Book Discussion Scheme got its start thanks to 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.
Sir James Shelley, first professor of education at University of Canterbury and director of WEA tutorial classes, devises 'the famous box scheme' in response to what he saw as 'the barren intellectual life led by many intelligent men and women in rural areas, where books were scarce, libraries were few and of poor quality, and contact with the whole world of the arts was negligible for all but the wealthy'.
The box scheme is described by Shelley in the 1925–26 annual report of the Christchurch WEA as follows:
Each week a box, containing lecture notes, text books, prints and gramophone records is despatched from the Centre to a study group. The group retains the box for one week, then forwards it to the next group, and so on until the box has done the round of seven groups....The students must appoint their own leader and secretary, and should meet in a private residence or small public room.
The WEA Library car with Professor J. Shelley, G.T. Alley, G. Worthington, and Joan Osborne, Christchurch, March 1930. The Press, 24 March 1930.
Geoffrey Alley is appointed as WEA tutor-librarian to act under Shelley and drive a refurbished Ford delivery van with a hinged side that opened to reveal shelves of books. The 'box scheme' had given rise to the 'car scheme'. Materials such as gramophone records were borrowed from the box scheme, as were box scheme programmes for those groups which wished to have them in place of general courses in drama, music, literature, current affairs, and economic problems given by the tutor-librarian.
With funding a difficulty, the car scheme is replaced after five years by travelling box libraries, which were actually delivered in hampers. The contents of the hampers were carefully selected to match the requirements of the study groups, and they were passed on from one group to another. Fifty-one groups were formed during 1935, receiving an average of six and a half hampers each. They were spread over an area from Tuatapere in Southland to Hanmer Springs in North Canterbury.
In its final year there were 58 groups, totalling 624 students.
‘Discussion Book Course’ appears in the NZWEA meeting minutes. National Secretary Vic Readman is the initiator, basing the idea on similar schemes overseas including the Great Books Programme in North America, the Sydney University Adult Education Department’s Discussion Course Scheme, and the Victoria Council of Education’s Book Discussion Scheme in Melbourne. Sadly, Readman dies, delaying the initiation of the scheme for a few more years.
Readman’s successor as National Secretary, Jack Ryley, travels to Australia to investigate the Melbourne scheme and returns with information, some sets of books and notes.
A pilot scheme is launched, initially with the aim of bringing together people in rural and provincial areas.
The very first BDS catalogue contained just 19 titles for selection and consisted of a few typed pages stapled together in one corner. Today, groups can choose from over 1,000 books from classics to recent releases.
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, Convenor of CHCH 101 (Christchurch’s very first book group, which is still in operation in 2022)
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!
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.
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.
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.
Having outgrown the space available at 440 Colombo Street, BDS finds a new home not far away at 425 Colombo Street. Rather than rent, BDS decides to purchase the building and invest in the infrastructure required to store large quantities of books in a warm, safe and dry environment. The building is also large enough to support the organisation’s future growth.
In preparation for the shift, staff get about two months ahead with dispatches and, with the assistance of board members and some volunteers, manage to shift everything 60m up the road and across the street.
An event is planned for March 2020 to mark the occasion, but this is delayed by the pandemic until October that same year. Over 200 guests would gather to view the new premises, meet board members, staff and volunteers and be treated to food, drink, entertainment and an address from NZ author Chessie Henry.
Boxing and unboxing thousands of books was a huge task, even if they were only moving 60m up the road!
Book Discussion Scheme’s current location at 425 Colombo Street, Sydenham, Christchurch
The global pandemic begins and New Zealand enters its first lockdown in March, presenting a new set of challenges for BDS. Now that groups couldn’t meet face-to-face, how would the BDS model of book group continue to work?
Staff worked double-time to get books out to groups before each lockdown and we extended due-back dates in light of the fact that it would be difficult for groups to return them to us. We encouraged groups to safely and contactlessly distribute their books and meet online instead. Most groups were unphased by the challenge and said their monthly book group meeting, although held virtually for a time, was a great way to stay sane and connected while in their bubbles at home.
Renee Blackburn, Promotions Coordinator for BDS
An Auckland group sets up a letterbox book distribution centre, complete with hand sanitiser, and holds their book group meeting via Zoom (Sep 2021)