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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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State Libraries

Despite much controversy, New Zealand has as yet no national library. Most of the functions appropriate to such an institution are carried out by the three State libraries in Wellington – the General Assembly Library, the National Library Service and, to a lesser extent, the Alexander Turnbull Library. The oldest of these, the General Assembly Library, is the library of the House of Representatives and the library of New Zealand copyright deposit. The library was established as the result of a recommendation of a Select Committee of the General Assembly in 1856. It was for a period administered jointly with the Auckland Provincial Council Library, separation becoming effective with the removal of the capital from Auckland to Wellington in 1865. By 1872 it contained 8,333 volumes and continued to develop normally until restricted by the economic setbacks of the 1880s. A lengthy campaign for a building was finally successful, the present pseudo-Gothic building being completed in 1898 – to date, the latest state library building so far erected by the Government for any library under its direct control. By 1925 the collection had grown to 110,000 vol. and by 1965 to 316,000.

Perhaps the most notable of its early librarians was James Collier (1883–90) who, before coming to New Zealand, was research assistant to the philosopher Herbert Spencer. Following Collier's retirement, H. L. James was appointed to the staff and, although he was never appointed chief librarian, his influence during his 34 years of service was significant. G. H. Scholefield (1927–48) brought both research experience and newspaper background to the position and added considerably to the already extensive newspaper holdings. In addition to a broad general coverage, the library has special strength in economics and political science and, as the New Zealand centre for international exchange, has the largest holdings of Commonwealth official papers. It also has the private papers of several New Zealand statesmen. The library publishes the annual Copyright Publications and periodic bibliographies of periodicals and newspapers.

Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, son of a Wellington merchant, in little more than 25 years of strenuous and wide-ranging collecting built up the largest private collection yet formed in New Zealand. On his death in 1918 he bequeathed his library to the Crown as the “nucleus of a New Zealand national collection”. At that time the library, which has continued to be housed, in part, in Turnbull's private home, comprised about 45,000 volumes including many thousands of pamphlets, manuscripts, engravings, and water colours.

Turnbull's main interests were in English literature, particularly the seventeenth century, and the Pacific and New Zealand. In the latter field he had built up a splendid collection, particularly strong in discovery, island languages, and pamphlet material. Administration was taken over by the Department of Internal Affairs, the chief librarian of the General Assembly Library being for a time “advisory director” and the first librarian being J. C. Andersen (1919–34). The library was opened to the public in June 1920. Funds for systematic acquisition on the scale of Turnbull's buying were not available nor, for a number of years, was it possible to maintain the Pacific collection. Since the mid-1930s, however, the library has been able to continue and sustain purchase in the main fields of interest, aided by valuable private bequests. Among the latter may be mentioned the library and papers of W. B. D. Mantell, the library of Sir Joseph Kinsey, and the family papers of Sir Donald McLean and Sir D. D. Maclean. It is in the field of manuscripts that donations and acquisitions have been outstanding, the collections today being the most valuable and extensive outside the National Archives.

The third State library, the National Library Service (1945), was formed from the Country Library Service (1938), now one of the four divisions of the Service. The Service had its inception in the various proposals put forward immediately after the Munn-Barr survey (1934) to restore or provide an alternative to the former subsidy to public libraries. A small group of New Zealand librarians, the “Carnegie library group” which consisted of some of the New Zealanders known to the corporation, put forward proposals for a national library service including the supply of books instead of a cash subsidy. The practicability of the scheme was to be demonstrated in a selected area and G. T. Alley who, since 1930, had been maintaining under the auspices of Canterbury University College in association with the W.E.A. a rural mobile library service in Canterbury, undertook a survey of the possibility of a rural library system in Taranaki. The findings of the survey were issued early in 1937 and later in the year plans for a scheme of assistance to small country libraries were crystallised. These were developed by the Labour Government of the day whose Minister of Education, Peter Fraser, was particularly sympathetic to library needs, the Service being opened in 1938. Loans of books were made to local authority libraries which had agreed to provide a free, rate-supported service. Loans were at first made to the smaller public libraries, but the maximum population level entitled to participate has been raised periodically so that now only the major cities – whose stock in any case should match that of the Country Library Service – do not benefit. A persistent campaign of persuasion and example, in which both the New Zealand Library Association and the Service collaborated, led to the acceptance of the principle of free service. At the same time the principle that the smaller libraries should buy only what can be worn out, and borrow what is in more limited demand, has removed much of the threat of dead stock.

