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by Julia Millen

Reading is a popular pastime in New Zealand. Thanks to the many and varied libraries around the country – and dedicated librarians – Kiwis enjoy access to a wide range of books and other resources.

Public libraries

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.

The National Library

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.

Research libraries

The Grey Collection of Auckland City Libraries, the Hocken Library and the Alexander Turnbull Library are the three foremost research libraries in New Zealand. All have their origins in major donations of books and other research material. The stacks are closed, which means the items can be examined in the library only, and cannot be borrowed.

Grey Collection

In 1882 politician and former governor Sir George Grey wrote of his plan to donate a substantial collection of books and manuscripts to the Auckland Library. The existing library building was in poor condition and the initial donation of around 8,000 items did not take place until 1887, when a new library opened.

Labour of love

By the time the Hocken Library opened in 1910 Thomas Hocken was stricken with cancer and unable to attend the official opening. Instead he sent a letter that was read out. He wrote: ‘This work has been to me a labour of love … and in it I have put into practice a sentiment I have always held: that it is the bounden duty of every citizen to do something for his State in the welfare of which his own happiness and prosperity is very largely found.’1

Grey continued to donate to the library throughout his life, and the Grey Collection eventually numbered 14,000 items. Grey’s donations made the Auckland Library one of the best in the southern hemisphere. The collection is diverse and ranges from medieval manuscripts to 19th-century New Zealand documents and English literature. It attracts researchers from around the world.

Hocken Library

Dunedin doctor Thomas Morland Hocken gifted his collection of early New Zealand manuscripts, letters, books, photographs and paintings to the University of Otago in 1908, after first announcing this plan in 1897. He wanted his collection to form the nucleus of a free library or museum. A new wing was built on the university museum and the Hocken Library opened its doors in 1910. It is now in a separate building.


The Turnbull’s first librarian, Johannes Andersen, was a sometimes formidable fellow who carefully guarded the library’s collection. Writer Robin Hyde said, ‘with all due respect to a most conscientious librarian, I think that Mr. Andersen is one reason why the Turnbull Library is not more generally known and appreciated. He is enamoured of his books, becomes as excited as the eccentric professor of an Edgar Wallace yarn does one desire to see them. “No, no, you can’t have that to-day,” is his favourite wild cry, as he dashes after some invader.’2

Alexander Turnbull Library

Wellington merchant Alexander Turnbull amassed the largest private library in New Zealand, which he bequeathed to the nation on his death in 1918. The collection contained around 55,000 items, and was particularly noteworthy for its New Zealand and Pacific material. His will stated the collection should be kept together to form a reference library and basis for a national collection. The Alexander Turnbull Library opened in Wellington, in Turnbull’s Bowen Street house, in 1920.

In 1965 the Turnbull was incorporated into the new National Library. Some worried that the Turnbull would lose its independence, but it retained a good degree of autonomy. By then the collection was housed in different buildings and was only brought together in 1987, when the new National Library building opened.

    • Otago Daily Times, 1 April 1910, p. 2. Back
    • Quoted in Rachel Barrowman, The Turnbull: a library and its world. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995, pp. 37–38. Back

Other libraries

In addition to public libraries, the National Library and the major research libraries, there is a wide range of other libraries in New Zealand, from education, government, business, health, law and science libraries to museum and theological libraries.


Most schools have their own library, and some school libraries in rural areas are combined with a public library.

In 2013 there were 68 libraries in the tertiary education sector. Of those, 29 were university libraries, including both main and specialised libraries; 20 were polytechnic libraries; 14 were private training institute libraries and 5 were wānanga (Māori teaching and research institution) libraries. In addition to those, four libraries served education-related organisations, such as the Post Primary Teachers’ Association.


Government departments typically have their own libraries for staff use. In 2013 there were 48 government department libraries. Departmental librarians, along with public librarians, were at the forefront of library developments in New Zealand until the 1970s. At that point they started to become less dominant, while librarians from the private sector began to take on more active roles. In the 1980s government libraries were down-sized as part of wider public-sector reforms.

Small beginnings

The first Parliamentary Library was established in 1856, two years after the General Assembly met for the first time. It was set up in a room measuring 6 feet by 8 feet (around 1.8 metres by 2.4 metres) – basically, a large cupboard.


Some businesses maintain their own libraries. These include major accounting firms such as KPMG, and manufacturers such as Tait Radio and Fisher & Paykel appliances and health care divisions. In 2013 there were 39 business libraries.


District Health Boards, non-governmental health organisations and other health-related organisations have staff libraries. In 2013 there were 39 health libraries.


Large law firms have their own libraries, which hold printed legal volumes. Subscriptions to online legal databases are also held by law libraries. In 2013 there were 22 law firm libraries.

