Public Library Service
From the foundation of the first planned settlement in 1840, many New Zealanders have regarded books and libraries as a necessary part of living. In Wellington the Port Nicholson Mechanics' Institute, Public School, and Library was established in 1841, and a similar institution opened its doors in Auckland in the following year. Other towns, as established, followed suit and, by a chequered series of negotiations, many of the early athenaeums merged into the local authority libraries of the second half of the century. An Act of 1869, introduced by Maurice O'Rorke, which empowered authorities to establish public libraries, provided that admission should be free. Governing bodies could levy a library rate of 1d. in the pound – raised to 2d. in 1938 and 3d. in 1946. Although no libraries were immediately established in terms of this legislation, the failure of the statute to provide specifically for the free lending of books in the spirit of the English Act of 1850 as confirmed by later legislation, restricted the future of library service to a subscription basis for many years.
An 1875 statute gave local authorities the power to lend books and make bylaws, and two years later provision was made by the Public Libraries Subsidies Act for the payment of a government subsidy. In the later years of the provincial governments, several, notably Auckland, Otago, and Nelson, had made grants to public libraries. Following abolition of the provinces in 1876, the responsibility was accepted nationally and was continued with varying effectiveness, with a maximum of £6,000 per annum, until 1929 when £3,000 was provided. Distribution was through education boards. The Libraries and Mechanics Institutes Act of 1908 consolidated legislation to that period.
Consistent with the departure from the overseas recognition of free service, the 1877 Act specified that no person should borrow books from a public library, qualifying for subsidy, unless a minimum subscription of 5s. per annum were paid. A fillip to library building came from Andrew Carnegie about the turn of the century, who, as part of his worldwide policy, made grants to a number of authorities for the erection of Carnegie library buildings. A condition of such grants was that service, and not merely admission, should be free; but despite the care with which Carnegie's trustees laid down these terms, only three or four of the 18 libraries which benefited, provided a free service. The New Zealand departure from overseas pattern of local authority, at once responsible for education as well as for libraries, had left its mark.
The 1934 report of the Munn-Barr survey of New Zealand libraries showed the critical effects both of economic depression and of the subscription system upon public libraries throughout the country, and it strongly recommended a wholly free service. But the adoption of the English pattern would have been a very difficult step for most authorities in the immediately ensuing years, quite apart from the question of its desirability. Instead, the American practice of establishing small rental collections was introduced but considerably extended. By this principle the worth-while material of permanent interest and value and, in many cases, of more limited issue appeal, is provided free, while titles of predominantly current interest and high demand with correspondingly high earning power are charged for on a rental basis. When introduced in the early 1940s, rental classification was confined to popular fiction but has been gradually extended to cover much popular non-fiction. The steady extension of this policy, together with the assistance which most libraries serving populations below 50,000 now receive from the Country Library Service, has enabled a much wider range of stock to be provided than under the old subscription system. Although the inevitable difficulties of classifying books in accordance with the principle has led to some criticism, the soundly based thesis that public funds should not be spent on the free provision of ephemeral books has released the New Zealand public library operations from one overseas limitation.