Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa
Te Rau Herenga O Aotearoa

Creating New Library Spaces in a Post-Earthquake Environment

Author: Christine Annan & Sally Thompson
Series: NZLIMJ Vol 53, No. 2
Publication date: Wed, 2013-08-14


By Christine Annan and Sally Thompson,  Christchurch City Libraries


Creating new library spaces in Central Christchurch after a devastating earthquake has provided some big challenges as well as some excellent learning opportunities and has cemented the role of libraries in communities during the recovery and rebuild after major natural disasters.

Christchurch City Libraries’ commitment to its customers and community provided the drive and impetus to find spaces in a devastated city to bring collections and a place for gathering to the community in an untested environment.

Many obstacles were encountered including limited funding and resources and this helped refine our planning and design skills while challenging the way we deliver projects and library spaces. This article discusses some of the key issues and features of three central city projects between July 2011 and July 2012.


Although Christchurch suffered a series of devastating earthquakes which saw the city grind to a halt and go into survival mode, it didn’t take long before communities were looking to their libraries to be open and provide a much needed community space and a sense of normality.

With several of Christchurch City Libraries facilities closed and especially our very busy Central Library, we set about finding suitable premises to set up and open libraries.  Our search criteria included a geographical boundary, a building that reached building and safety standards, parking, access (a place where people could get to easily was a big challenge), cost and size.  Finding appropriate spaces meant we had to kiss a few frogs.  We visited many sites, most of them empty, damp and sad looking.   It was a case of imagining the future but with no reference because we were living in an unknown world with so many issues that even today are still becoming apparent. Although we had criteria, we likened the experience to buying a new house. Sometimes a property “feels right” and you don’t know quite why.  During the process we learnt the importance of gathering people around us who are visionaries and risk takers who can see potential and bring others along for the ride.  Over a period of one year we settled on three sites suitable to set up small versions of our Central Library. The Places and Spaces team was required to carry out the design, layout and project management, while working closely with suppliers, internal customers, IT specialists and many others.  The support of Service Delivery Managers and management in general to create new teams from displaced Central Library staff was vital.


Central South City Library (South City) opened in July 2011.  It was a retail space of only 136 square metres in a small mall just within the four avenues perimeter.  The library was situated next to the only supermarket open in the area, adjacent to the food court and across from Paper Plus.  At the time of signing the lease, liquefaction silt was still on the floors, many of shop spaces were empty, the car park was very bumpy and most of the shops and businesses in the area were closed.  However, we could see that this small mall was proving to be a lunch time haunt for many of the red zone workers and trades people working in the area.  The mall management was not overly confident in the value we would add to the mall, but over the year the impact of the library presence was felt by our retail neighbours in the mall and beyond.  When it came time to move on to another venue, many of the customers and retail owners were sorry to see the library go.   One business owner estimated the library increased her customers by 30%. In the one year the library was open, 162,830 people came through the doors.   Flickr link to South City photoset:


Central Library Peterborough (Peterborough) opened in December 2011. It is a 1,250 square metre building situated on the northern fringe of the ‘redzoned’ CBD in an area with abandoned businesses, homes and some demolished buildings. The risk with this location was its supposed isolation.  We were one of the first businesses to open in the area and believed we would provide a good reason for people to come into town, create some activity, as well as provide library services to the local small but active community.  This rental property is made up of two spaces pulled together for the library from a bathroom showroom and an office space.  The building was damaged in the earthquakes and required a new concrete slab floor.  We installed a heating and ventilation system, power and data.  The cost of set up was expensive and we believe we were dream tenants, bringing a quality fit out to the building as well as much needed activity to the area. The first 12 months saw 305,800 visitors through the door.

Flickr link to the development of Central Peterborough Library  to see an internal view of the library.


Central Library Tuam (Tuam) opened in July 2012 in a space of approximately 1,000 square metres.  The location of this library achieved a long time aspiration of having a library next to the main public transport hub.   A coffee cart was already operating at the Bus Exchange and once a crossing and entrance was created from the Bus Exchange to the library, the cart joined the library on site which has been a mutually beneficial partnership. The building is owned by the Council which had many advantages including an emergency generator and some funding support.  The other end of the building houses the CCC Central Re-build service, providing support for business and land owners in the CBD to work through planning and consents required to get up and running post earthquake. A customer centre was set up, and the Christchurch Art Gallery shop was configured in between. 

Of all the temporary libraries this one required the most flexibility. The one condition of being able to convert the building into a library was that it could be transformed into a Civil Defence headquarters within hours of a major natural disaster occurring.  Prior to the earthquake, the space had been an electrical warehouse. This became a barn like Council staff accommodation space with functional rows of people working on trestle tables after 22 February 2011.  Our job was to turn the barn into an inviting and flexible space (flexibility on a new level).  The Tuam library opening saw the closure of the much loved South City library as it was only two blocks away. In the last 8.5 months there has been a foot count of 266,000.

