The heritage significance of one of the Northern Wairoa's earliest surviving timber buildings - once used to foster education, intellectual enlightenment and social stability - has been recognised by the country's leading heritage organisation.

Heritage New Zealand has listed the former Aratapu Public Library building as a Category 2 historic place on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero.

Originally built in 1874 at Aratapu - 10km southeast of Dargaville - as a school house, the building has been relocated and now serves as the music wing of the Dargaville Museum.

Aratapu was also known at the time as "Sawdust City" because of the vast quantity of sawdust produced by its kauri sawmill.

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"It may be hard to believe today, but in 1878 the Aratapu sawmill was the largest in the country employing about 300 men with an annual production in its heyday of 4.2 million metres of timber," says Heritage NZ manager Bill Edwards.

"The Aratapu Library building originally began life as a school house, with a small library operating out of one end of the building," he said.

"Two years after it was built, a small antenatal room was added by the Independent Order of Good Templars - an organisation that believed in community-based interventions to reduce the social harm caused by alcohol. It's interesting that the schoolteacher at the time, John Chilman, held a high post within the movement."

In 1879 a new school building was constructed, and the former school/library building was taken over by the library committee.

"The library was an attempt to foster family and community life, as well as 'sober pursuits'."

Alcohol was the main cause of disorder in the district with many petty crimes and accidental deaths caused by the "demon drink".

"The good citizens of Aratapu tried to combat the effects of excessive drinking through organisations like the Mutual Improvement Society, the Band of Hope and the Order of Good Templars," Mr Edwards said.

"The Aratapu Library sought to promote self-improvement through literacy, while providing a place for leisure activities like chess and draughts - and was an attempt to try to control the influence of alcohol by providing alternative activities for people that were more constructive than drinking."

Beautifully built by craftsmen from the Union Sash and Door Company, which operated out of the Aratapu sawmill, the building was constructed from local timber in classical Greek style and was designed to emulate high culture associated with intellectual self-improvement.