Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Wynne Colgan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
John Barr was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 28 July 1887, the son of John Barr, a tinsmith, and his wife, Rebecca Witherington. He was educated at St David's School, and from about the age of 13 was an assistant in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where he gained certificates in librarianship from the Library Association. With a brother he emigrated to Australia, probably in 1910, and from 1911 to 1913 was senior cataloguer in the Fisher Library of the University of Sydney. In 1913 the Auckland City Council advertised for a librarian with a good literary knowledge to replace the incumbent, Edward Shillington, a former military man untrained in librarianship, who was then in his late 70s. Barr was so well qualified for the job that the selection committee forwarded to the council no other name from the 10 applicants. On 13 October 1913 Barr became chief librarian of the Auckland Public Library and director of the Auckland Art Gallery. On 28 November 1914 he married Jessie Isabella Mary McPherson, also a librarian, in Sydney.
It was soon evident that a new broom was in the library, even if the man behind it was scarcely taller than a broom himself: Barr was only a shade over five feet tall. (He was also almost totally bald, even as a young man.) Looking up at the 12-foot high bookshelves, he must have felt like Gulliver in Jonathan Swift's Brobdingnag. He promptly ordered them cut down to a less forbidding seven feet six inches. More importantly for the library's 680 subscribers, he quickly presented to the council a well-reasoned case for making the institution a truly free and public one, by abolishing the lending subscription. However, he would have to wait a further 32 years before a free, rates-supported lending service was achieved in Auckland.
John Barr had arrived too late to have a hand in planning and stocking the first two of the city's branch libraries, in Grafton and Parnell. During his first 18 years as chief librarian he would, however, open a further six suburban outlets, and later provided a mobile service to areas without library buildings.
In 1932 the Carnegie Corporation of New York offered Barr a visitor's grant to study library practice in the United States. On his return to New Zealand he reminded authorities controlling public library services that in the United States libraries were regarded as a part of the educational system. Two years later he was invited by an eminent American librarian, Ralph Munn, to join him in a survey of libraries in New Zealand, again funded by the Carnegie Corporation. The resulting report is a landmark document in the development of library service in New Zealand. In the main, the Munn–Barr report pointed up the poor economy of the subscription plan for borrowers, the need for free library service to all primary schools, and the desirability of professional training – preferably postgraduate – for librarians.
Barr's professional standing resulted in his election as president of the council of the New Zealand Library Association in 1939–40 and again in 1945–46, and the award of life membership in 1938. He was awarded a fellowship of the (British) Library Association in 1939. Principally for his sustained drive for free library service Barr was made an OBE in 1948.
By the time of his retirement in 1952, Barr headed a system comprising a central library, eight branches and the mobile library (which also took books to primary and intermediate schools), with a bookstock of nearly 280,000 volumes for an enrolled 36,000 borrowers. Within three years of the introduction of free library service in 1946, annual issues exceeded 1½ million.
Barr was the author of a history, The city of Auckland, 1840–1920 (1922), editor of the Auckland City Council's municipal and official handbook (1922) and a contributor to other civic publications and professional journals. He was a member of a number of professional, literary and arts societies, and maintained a lifetime interest in football and cricket. He had been director of the Old Colonists' Museum from its foundation in 1916, and in retirement remained honorary curator until the museum's closure in 1956.
In 1950, on the 70th anniversary of Auckland Public Library, the poet and critic A. R. D. Fairburn paid tribute to Barr's 'flexible and youthful mind'. 'If you want to see John Barr's monument,' he said, 'go into the public library and look about you.' Barr's innovative ideas and constructive proposals profoundly influenced the development of New Zealand libraries. He died in Auckland on 25 December 1971, survived by his wife and three daughters. Jessie Barr died in 1979.