Wellington City councillor Rebecca Matthews fights the sale of the city’s public library
I sat aghast last week as Wellington Mayor Andy Foster and the majority of my councillor colleagues blithely put our library up for sale and slashed two years of our library resource buying budget by 40 percent. It threatens to leave a weird, gaping hole in the collection that could never be filled.
What did they vote to support? “Library costs condensed into years 3 and 4 rely on partnering or milestone contracting/ financing noting that these options will be included in the preferred option in the Consultation Document.” Literally just this statement – no numbers, no paper, nothing.
I read a lot, but I can’t tell you what that means. It doesn’t say this is just about office space, and it doesn’t just say only ‘half the building’ will be up for private use. It says nothing. This is a blank cheque on the future of the library system, and a low point in governance of our city.
As a working class kid whose parents both left school at 15, libraries were everything to me. Comfort, escape, excitement and a better understanding of people who were different from me could all be found between the covers of books. That kid whose nose was (and is) always in a book, is angry and ready to fight attacks on our public libraries in Wellington.
Last year, council officers tried to initiate a public private partnership to rebuild our library. Councillors voted no, and an elaborate and expensive engagement process said selling all or part of the building was not an option. This zombie privatisation was brought back to life last week by the Mayor in our Long Term Plan, via a late night email with two days notice.
Library sell offs and cuts are not necessary. Wellington has got huge problems, but austerity is not the way. We have the capacity to take on advantage of low cost borrowing to move us forward. Our debt levels are much lower than other cities, and it makes sense to spread infrastructure costs across the generations that will use them. Why not vote to support a lower- level remediation to fix our central library (as I did) to get the library safe and get it open?
Libraries are more than the sum of their parts. The library as a public space has become just as important as the books on the shelves. For homeless people, lonely people, young people, a library is home.
We shouldn’t sell any of this building because we would be selling our control – over the rebuild, but also and most importantly, control over the future. As our city grows, we may well have a better use for the space than offices. The library of 50 years from now will be very different from the library of today.
Private public partnerships have been tried and failed so many times (hello, Transmission Gully?). And so has austerity. This budget may be spending big on pipes but slashing book budgets and selling off assets is the very definition of austerity. We know from our own national history that there are always alternatives.
In bad times, when you’re in the midst of a global pandemic and the shit is literally hitting the streets, you need libraries more than ever. Under lockdown, our library memberships surged and people found the E-books a lifeline. I don’t think I was the only person in Wellington who “panic borrowed” from my local library. As Zadie Smith says “A library is…the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.”
Libraries are essential city infrastructure, just the same as trains or pipes or footpaths. Libraries are the core infrastructure of our communities, and our imaginations.
I don’t want to have to fight to keep a library we already own, especially not when Wellington is the capital of the housing crisis, with a chronic accommodation shortage and skyrocketing rents and house prices.
But I will. And I know Wellingtonians will in upcoming consultation on our long term plan. You come between a Wellingtonian and their library at your peril.
Slashing book budgets and selling off our central library? Not on my watch. No way.