The circumstances leading to the foundation of the four public libraries in the main centres may be mentioned briefly. In Auckland the library, the first in a New Zealand town, was opened in 1880 following an arrangement whereby the Mechanics' Institute transferred its site, building, and collection to the City Council. The library opened with a collection of 6,000 volumes. Two years later, Sir George Grey advised the Council that he intended to donate his substantial collection and in 1887 a new building was opened in which the Grey collection of early printed books, general literature, and later, valuable manuscript, was the principal feature. The first printed catalogue appeared shortly afterwards. Later, significant collections have been donated by Henry Shaw and F. W. Reed.
In Wellington a revived Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute persisted from 1849 for over 30 years but was obliged to close on account of financial difficulties. W. H. Levin's offer of £1,000 for books, provided the Council found a central site and erected part at least of a free library, stimulated interest with city and private support. A building was opened in 1893 which served as the headquarters of the city service until its replacement by the present building in 1935.
The unique Christchurch pattern was of university control of the public library. The Christchurch Mechanics' Institute, which became the Christchurch Literary Institute, had opened a library in 1859. Fourteen years of increasing financial difficulty led to a brief period of joint administration by the Provincial Government and Canterbury College from 1873 until the assumption of full responsibility by the university in 1878. The long depression of the 1880s was in the offing, and reliance upon university administration at a time when the university was itself embarrassed was not a happy solution. After many years of intermittent discussion and negotiation, the transfer to the Christchurch City Council was effected in 1948.
In Dunedin, the Athenaeum has survived as a private subscription library to the present day. The Dunedin Public Library and, indeed, the free library movement within New Zealand, owes its genesis to the faith and energy of the Dunedin journalist and editor, Mark Cohen. The lengthy agitation for an adequate free public library in the city, ably led by Cohen, reached a successful climax in 1908 with the opening of the Carnegie Library. The standards of service built up in Dunedin, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, have provided at once an encouragement and a foil for development elsewhere.
Throughout the rest of the country, smaller local authorities followed the pattern of the centres. Quite small towns such as Carterton developed in the 1880s collections of astonishing range and standard, while the neatly printed catalogues of the collections of libraries on sheep stations such as Brancepeth show how far enthusiasm led in the decades following. Dwindling interest and patronage, however, led to stagnation until the stimulus of the changed approach of the 1940s. Today, the public library system of the country – 214 libraries were maintained by local authorities in 1964 – is based upon a range of rate-supported libraries, receiving, except for the five city libraries, assistance from the Country Library Service, with about four exceptions operating on the free and rental system. The total stock of the public libraries in 1964 amounted to 2,891,321 books with 628,995 registered borrowers. The fact that this total represents only a sixth of the population stems from the situation that, while most boroughs outside metropolitan areas maintain libraries, only a few counties have done so, service in these areas being through the Country Library Service. The uneven distribution both of local authority service and of financial support has led to proposals for regional library service involving State subsidy in cash to a corresponding local authority contribution. A pilot scheme proposed in 1960 for the Manawatu, Rangitikei, and Wairarapa failed because it was not sufficiently supported by the authorities in the area. However, whatever the future course of development may be, recognition of the fact that public library service has an informational and educational basis, as well as a recreational responsibility, is implicit in any continuing partnership of State and local authorities contribution.