Story: Libraries

Page 1. Public libraries

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In 2013 there were 667 libraries in New Zealand. Over half of these were public libraries. There were also around 2,500 school libraries, with some schools owning more than one library.

First New Zealand libraries

Public libraries were set up not long after organised European settlement began in 1840. They were run by organisations like mechanics’ institutes, which promoted adult learning.

The first was probably the Port Nicholson Exchange and Public Library, which opened in Wellington in May 1841, though it may have been preceded earlier that year by the Wellington Working Men’s Association library.

In 1842 libraries opened in Auckland and Nelson. These libraries were public in the sense that anyone could join, but they were not free. Borrowers had to pay subscription fees. People could also borrow books from small commercial libraries run as businesses.

Open and shut

The first libraries endured a fragile existence. In Wellington the Port Nicholson Exchange and Public Library opened in 1841 and closed in 1842. It was re-opened by the local mechanics’ institute that year, but closed again in 1843. The books were stored in the offices of the New Zealand Company, where they got damp and eaten at by rats. A new library opened near Plimmer Steps in 1850 in more salubrious conditions, and Wellington had a public library thereafter.

Government involvement

Libraries were expensive to maintain, even with the aid of subscriptions. Provincial councils made grants to libraries during the provincial period (1852–76). From 1869 local councils could levy rates to fund libraries, and central government grants were made from 1877.

Councils assumed control of some public libraries, for instance, the Auckland City Council took over the Mechanics’ Institute Library in 1880. Entry to libraries receiving rates money and government grants was free, but borrowing was not.

Carnegie libraries

An important development occurred in the early 1900s, when a number of cities and towns received money from Scots-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to build free public libraries. Local councils had to provide a freehold site for the library, guarantee an entirely free service and commit money for the maintenance of the library after it was built. The first Carnegie library to open was the Westport library in December 1904. It was one of 18 Carnegie-sponsored libraries in New Zealand and one of 2,509 worldwide.


In 2013, 11 public libraries in New Zealand were accessed by fetching a key. These libraries were in remote, sparsely populated settlements, such as Benneydale in the King Country and Gropers Bush in Southland. They were unstaffed and borrowers were trusted not to steal books.

1930s developments

In 1932 the Carnegie Corporation made grants to the four university libraries in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. It also gave overseas study grants to senior New Zealand librarians. In 1934 the corporation funded a landmark survey of New Zealand libraries by American Ralph Munn and Aucklander John Barr. Known as the Munn-Barr report, it made recommendations that underpinned professional library work for the next 40 years. It emphasised free public libraries, a national library, school libraries, subsidies for country libraries and professional training and remuneration.


The Carnegie vision of truly free public libraries was never fully realised. Most libraries offered free membership but charged borrowing fees, because rates and grants were insufficient. By the 1940s the ‘free-and-rental’ service had evolved. Some libraries charged borrowing fees for fiction considered light reading; others charged for high-demand books. This system remained in place until the 1980s, when borrowing charges were dropped at most libraries. Fees re-emerged in the 1990s. By the early 2000s most libraries charged for best-selling books, magazines, CDs and DVDs, though a small number charged for every issue.

Library statistics

In the 2011/12 financial year public libraries in New Zealand held a total of 14,230,692 items. They issued 53,256,697 items and had 2,063,093 registered members.


From the late 1970s librarians attended seminars and workshops on library online databases, and by the 21st century many new skills were needed for library work. Tools such as the New Zealand Bibliographic Network and the online Index New Zealand were followed by the digitisation of information resources and wider online access. The internet made knowledge more accessible to the public, not just in main centres but throughout the country. Information technology represented a new way of life for the library world.


In 2013 there were 386 public library branches operated by local councils. These ranged from large central city libraries to rooms in community halls accessed by a key on request.

How to cite this page:

Julia Millen, 'Libraries - Public libraries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Julia Millen, published 22 Oct 2014