In New Zealand’s 1989 local government reforms, Hokitika Borough was merged with Westland County, which raised a pressing question in the minds of the town’s readers: would the library remain free? In 1908 a donation of £2500 from the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie gave Hokitika a splendid new library, with FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY emblazoned above the portico. Despite this, borrowing required paying a subscription. This was eventually dropped for Hokitika residents, but in the 1980s anyone living in Westland County still had to pay. At the time of the merger the library had 2,536 borrowers registered, and the District Librarian Marian Hansen predicted as many as 2000 new members from outside Hokitika might join. How would this be funded? Several councillors wanted to institute “user pays” and charge every library member in the new Westland District, but the Mayor, Durham Havill, argued this would drive users away, and would jeopardise them receiving free books from the National Library.
Since the beginnings of the Country Library Service in 1938 the National Library of New Zealand had supported provincial libraries with regular exchanges of books. In the 1970s, Hokitika Library was receiving fresh crates of 300–400 titles every three months, mostly non-fiction and tailored to the preferences of the local librarian. The books were conveyed from Christchurch by a professional librarian in a book van, who was able to give advice on managing or expanding the collection. The National Library book shipments were withdrawn in the late 1980s, and this was the death knell for small rural libraries; local authorities were made responsible for servicing them instead, so many closed down.
As membership of the Westland District Library was extended for free to all residents of the District, all the remaining community libraries could make use of the Hokitika collection. By 1994 there were seven community libraries and three school/community libraries in South Westland, stretching from Ross to Haast. All were run by volunteers and serviced a population of just 8800 scattered along 300 km of coast. Some of the libraries like Haast’s were run from a community hall and received shipments of books every few months, couriered by anyone who happened to be travelling south. Others, like Okarito and Fox Glacier’s, lived on the well-stocked shelves of private homes. The Franz Josef Library was run from the Heli-Services office, but moved to a purpose-built room behind the school in 1998. Whataroa School Community Library opened in June 1991 in one of the prefabs of Whataroa School – previously the books had lived in a wardrobe in the church hall. It was the first to merge a community library with its school collection, followed by Hari Hari, and in 1993 by Kaniere.
Meanwhile the library in Hokitika continued to grow. The Carnegie library building was built without taking into account the punishing effect of the West Coast’s rainfall, and by the 1970s was damp and leaky. The library collection moved in April 1975 to a bright and airy Borough Council building at 20 Sewell Street. When it began to outgrow this space, what was now the Westland District Library moved in June 1992 up Sewell Street, to the former Post Office building on the corner of Ward Street. The building had become the offices of the Westland District Council, and the ground floor was extended towards the street to make a larger, well-lit space. The new library opened its doors on Monday 8 June.
In early 1989 Marian Hansen had become the Head Librarian, soon retitled District Librarian, replacing Andrew Davey. Her assistant was Sandy Blake. By 1991 Erica McLeod had taken over; she oversaw the move to Weld Street, and remained head of the library until she retired in the mid-2000s. She had Shona Winter as a Library Assistant, who by 2002 had become Assistant Librarian; other library assistants included Victoria Minehan, Jean Brewer, and Amy Richards.
When Pat White started in 1969 as sole-charge librarian in the Carnegie building, library hours were limited: weekdays only, 11:00–12:30, then a lunch break so the librarian could pop home, reopening 1:45 until 5:00 pm (except for late night on Friday, the busiest ). By the time White left in 1973 the library was opening about 38 hours a week (10:00 am to 5:30 pm). This increased to 40.5 a week in 2004 and is 46 hours today. It’s worth noting, though, that in the early days of the Hokitika Public Library the reading room was open 69 hours a week: 10:00 am – 9:30 pm, every day but Sunday.
Since its opening the library had issued books on a cardboard ticketing system, but this changed in July 1992 when it installed its first searchable computerised catalogue, running on ms-DOS-based Catalist. Library users nervous with computers were offered tuition. A grant from the West Coast Community Trust in 1996 allowed the library to buy a “multi-media computer”, which was connected to the Internet in October 1996. Users could surf the web for $2 for 15 minutes, but the District Librarian was adamant that ”if the answer to a question can’t be found in a book at the library, it probably won’t be found on the Internet either”. In December 2002 Catalist was replaced by Windows-based .eLM; polytechs and schools had been using .eLM, but Westland District Library was the first public library to adopt it. This let the library add a searchable catalogue to its website in February 2004.
In 1997 new plastic library cards with a sketch of Port Hokitika were introduced, replacing old cardboard ones. At the time the library had 4534 registered borrowers, but many were inactive or had moved away. Overdue fines were doubled in 1999, to some public protest: after a week’s grace, borrowers were charged $2/week, up to $10 for a book a month overdue. By 2003 overdue notices were going out by email. in the mid-2000s the library was required to come up with 8–12% of its budget from user fees, so charged 75c or $1.50 for bestseller book loans, 50c for magazines, and $1 for reserves; most of these charges had been removed by 2011. The library’s holdings had grown from 12,673 books in 1989 to around 20,000 in 2003.
The library stayed on Weld Street for 17 years, but was once again running out of space. In 2009 it moved back to 20 Sewell Street. In the interim the building had been home to the Sheep Station, a possum/merino vendor that built an entranceway in the shape of a giant concrete ram under which you had to pass. The post-gigantic-sheep years will be covered in a separate blog post.
- Interview with Pat White, 6 June 2021
- Hokitika Guardian and Greymouth Evening Star clippings, Westland District Library media archive, 1989–2004
- Stapleton, Doug. (2007) Wanderings in Westland. Hokitika: Grey Star James Print.
- Stapleton, Doug. (2009) More Wanderings in Westland. Hokitika: Grey Star James Print.
- Giant sheep © Ron Mader, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
- Other images are from the library archives, available at Wikimedia Commons in the Westland District Library category, CC BY 4.0