Recognition of the university library as the core of teaching and research has so long been a part of university development in the western world that its acceptance in New Zealand might have been assumed from the establishment of the colleges. It must be said, however, that university libraries have lagged seriously – at least until the recent past. In the four universities of Auckland, Victoria (Wellington), Canterbury (Christchurch), and Otago (Dunedin) the duties of librarian were first undertaken by the registrars. Apart from the wider obligation of meeting some research needs, the universities at no time have been able to meet student needs adequately. Until recently the small appropriations for book purchases were carved up between departments, so that even the existence of a slice for general and bibliographical works was the subject for debate. Relief came with the award of Carnegie Travelling Fellowships to certain university librarians in the early 1930s, with associated conditional grants of funds for purchases over a term of years. Following strong recommendations in both the reports of the Committee on New Zealand Universities (1959) and the New Zealand library resources survey by A. D. Osborn (1960), improvements in both book funds, and salary and staffing provision have been made. Despite the more generous provision of the last few years, book collections are still about 200,000 and less at each of the four universities. The extent to which any one university can expect to become a research collection – other than in a few fields of local or restricted bibliographical significance – has been the subject of debate. Fated by geography and history to maintain four universities – with two new provincial universities now entering the library lists even on a restricted basis – New Zealand may have compromised its chances of establishing one splendidly endowed university library of international research range.
Auckland University College was founded in 1883 but, until the move into the old parliamentary buildings in 1890, it was without library accommodation. Auckland's averages of book expenditure from its inception are not untypical. From 1884 to 1903 the average was £78; from 1904 to 1923, £278; and from 1924 to 1939, £1,014. The first full-time staff member was appointed in 1917. The present main library (185,375 volumes in 1964) was occupied on the completion of the university building in 1926.
At Victoria the collection gradually evolved from a modest £100 establishment grant in 1899, through a miscellaneous number of books housed in cupboards in the Girls' High School, to a permanent home and a collection of 7,000 volumes by 1910 (165,879 in 1964).
Canterbury (1873) did not make any provision for library purposes until 1916 when the architecturally tasteful but quite inadequate building in the centre of the quadrangle was erected. In the same year also a part-time librarian was appointed. Relief in library accommodation has followed the current New Zealand pattern of absorption of lecture rooms. The library's most significant donation (1935) has been the Macmillan Brown bequest of 15,000 volumes. In 1964 the library held 181,120 volumes.
Awareness of the key role of a library in a university might naturally have been expected of the Scottish settlement of Otago but the stages of development and crisis parallel those elsewhere. Expenditure in the two years following establishment (1869) totalled £246 for 528 volumes, but during the 1880s was less than that of Auckland. Separate accommodation was provided in 1873 when the registrar accepted the additional duties of librarian. The first full-time librarian was appointed in 1914. In 1964 the library's holdings were 183,940 volumes. The Otago Medical School library (35,000 volumes) and also the dental library, were separately constituted in 1909. The medical library, earlier the responsibility of the Medical Association, moved to the King St. site in 1917. It includes the Monro collection of early anatomical and medical books. The University of Otago's greatest library bequest, however, has been the collection of T. M. Hocken. In 1906 Hocken, a noted Dunedin doctor, book collector, and historian, offered his collection to the city of Dunedin. After discussion and negotiation, it was decided to build a Hocken wing to the Otago Museum, which was completed in 1910. In addition to a comprehensive collection of New Zealand books and pamphlets, its most valuable contents are the extensive manuscript acquisitions made by Hocken. These include much of the Church Missionary Society correspondence of Marsden and his associates. The range of the library has been strengthened in recent years by its recognition as a regional repository for State and local government archives, and by the acquisition of significant material from some private sources.
On a much smaller scale, the New Zealand collection of H. M. Fildes at the Victoria University of Wellington represents nevertheless a valuable nucleus. On traditional departmental lines, the engineering schools at Canterbury and Auckland have growing collections while that of the school of architecture at Auckland is of national significance in its subject.