Flickr link to Tuam St


Our branding was an important feature when working with buildings not designed for libraries as it helped our customers recognise and feel welcome in the new spaces. New colours and layouts had been planned for the Central Library prior to the earthquake and a daring carpet scheme was in place as part of a phased delivery. We had taken risks with these colours and although the carpet colours were risky prior to the earthquake, there was little mention of them upon opening the new library.  The excitement over the service and what it meant to people overshadowed past issues with colours.  This was an early indicator to us that there was a shift in attitude in the post-earthquake environment to a more tolerant community focused on what is most important to people.  This scheme formed the base of all three libraries and pulled the libraries together visually as one. At Peterborough and South City the patchwork carpet was instantly recognisable, but at Tuam we were unable to change the carpet so the same patchwork carpet colours were applied to the walls instead in large plywood blocks of colour. This was a great idea from the architect. The added colour and vibrancy is very welcome in a grey rubble dominated landscape.

Central Library TuamKeeping to plain white walls with splashes of colour in the furniture has been a key to creating a modern look without being overstated. The furniture was gathered mainly from the old Central Library and recovered in some cases.   Most of the furniture and equipment used came from the damaged Central Library and was chosen specifically to fit into the new temporary library environments and the common colour scheme.

Three complementary furniture colours seemed to work well for us – two that blend with each other and one to make the other two “pop”.


Physical challenges
Image of Peterborough LibraryCreating a library in a rental space has many challenges. Thinking about the costs of ‘making good’ a space when the lease is up was considered in our design as well as accounting for bland lighting and low light levels, less than adequate entrances and access.  As with most leased spaces, areas and proportions often don’t match the required proportions or needs.   We turned a meeting room and sick bay into a workroom at Tuam, created a tiny nook at South City and inherited a very large open plan workroom space to work with at Peterborough.  Ceiling heights ranged from low and oppressive to 20 metres high - all challenges that required smart thinking.  We were fortunate at Tuam to have the services of Athfield Architects whose work and support was invaluable.  Addressing car parking, security and fire systems all proved large and detailed pieces of work, trying to achieve all the relevant consents and sign offs also proved heart stopping in some cases.  W2 Limited were employed to help with consents and also added value to the design at Peterborough.


Service changes
Prior to the earthquakes of 2011, Christchurch City Libraries (CCL) had been planning the roll out of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)/Smart Libraries to the entire network.  The management team decided to continue the Smart Library plan, and in both of the large temporary libraries RFID was introduced. The new style of service delivery and differently configured spaces did prove challenging for some people, but in light of the changes in the city, it was well accepted and delivered and continues to be rolled out around the city.   The Smart Library model includes the removal of large issues desks, replacing them with RFID self service kiosks and staff ‘roving’ throughout the library providing support for customers wherever they are in the library.   Small ‘info’ desks have been introduced in various places throughout libraries and staff are encouraged to engage with customers in a more flexible way.  At this time there are 10 libraries operating in the new model.


Space – Competing needs 
The competing need for the available space at Tuam proved challenging and required good diplomacy skills.  We needed to accommodate about 50 extra staff as well as other Council staff which had major implications for the layout and design . In the early stages of the project there were constant expectations and negotiations for space which necessitated extremely flexible and fluid planning.

The final result was a sharing of the total warehouse space with the Art Gallery shop at about 70 square metres, and a sizable IT training room to accommodate an ever increasing Council Building Consents team.   All were divided by 3 metre walls which provided delineation but not sound barriers.

With the closing of another facility due to earthquake issues we suddenly had to accommodate more people.  A 13.8 metre sq metre room which had originally been earmarked as a flexible space for story times, library events and library customer training, and a sizable staffroom were both required as workspaces to accommodate an additional 40 colleagues.

Compromises were required which resulted in smaller adult fiction, non-fiction and Aoteoroa New Zealand (ANZC) collections housed at Tuam. This in turn impacted on a newly acquired warehouse space to accommodate collections removed from the red zoned Central Library as well as from other closed libraries.  The storage of collections continues to be a challenging exercise and we have learnt much from our experience, including the value of good insurance policies that allow for expenditure on shelving in a timely fashion.  Being able to purchase with an eye to the future for reuse has proved very important.  Secure offsite storage for collections is hard to come by and temperature controlled spaces are not available in a post emergency environment.


