Christine Dann is a knitter and a reader. She makes the case for keeping these very different activities separate.

If anyone reading this can pinpoint the year(s) in which New Zealand public libraries flipped from meeting the general definition of library in the Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science –

Library — from the Latin liber, meaning “book.” …. A collection or group of collections of books and/or other print or nonprint materials organized and maintained for use (reading, consultation, study, research, etc.)… staffed by librarians and other personnel trained to provide services to meet user needs.”

– and turned into de facto community centres where anything (else) goes, and books are mostly goners, Book Guardians Aotearoa would love to hear from you.

Did it start with cafes in libraries? Then move on to 3D printers, sewing machines, Lego, giant television screens, craft circles and council information booths? BGA hears that it is even proposed to make the ground floor of the central library in Auckland a drop-in centre for the homeless (many of whom also suffer from addiction problems). We’re not saying any of these things are bad. On the contrary, they all have a useful place in modern society. We just humbly submit that the buildings where people (used to?) go to read, do research, study and generally increase their knowledge and understanding of the world in a quiet and supported environment are not places which should be totally re-purposed as centres where they go to do other things which involve making noises and do not involve reading books.

We also submit that the honourable profession of librarian involves collecting, curating and cataloguing books and other library materials, and assisting library users in accessing the library contents best matched to their learning, research and writing needs. Not (never in a million years!) organising an attempt to break a Guiness World Record by knitting the largest blanket fort (fort?!) ever. The manager (clearly not a librarian) in charge of this non-library activity for the Timaru district libraries told RNZ on June 9 that it was “… a nice way for us to connect with our community – it’s a project by the community for the community.” And it doesn’t involve books or reading! So what better place for it to take place than in a library? In the Timaru, Temuka and Geraldine libraries, at least, where ‘knit and natter’ classes are currently all the go.

As someone who learned to read – and to knit – as a child, I have to ask how this is going to help the next generation of young people become good at reading (which is essential) or knitting (which I personally think is desirable, although not if it interferes with getting to be good at reading). But if a child enters a building called a library and sees a lot of screens with people glued to them, or sitting in chatty circles doing crafts or playing games, and no one reading books or taking notes from them, what will they think they are supposed to do there? And even if they do find a book they want to read, how easy will it be to concentrate with a lot of noise going on?

Whose responsibility is that young New Zealanders learn to read well and read widely, and that they have access to the great range of the books they need to learn and grow on? (Especially if they come from families which have no budget for buying books.) There is a lot of talk-talk about making all New Zealanders fully literate these days, but when library spaces are stripped of books and quiet places to read and study, where is the walk-walk? What chance do young people from families without means have of becoming scientists, historians, gardeners, you-name-it, unless they have access to the relevant books and a suitable place to study them in?

The critical importance of physical books rather than digital sources in the formation of knowledge and understanding has been well-documented by education and literacy researchers, such as Maryanne Wolfe. But the managers of civic libraries, and of New Zealand’s National Library, seem to be completely ignorant of these facts, and completely careless (as in ‘couldn’t care less’) about what impacts depriving the next generation of New Zealanders of the opportunity to read a great variety of books for free is going to have on the country’s cultural and economic life. As Wolfe and others document, screens are not a substitute for books. They have their uses, but they do not promote deep thinking and intellectual engagement.

Who is responsible for ensuring that new generations of New Zealanders get the opportunity to develop their minds through reading books? One can see how local government has come to drop this responsibility – which it once took very seriously when the first public libraries were set up – due to the pressure of other community needs. BGA is currently working on documenting when and how the National Library began abrograting its responsibility to collect and protect books and make them accessible to the public, regardless of what it is required to do under its Act. It’s a sad story. There’s no knitting involved, but anyone wandering into the empty book-less shell which is currently the ground floor of the NL building in Molesworth St must wonder if a book-targeted version of the neutron bomb hit it (takes out the books but leaves the people).

Those of us who used the Nationa Library before this happened remember the shelves of books, cabinets of photographs and helpful librarians on the ground floor fondly. We also remember the quiet Reading Room on the first floor, with no computer screens and a door one could and did shut to prevent ‘noises-off’ distractions from the text being studied. We ask – why can’t the politicians and bureaucratic bean-counters see that these services are not a frill or a privilege, but a necessary condition for knowledge to be transmitted and created, to benefit the cultural and economic life of New Zealand?

In 2017 Christine knitted one cardigan – this one for her great-niece – and read over one hundred books.

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