Story: Libraries

Page 2. The National Library

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One of the key recommendations of the influential 1934 Munn-Barr report on libraries was a national library service.

Country Library Service

The first step towards a national library was the creation of the Country Library Service in 1938. Its purpose was to loan books to rural and small-town libraries.

The first Labour government, elected in 1935, was keenly interested in the provision of public libraries, and Minister of Education Peter Fraser became aware of the work of Geoffrey Alley, who had gained experience with a travelling book service in Canterbury. Alley drafted a proposal for obtaining government assistance to rural libraries. This culminated in the Country Library Service, of which Alley was appointed the first head in 1938.

Operating from centres in Christchurch, Palmerston North and Hamilton, the service (later the National Library Extension Division) used ‘book vans’ to bring books to isolated communities. At its peak in 1963 it served 930 libraries. The service ceased in the late 1980s and the books were distributed to libraries.

School Library Service

The School Library Service (later the National Library’s Services to Schools) was established in 1942 to circulate book collections on loan to schools and small public libraries, and to help librarians manage children’s library needs. By 2013 Services to Schools focused on delivering Māori, Pacific and other significant New Zealand materials to schools.

Name recognition

In the 1940s and 1950s Dunedin-based Dorothy Neale White played an important role in promoting children’s library services throughout New Zealand, and she gained an international reputation for her work in this field. In 1980 the National Library named its collection of children’s books published before 1940 after her.

National Library

In 1945 the Country Library Service and the School Library Service were amalgamated to create the National Library Service.

In 1965, after years of negotiation, the National Library Service, the Alexander Turnbull Library, the New Zealand Newspaper Collection and copyright services of the General Assembly Library were combined to form the National Library of New Zealand. The General Assembly Library remained separate as the Parliamentary Library.

Construction of the National Library building started in 1974 but was halted between 1976 and 1981 due to funding issues, design changes and industrial disputes. After many delays while collections remained scattered in different buildings, the National Library of New Zealand building opened in Wellington in 1987.


The main functions of the National Library are:

  • collecting, preserving and protecting documents relating to New Zealand and making them accessible to New Zealanders
  • assisting and advising other libraries in New Zealand
  • providing services to schools
  • working with other similar institutions, including libraries overseas.


The inter-library loan system started as an arrangement among university libraries to share scarce books and expensive resources. It developed to include major public libraries and those of government departments. With the advent of new technology a much greater range of material became available electronically.

How to cite this page:

Julia Millen, 'Libraries - The National Library', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Julia Millen, published 22 Oct 2014