Creating ‘wow’ in temporary spaces


At Peterborough the floor to ceiling glass “shop frontage” has been used to best advantage by a layout design which showcases a large variety of the library collections and various seating options. This is where the bright pink, black and white of the Central library branding comes into its own, creating a warm, inviting and relaxing look from the street and car park, and drawing the eye in.

A leftover from the previous tenants was a large mezzanine display space.  The Christchurch Art Gallery approached us to help them with their Outer Space exhibitions.  Our space provided the perfect showcase opportunity to install a stunning creation, ’The inner binding’ by New Zealand artist Richard Killeen.   The artwork is a fantastic collaboration and provides a beautiful oasis in the middle of a broken community.

Floor to ceiling shop windows at South City created a backdrop for plinths to display the latest new books and to advertise various local Christchurch events and the collection that supported these.  Ensuring the Council branded bright blue and white signage was well lit and very visible meant there was no problem in finding the entrance to our small shop size library.

The ’wow’ factor was created at Tuam, by installing a large white canopy over the entrance area and colourful horizontal wood slats and decking around an outside portable toilet block. These features create interest and a bit of pizzazz to an otherwise bland warehouse type frontage without the advantage of windows.  Again, the bright blue Council branding was a beacon across the top of the building.

Image of exterior of Peterborough Library

Exterior of Tuam Library


Defining Space
The small shop space at South City required a very open look with the Issues and Returns counters, computer tables and small petitions being the only defining barriers.  Being a leased facility all the space defining features had to be removable.   With the placement of funky wall decals and children’s decorative elements plus rescued furniture the smallest children’s area was created.  This small, tucked away area was a beacon for families and children loved reading in a cosy cubby space.  Although white walls get dirty, they provided a perfect backdrop for colour and added much needed light and illusion of space.

Central South City Library Tuam Library


A very high ceiling at Tuam necessitated the creative use of different types of materials to separate library staff and customer spaces. To keep visual barriers to a minimum we created 2.5 metre high Kaynemaile walls. There are many creative ways to use this material and in this case, the strong clear plastic mesh was stretched between industrial looking metal tube frames which accommodated doors with locking mechanisms. These walls have proved to be an excellent cost effective option on a limited budget and help keep the almost windowless interior open and light.  They can also  be reused when the library is dismantled.

Creating quiet study spaces in a warehouse was challenging. MDF walls 3 metres high were built between the Council spaces and the library to provide the privacy required for these separate functions. Quieter library study spaces and the adult non-fiction collection have also been positioned adjacent to these Council spaces so that competing noise is kept to a minimum.

The challenge of melding two warehouse spaces into one at Peterborough was overcome by partially removing the wall between the two warehouses leaving two shorter length walls with large walkway spaces on either side. The result is well defined “living room” areas for various Central Library Peterboroughcollections and a cosy relaxed atmosphere. Installing collections along these walls effectively removed the walls from sight and achieved a seamless flow or transition from one warehouse space to the other. As one big space it would have been cavernous.

Designing a central spine for people to sit and read or use their own devices has also helped create the illusion of space and large living rooms without walls. Wavy modular couches are effective here as they can be arranged in a variety of shapes and provide some curves in a very linear space. These serve to channel the foot traffic and provide options for people to access different parts of the library collection and other services.

Existing building columns have been utilised as much as possible for cable conduits to small information points or sofa seating for wifi. This way they don’t become an eyesore or a barrier.


Layout : making hard decisions about Collections
The necessity to accommodate the breadth and depth of collections held at the Central Library was a difficult exercise. An initial review of what ‘flavour’ Peterborough and Tuam would have was a starting point.  This helped define needs and weed out what was not essential. It certainly was a juggling act to combine parts of specialised collections like World Languages, Family History, New Zealand Collection and Motor Manuals with the range of standard collections in a limited space.

Working out people flows and the best combination of collections positioned adjacent to each other, placing quieter areas near others of similar type, and noisy areas so they would not impinge on the comfort of library customers and the functionality of other areas was a real art. The layout designs have been a major achievement. In large warehouse spaces, it is easier to ensure the safety of customers through passive surveillence with collection areas open and visible to staff, especially children’s spaces.

Creating a layout moving from lower to denser shelving and by gathering collections with lower post height at the front of the library e.g. AV material, Bestsellers/New books  has given the illusion of space and allows sighting to other collections further away and to essential areas like returns and information points.

Public computers have been clustered together along a wall (Peterborough) or in one large space (Tuam) so they can easily be serviced and take up less floor space than scattered through the library.  This is different to the ‘clustering’ of computers we use in other libraries. The variety of furniture types for individual study and group collaboration and interaction has enabled users to change any space in the buildings into an IT area.  Regular “senior iPad’ sessions take place throughout the library and a group of design students makes a space their own every Saturday bringing much life and energy into the library. 

