Our history

Our history

Unique in New Zealand since 1973

Book Discussion Scheme got its start thanks to the FWEA with support from members of the Canterbury WEA. From humble beginnings in a garage behind the CWEA offices, BDS has grown from just a handful of groups in its first year to nearly 1,300 across the country today.

Urban expansion


Ryley believes the idea of book discussion groups will work in the cities also and asks his daughter Isobel Lawrence to convene the first Christchurch book group, based in Halswell where she lived.

I had four young children so I said, ‘No, I can’t possibly start a group and read a book a month’. Dad wasn’t taking no for an answer though and ran an ad in a local newspaper that netted an instant result. I met some really interesting people out of that advertisement. Some of them were neighbours I didn’t know.
It’s sociable as well as intellectual…Some of the titles on the book list cover subjects many of us would never have dreamt of reading about. But so often people say, ‘I would never have chosen that book, but I got so much from it’...In talking about books you can get your opinion changed or see things differently.

Isobel Lawrence, Founder of CHCH 001 (Christchurch’s very first book group, which is still in operation today)

The scheme was initially run out of a suitcase, then later a garage behind the CWEA building on Gloucester Street before moving across the road into Allan Dingwall House at 72 Gloucester Street in the early 1990s. Eventually its size would demand a location of its own!

Outgrowing the premises


In December 2009, after all books had been dispatched for the year, staff packed the remaining stock into boxes, dismantled the shelves and reassembled them in a new premises at 440 Colombo Street, in Sydenham, Christchurch. Once the shelving was up, books were transferred, ready for the new year. The premises were significantly larger and enabled the BDS to stock more books for the ever-increasing number of groups.

Canterbury earthquakes


The first earthquake hit on 4 September. BDS was fortunate to have recently shifted to Colombo Street, as the building was unaffected, but the old premises in Gloucester Street were unable to be used for some months.

Colombo Street was closed off in Sydenham and the army maintained the cordons. This photo shows (L-R) staff members Shelagh Murray (booknote co-ordinator), Rhys Brookbanks (book assistant) and Trisha Coffin (accounts administrator) at the front of the building with two soldiers. Rhys was the partner of Esther Jones, the daughter of BDS’s chairperson, Murray Jones.  Rhys was studying at Canterbury University and worked at the BDS two afternoons a week. He started work with CTV a week before the February 2011 earthquake and was tragically killed.

BDS catalogues from the nineties and noughties grew fatter each year as more books were added and the number of groups continued to increase around Aotearoa New Zealand.

February quake


The February earthquake struck on a Tuesday afternoon and will be forever remembered. The shaking caused thousands of books to be scattered onto the floor and many were lost through liquefaction seeping into the building. All buildings in Sydenham’s Colombo Street were cordoned off and for some weeks staff were unable to access books.  

In an effort to keep book groups going, BDS Manager at the time, Barbara Brown, emailed every convenor in New Zealand and gave them the contact details of convenors in their area. While BDS was unable to dispatch, the convenors were able to contact each other and swap books! Eventually police allowed staff back into the building and dispatches continued.

Book Discussion Scheme’s current location at 425 Colombo Street, Sydenham, Christchurch

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