well-wishers around the world, which brightens one wall of the reading area.

Yet this lovely headquarters for the library service is actually a fallback space, taken up as the city’s principal library after the February quake put the Central Business District out of bounds.

In the days immediately following the disaster, the librarians of Christchurch demonstrated the importance of libraries as a community service in times of need – a vital message at a time of increasing financial austerity around the world.

‘After February’s quake,’ Carolyn explained, ‘we offered storytelling sessions in Emergency Welfare Centres and Suburban Recovery Centres – keeping children entertained while parents had much-needed adult conversations in the wake of the disaster.

‘Christchurch still needs a lot of TLC now. In the worst affected areas, we’ve used the Mobile Library and pre-school outreach team to offer regular activities to schools and kindergartens.’

The earthquakes, and the damage they wrought, have been a spur to Christchurch librarians in broadening their commitment to the community.

‘We want to change the way people see libraries and use them. We understand the word “library” in the widest possible sense. In the 21st century, the library has taken on the role of the village square.

‘Immediately after the September 2010 earthquake, before the Central Business District was closed off, people flocked to the outside of the Central Library, using it as a Wi-Fi hub from the street. When phones were down, the library was a vital communication access point.

‘We think it’s important to keep Internet access free, and to make libraries champions of Wi-Fi for the whole community. NZ Telecom supported us by installing the technology in those libraries that didn’t already have it, and the earthquake has actually strengthened our desire to offer free Wi-Fi throughout the central city.’

Christchurch City Libraries’ vibrant Twitter service and Facebook site offer engaging ways to communicate with customers, highlight resources, promote events and engage with like-minded souls around the globe.

‘We’re going to keep on growing all these facets of our service,’ Carolyn told me at our meeting.

‘We’re keen on making the most of the Internet and social media. We like our staff to share subject specialisms and personal passions via the library website: with 19 libraries employing more than 400 people we’re keen that interested staff are actively contributing to our online presence.’

To find out more about Christchurch Libraries, visit http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/

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