Science and industry

Outside universities, much of the scientific research in New Zealand takes place within Crown Research Institutes and industrial companies. In 2013 there were 21 science and industry research libraries.

Other libraries

In 2013 there were seven museum libraries, six theological libraries, four local government libraries for the use of council staff and twenty-three miscellaneous libraries, which included the Problem Gambling Foundation and the New Zealand Olympic Committee libraries.

Library associations and librarians


The Libraries Association of New Zealand was formed in Dunedin in 1910 when the Dunedin City Council, at the suggestion of journalist and library advocate Mark Cohen, organised a conference of public libraries. This organisation was the forerunner of the present day Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA).

In 1992 a group for Māori librarians called Te Rōpū Whakahau (TRW) was set up within LIANZA. TRW became a stand-alone association in 1996. Special associations were also formed for school, law, university and music librarians.

On the road

Many graduate librarians wanted to work for the Country Library Service (CLS) because it offered travel, independence and good pay. Alan Smith, who graduated in 1967, said: ‘On the CLS you were on the road for six weeks and back at base for two: while away you got a daily allowance (on top of salary) of about $6.50 – at a time when you could still get dinner-bed-and-breakfast at a country pub for around $4. But as well I was keen to see more of New Zealand before heading off on the inevitable o.e.’1

Librarian training

In 1942 the New Zealand Library Association established a library certificate course for library assistants who held a school higher leaving certificate. Students received all communications by post and worked alone under the guidance of a senior librarian. Prior to this librarians could complete distance courses run by the Library Association of London but most had minimal school qualifications.

The New Zealand Library School opened in 1946. A one-year, paid, full-time diploma course for university graduates, it was administered by the National Library Service and financed by the Education Department.

From the 1960s most of the leaders of the library profession held the diploma. However, a number of certificate holders attained senior positions, particularly in public libraries. The two-tier system caused divisions within the profession.

In 1980, after years of debate, the certificate course was taken over by the Wellington College of Education and the diploma course by Victoria University of Wellington. Distance delivery of the diploma started in 1992, while delivery of the certificate was taken over by the Open Polytechnic in 1998. Victoria University offered a masters programme in 1997.

Training in the 2000s

The Open Polytechnic offered undergraduate diplomas, certificates and degrees in library and information studies. Te Wānanga o Raukawa offered an undergraduate course that incorporated information management. Postgraduate qualifications remained the province of Victoria University.


A librarian registration scheme was introduced in 2007. The purpose of this was to align New Zealand with professional librarians internationally and provide New Zealanders with better prospects in the global job market.

Unofficial uniform

In the 1950s and 1960s many women librarians had to wear floral smocks at work. These unflattering garments did little for librarians’ image and were later seen as demeaning. Male librarians did not have to wear smocks.

Women in libraries

Until the 1960s the librarian profession was mainly female (over 80%), but dominated by men at management level. The topic was raised at the 1968 New Zealand Library Association conference.

In 1976 Mary Ronnie was appointed national librarian. She was not only the first woman national librarian in New Zealand, but also in the world. Since 1980 women have made up over 50% of association presidents.

    • Julia Millen, Te Rau Herenga: a century of library life in Aotearoa: The New Zealand Library Association & LIANZA 1910–2010. Wellington: LIANZA, 2010. Back

Library services to Māori

Focus on Māori

Before 1960 Māori readers received little attention, despite Country Library Service efforts. In 1962 the Māori library services committee of the New Zealand Library Association worked with the Māori Education Foundation at the Department of Māori Affairs to encourage Māori to use public libraries and become librarians.

A pamphlet called The public library is for everyone in the community was published in 1965 and demand among Māori communities was huge. That year a bursary for Māori students to study at university and attend the New Zealand Library School was announced.

Treaty research

The establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 and, from 1985, the hearing of retrospective claims back to 1840, led to a huge increase in the researching of historical records held by libraries. Professional researchers and iwi members flocked to libraries and many reports based on library holdings were produced.


In 1988 students of the Victoria University of Wellington’s Department of Librarianship said that the course did not take account of Māori perspectives. In 1997 the department’s masters programme offered a course in Māori information studies.

Catalogues and indexes

In 1995, Māori Language Year, Māori OPAC – New Zealand’s first Māori-language online public access catalogue – was launched at Kerikeri library. Another project was the indexing of the niupepa, Māori newspapers, held at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Māori students, genealogists and researchers discussed the development of nationally recognised, standardised Māori catalogue subject headings. In 1997 a Māori thesaurus was published and used by indexers.

The Iwi Hapu Names List was developed and first appeared on the National Library website in 2004. Three years later Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku, a new bilingual Māori subject heading thesaurus, was promoted in libraries. This was the first collection of indigenous subject headings recognised internationally by the US Library of Congress.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Julia Millen, 'Libraries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2021)

Story by Julia Millen, published 22 Oct 2014