Working with a tiny shop space required a different set of skills and planning rules. South City challenged us to try new ways of doing things. This library was designed to be an initial presence in a broken CBD and collections were limited to popular and easy reading material. The layout principles gleaned from surrounding shops to sell their merchandise worked well. That is, higher post shelving installed along the walls with lower post shelving in the middle and shelving rows running from front to back rather than side to side made the best use of limited floor space and enabled easier access and people flows. Low impact shelving colours were also a must.  We chose reflective silver shelving that is used throughout our network for its ‘visibility’. This layout design maximised the collection size in a small space without being too imposing or looking cluttered.   We also made use of the mall space outside with Wifi users sitting outside and the Mall providing the tables and chairs.


Flexible space – on a whole new level
Creating flexible spaces is a challenge, having to design for a change that needs to happen within hours of a major event is a whole other level of planning. Tuam doubles as a library and potential Civil Defence Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) and this need impacted on the layout and design of the library. The ‘brief’ included the need to make all data and power outlets available instantly to become an EOC for the city.  The walls have been kept clear to enable this.

An overhead cable tray snaking through the library with the use of accompanying umbilical cords fits well with the industrial look of the warehouse and is also reflected in the vertical fittings as described previously. It also means the function of the space can be quickly changed to a computer hub for defence operations if required. To soften the look of the cable tray, lighting has been wound around, and in the children’s area the tray serves as train tracks for a large wooden train with storybook character inside.

Children's toys Cnetral Library Tuam


All shelving (3 bay and 2 bay units) is on wheels for easy removal.  It is expected that all desks, public PCs and furniture would remain and become part of the EOC.  The collection would be wheeled into the secure ANZC space for removal at a later date. Having wheeled shelving was certainly a great advantage during the set-up of Tuam, especially with other tradesmen working on the site at the same time to meet a tight project deadline for opening. 

In all three libraries, we have made sure that the temporary library is easy to take apart when it comes time to move on. Few holes in the walls, easily removed petitions, and carpet tiles installed without adhesives all help smooth the disassembling process.


RFID/Smart Libraries
The implementation of RFID affected the design of the entrance areas at Peterborough and Tuam to accommodate new equipment and furniture including RFID gates, self-issues kiosks on pedestals, smaller hydraulic information desks and returns functions behind a wall.


Image of Peterborough LibraryViolent earthquakes taught us that innocuous looking signage hanging from a ceiling can become a lethal weapon. Since the earthquakes we have dispensed with sharp edged metal hanging signs on thin nylon thread, many of which fell on February 22 2011.  In all temporary facilities these have been replaced with large bilingual wall signage to direct customers to different parts of the collection and at the same time this has reduced signage overall with the intention of creating less visual clutter without diminishing way finding for customers.

This new style of signage fits well with the  Smart Library staff roving model. It is minimal and does not state the obvious. A library can be over signed and we now work on the principle that less is more. Waiting until customers are using the space and monitoring the directional questions asked appears to be the best way to ensure any signage is meaningful and necessary and facilitates independent discovery.


There are many things we take for granted when developing libraries that in a temporary library require new ideas and ways to solve a problem.  After hours returns in a mall, car parking, signage and way finding are some of the problems we had to solve, as well as deciding what not to have, where to display collection in tiny spaces, reducing community information noticeboards were all as challenging to our colleagues as our customers.  Though grateful for a library, many customers were looking for ‘normal’ which we were able to deliver through familiar furniture, colours and staff.  Having positive wonderful library staff working with the customers was essential. 


Success factors
There are many factors that contribute to the success of projects.  Creating three temporary libraries within an 18 month period required an intense focus and process to enable success.  Key factors in this included a shared vision – sometimes a time consuming activity but a touchstone that proved invaluable.  Decision making had to be swift and sometimes autocratic to get things done.   The advice of experts and engineers was never more important, as much for the mental wellbeing of staff and customers which added extra value.   We relied on our own knowledge and experience to make good decisions.  Small teams with clearly defined roles helped immensely in the delivery of the projects.  All of them were hard working, flexible and adaptable and pushed resources to the limit – not highly recommended because, as we learnt, there is always another big project hiding around the corner.  Good communication and regular project meetings ensured all parties were kept informed and involved.  This has been an evolving process and we learnt some important lessons about keeping the right people informed as communication gaps can cause some problems. Understanding some of the consenting timeframes and processes would also have helped streamline some aspects of the projects.

Although a disaster of the magnitude of the Canterbury earthquakes is not desirable, the learning and development opportunities created from the disaster have proved invaluable in developing knowledge and processes that will contribute to all future library space planning and delivery.

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