I'm going to miss the library bus when it goes.

The brilliantly coloured bus with its tui in full flight is a familiar sight around town.

I've followed it around over the past month, learning who uses it and how and why. The library on wheels is playing a special and important role in our community and its value goes way beyond providing a good read.

At Kawakawa Street this week, the bus' regular patrons were lined up on the footpath waiting for its arrival, like they always do. Mostly women, all elderly residents from the Ladysmith council flats who rely on the mobile service for their considerable lending.


There's a buzz of conversation once on the bus as books are returned, swapped and discussed. Sometimes the books pass through several readers' hands on a single check-out.

The majority of the adult books available on the bus reflect the reading tastes of this older audience.

If one of the regulars doesn't show up, neighbours and librarian alike notice and someone will check on them if need. You can't put a value on fostering community.

On Liverpool Street outside a childcare centre, three-year-old Nathan barrels on in a bright green beanie so large he can hardly see out from under it.

But it doesn't slow down the most efficient book selection I've ever witnessed — Gran says six books, and he's made his pick in about a minute.

It earns him a fully-stamped Hell Pizza card and he's pretty happy with that. (Whose brilliant idea is this? I'm completely okay with bribing kids to read if that's what it takes to get them started.)

Soon the back of the bus is full of bubbling pre-schoolers investigating the kids' section.

They are the other main audience to whom the mobile library caters, and it visits close to 30 schools and pre-schools each fortnight.

What Whanganui's new library van may look like.
What Whanganui's new library van may look like.

I'm told some of the kids that visit the library bus are growing up in homes that have no books. None.

When they first visit, some of the littlies don't know what a book is. They pick it up upside down or look at it backwards. They get the hang of a book pretty quickly, though.

"Nearly 400,000 New Zealanders didn't read a book last year" trumpeted the news stories last year, reporting on research by the NZ Book Council. True. But 88 per cent of respondents did read (or start to read) at least one book in 2016 — and an average of 20.

More than half of Whanganui's residents are members of our public library, slightly below the average at other similar libraries around the country.

There are about 2400 visits to the mobile library each month and, across the library network, more than half a million items were checked out in the 2016-17 year. That's a lot of books (and magazines and DVDs and e-books).

I'm sadly, wistfully, accepting that there are benefits to the mobile service being provided via a pair of vans rather than our ageing bus, which council claims is at the end of its useful life.

The vans will be introduced in January, all going to plan. They'll be on the road more because unlike the bus, vans don't need a HT license to drive. The schedule won't be impacted by licensed staff being sick or on leave.

The vans can get to places the bus can't (up the River Road, perhaps?).

A ramp to the van will be easier to navigate than steps, even though the bus kneels to the footpath. (Some elderly patrons resort to going backwards down the stairs before being passed their books by the librarian.)

Remarkably, each van will potentially be able to carry the same amount of books and other items as the bus. The extra-long wheelbase vans used by other public libraries are massive.

Library patrons will still be able to step inside and browse shelves and there will be a little place to sit.

The vans won't have the headroom the bus offers, or the spacious interior. They won't accommodate a group of kids or even a gathering of elderly neighbours the way the bus can.

But families in poor neighbourhoods and pensioners are least able to cope with rising rates and, somehow, a replacement mobile library bus would cost $600,000.

It's as hard to fathom as a million-dollar facility to house impounded dogs, but there you have it. The pair of vans will cost half that, and that's going to meet with ratepayers' approval.

Library buses are being replaced with vans around the country, I learn from Hilary Beaton, executive director, Public Libraries of New Zealand.

There is often a pattern of initial opposition giving way to acceptance as people get used to the change — and realise that the vans are more adaptable.

In at least one instance, vans have been set up so their contents can be taken out to the people: bringing the library into the rest home for example, rather than parking up outside and asking the rest home residents to come to the library.

There are plenty of examples we can learn from, to make sure Whanganui gets the very best van-based mobile library service we can afford.

NB: The replacement of the library bus is on the agenda for the Property and Community Services Committee meeting on Tuesday, July 31, and a report by Pete Gray (manager – libraries & community) is available on the council website .
*Rachel Rose is a local writer and life-long reader of books