Banks Peninsula’s much-admired Akaroa isn’t short on sights to visit, yet blink twice and you could miss one of its most adorable must-sees. Hidden away in a back street is what surely rates as one of the town’s sweetest cottages. At first glance it is easily mistaken for one of the historic dwellings that make up the French settlement, but step inside and you’re in for a surprise.
The ‘cottage’ was designed by architect Samuel Farr after the land it sits on was donated to the Akaroa community in 1873. The little building, when first constructed, housed the Akaroa Library and Scientific Institute, an illustrious-sounding organisation devoted to the intellectual development of the growing settler town.
What this equated to, however, was the acquisition of learned books and newspapers that, in the main, suited only the males in the community. Which is why you must take a peek into the little room adjoining the library proper. It was here that the women of Akaroa gathered to chat and drink tea while their husbands sat around the warmth of the fire in the main room to read and smoke!
Today, thanks to a bunch of ingenious volunteers and a rather brilliant fundraising scheme, the library still operates much as intended (but with more reading material for the ‘ladies’!). Visit what is now ‘Coronation Library’ (the name change occurred in 2011 in order to attract a grant to commemorate the coronation of King George V) and you will find a thriving second hand book shop. It attracts both locals and tourists, especially the crowds which flock from the cruises liners that berth in the harbour each summer. Money from sales of the second hand books provides much of the funding which keeps the historic building maintained.
Coronation Library has now become so well known that its volunteers often receive requests from around the country for second hand books on a range of subjects –from local history to Rupert Bear. There’s always a great deal of excitement when a new box of books arrives, and always the hope that a rare volume will appear. If it does, it makes its way into the library’s permanent collection.
It’s this permanent collection which contains a number of significant books including several shelves of New Zealand titles. Curiously, there are also a number of books written in German. These were donated from early German wine makers who lived in Christchurch but had holiday homes in Akaroa.
Make yourself at home in the delightfully old-world leather armchairs that once served the town council, and settle down at the enormous native wood meeting table for a leisurely read. When you have a moment, glance up at the huge water colour, an original from the early days of Akaroa, which depicts unloading at the wharf.
Allow at least 20 minutes to view the building, and be sure to ask the volunteer on duty to show you around. This small band of dedicated Akaroa-ites are justifiably proud of keep alive one of our earliest pioneering libraries.