In addition to bulk loans, loan collections on special subjects and an individual request service are provided. Books are distributed also to small independent library groups in counties. In 1961, 880 of such groups were in operation. Loans are also provided for camps, lighthouses, Tb sanatoria, and certain hospitals. In 1963–64, over 230,000 volumes were on regular loan and a further 130,000 had been supplied as loan collections and requests.

The Country Library Service, almost from its inception, was involved in various forms of co-operative library activity to meet unanticipated needs. Among these were much of the work for the war library service, the assuring of library book supplies through the Central Bureau for Library Book Imports, the establishment of the Union Catalogue of books, and participation in a new programme of library training. For these reasons and to meet post-war needs, it was an almost implicit development that a National Library Service should have evolved in 1945–46 to include, in addition to the Country Library Service, a library school and a National Library Centre. Library training had been commenced by the association in 1941 and in the following year the general training course was instituted. However, to provide a full-time post-graduate course of nine months' duration, the Library School was opened in 1946. From its inception until November 1964, 341 students have graduated. Since 1952 the associations' training course has been completed in the school.

The National Library Centre was established in 1946 to coordinate and extend the cooperative use of books and periodicals, and to provide aids to their rapid location. The Centre maintains the Union Catalogue (1941), now containing about 600,000 cards, which gives the whereabouts of books in the major New Zealand libraries. It also keeps up to date and publishes the Union List of Serials, the Index to New Zealand Periodicals (1941) and Current National Bibliography (1950), and the retrospective bibliography of New Zealand books and pamphlets, the first section of which is now appearing in checklist form. The Centre also assists in the operation of the national scheme of inter-library lending, using as a basis the headquarters collection of the Service. Provision for cooperative purchase and consultation in the purchase of expensive works, together with responsibility for the association's book coverage programme are also functions of the Centre. The Library Resources Committee (1941) of the Association is the national planning body on policy. The activities of the School Library Service have been outlined.

The need for a national library to coordinate and develop the appropriate services of the three State libraries, as well as to provide a suitable physical centre for their existence, has been proposed for many years and endorsed by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1958. In 1963 the Government announced its decision to establish a national library by the integration of the three State libraries with safeguards where necessary for the preservation of separate identity. G. T. Alley was appointed National Librarian in 1964. The Libraries Association of New Zealand was established, largely on the initiative of Mark Cohen, in 1910 when it held its first conference. In 1935 the association was reconstituted as the New Zealand Library Association, and much of the development of the past 25 years have been due to its influence. While it is true that the 1934 survey of New Zealand libraries by Ralph Munn of Pittsburgh and John Barr of Auckland was due rather to individuals and the Carnegie Corporation, the “jubilee” survey of library resources by A. D. Osborn, then of the Fisher Library, Sydney (1959), was financed by the corporation at the association's request. Despite the bolder policies of the recent past, New Zealand, by overseas standards, has still a very limited range of titles for reference and research needs, a situation which, at the very least, should not be allowed to deteriorate.

by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.

  • Census of Libraries 1959, New Zealand Dept. of Statistics
  • Report, New Zealand National Library Committee (1958)
  • Special Libraries and Collections – a New Zealand Directory, New Zealand Library Association (1959)
  • New Zealand Libraries – a Survey, Munn, R., and Barr, J. (1934)
  • New Zealand Library Resources, Osborn, A. D. (1960)
  • New Zealand Library Association, 1910–1960, McEldowney, W. J. (1962).