Key Points:

The proposal to reconstruct the facades of the National Library building and bring it down from its podium to street level to make it more attractive to potential users seems like a good idea.

Public, university and school libraries don't look like fortresses and work hard to get as many people through their front doors as possible to justify their existence. So why should the National Library be any different?

The announced goal of the $80 million reconstruction (now expected to cost $100 million) is "to attract more visitors with a variety of interests and abilities by providing unique visitor experiences which cater for diverse interests, learning styles and modes of interaction".

Just like Te Papa. It is planned to triple visitor numbers to 400,000 a year.

The Molesworth St frontage will have a five floor-high glass atrium, with the easily accessible street-level floor, and parts of the atrium, given over to "lounge areas, lecture facilities, meeting and discussion spaces ... exhibition spaces, cafes".

And a retail outlet, "conferencing, theatre concourses", spaces for oratory, welcoming and ceremonial occasions, large moving displays of digitised materials from the Turnbull Library's collections, a "Breaking News cafe where information of immediate interest (including CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC) will be broadcast to patrons", and consoles for access to digitised materials.

No books whatsoever will be seen or available on the ground floor to acclimatise users for the totally digital future of the library.

Unfortunately, according to latest calculations, the allocation of all of the ground floor, and substantial parts of the other floors, to digital screens, lounge areas, meeting and discussion spaces, retail outlets, etc, will mean that when the $100 million has been spent and the collections are ready to be moved back into the building in 2011, there will not be enough space for them.

The building will shed its contemporary architecture and decor in order to align itself with the people it represents and adopt a more deeply Maori and Pacific attitude.

The Molesworth St facade will become a "tattooed face".

The street frontage is designed to be a $65m dynamic glass shopfront for the library's collections and services, directly engaging passers-by, and the greatly increased profile will enable it to engage with and draw more people to the Parliamentary precinct.

Through the exhibitions and projected digital displays the content of the National Library will become "part of the daily life" of Wellingtonians and a "must see" destination for tourists and visitors.

Hold on a minute. Is this really the business of our National Library? And how will the taxpayers outside Wellington feel about spending $100 million to transform a national institution into another Wellington attraction for sightseers?

A country's National Library is not a public lending library, or a school library, or a university library, or a museum serving a local population group. It is a special kind of institution that stands behind the shopfronts of the rest of the library system and meets national needs that other libraries cannot meet.

The New Zealand National Library as it was created by the Act of 1965 was such a library, with a substantial national collection of its own - not for lending directly to the public but as a national resource for high-level research and to back-up the national co-operative inter-library loan scheme.

It had a commitment to filling the gaps in the nation's resources of books and periodicals and to ensure, in the words of Geoffrey Alley, the first National Librarian, that one copy of every worthwhile book in English was freely available to all New Zealanders.

This Wellington collection was to be a library of last resort, preserving one copy of every publication ever held by New Zealand libraries.

Other libraries could feel free to discard worn out or infrequently used publications because of this guarantee by the National Library that the last copy would be maintained in the national collection should it ever be needed.

It also maintained general collections outside Wellington in the Extension Division (Country Library Service, School Library Service) to supplement, through bulk loans and inter-library loan, the collections in small public libraries and schools. to ensure equality of access throughout New Zealand.

It was also responsible, on behalf of the national community, for publishing a list of all books and pamphlets published in New Zealand or about New Zealand (the National Bibliography), indexing New Zealand content in periodicals.

And for maintaining a national inventory of all the books, periodicals and newspapers held by New Zealand libraries to facilitate library interlending.

In the Alexander Turnbull Library it maintained a comprehensive collection of New Zealand material for research which was to be maintained in perpetuity.

Such a National Library was designed to be the library community's reserve bank, not just another Wellington retail bank trying to maximise the number of customers coming through the front door.

Those of us responsible for planning the new building on Molesworth St wanted one that would serve these national purposes.

The building was deliberately set back from the street on a podium to symbolise that it was different from other libraries in New Zealand, in that it was not a street-front library but a national backstop for the whole library system. We were concerned that if the new building looked like a public library people were likely to see it as the North End branch of the Wellington Public Library and flood it with inquiries. If the National Library tried to meet this demand it would distort its purpose; if it didn't it would create a lot of frustrated Wellingtonians.

The building also needed to convey the role of the library as safekeeper in perpetuity of the Turnbull collections and the copies of last resort of other publications entrusted by the library system. The architects not only got it right, they created one of Wellington's outstanding public buildings of the second half of the 20th century that is now part of our cultural heritage.

* Jim Traue was chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library and a member of the senior management of the National Library from 1973 to 1990.