The oldest public library in Canterbury was originally based in one of the Canterbury Association’s Immigration Barracks on lower Oxford Street that housed colonial settlers bound for the newly purchased Canterbury plains. The Reading Room was set aside on June 30 1851 just six months into the venture with an initial collection of around 500 volumes, apparently gifted by newly arrived colonists with too much baggage! The librarian, a Mr Calvert, organised the collection and the annual subscription service of 1 Guinea that included Canterbury’s first newspaper, the Lyttelton Times.
The Colonists’ Society was established the following year in 1852 and took over the running of the Reading Room, expanding its collection and offering subscribers access to newspapers from across the Australasian colonies, as well as the London Times. The library became a social centre of the bustling port town of Lyttelton and in 1867 the Colonists’ Hall was built to house the growing collection and service the community’s insatiable appetite for information from around the British Empire. Thus on 22 November 1867 the library and its reading room took over the hall’s entire ground floor, and the librarian, a Mr W. Godfrey, dutifully kept it open from 10am–4pm and 6pm–10pm daily. The Lyttelton Borough School was built next door in 1875 and made good use of the library and study facilities for its students and teachers alike for the next 27 years.
The Colonist's Society managed the library’s affairs for two decades until, in 1887, the Lyttelton Borough Council took over and established the Lyttelton Library under the Public Library Act 1869. The Colonist’s Hall nonetheless remained the site for the library for another 15 years before it finally outgrew the building and was moved to the corner of Oxford Street and Sumner Road in 1902. The old Colonist’s Hall remained in use for several decades after, until it fell into disrepair and was demolished in the 1940s. As for Canterbury’s oldest library, now a venerable 170 year old institution, you can of course find it on the corner of London and Canterbury Streets where it’s been since April 1999.