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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

Free library service

Free library service

One of the curiosities of New Zealand public library practice has been the differentiation in public libraries between two classes of fiction: 'serious fiction', and 'the other'.

The distinction had its origins in the working out of a free library service policy for public libraries. The greater number of public libraries in the 1930s offered service to users only on payment of a membership subscription or rental fees for borrowing, or both. The promoters of free library service, that is, free access and free borrowing, were aware of the immediate funding hurdle that stood in the way of any library that attempted the transition. Not only was there the problem of finding funds for strengthened book collections, but there was the certainty of enlarged demand for the existing stock, much of it of a light nature. New Zealand's free-and-rental system was a device which allowed the serious objectives of free service to be realised at the same time as the demand for light reading was satisfied. The formulation of the free-and-rental system was described by O'Reilly (1948a).

Most of the debate concerned fiction literature, because this was an era in which light fiction was the nation's 'television'. For an interesting sidelight on this subject see the Report of the Wellington Public Libraries for the year ended 31 March 1965, in which the City Librarian Stuart Perry (1965b) presented graphs showing the impact of television on issues of various types of material, after its general introduction in 1960; the fall in use of light fiction was dramatic. Perry also wrote an account of the change from a user-pays system to the free-and-rental system at Wellington Public Library, a large library which had struggled to make the change against Council resistance, achieving it later than many other libraries: Perry (1952b).

There were two views of the free-and-rental scheme. The first saw a clear distinction drawn between 'serious' fiction, and that written purely for entertainment. This led to the separation on library shelves of the two types of fiction, and the application of a borrowing fee to the lighter fiction. It led also to the erection of a system of fiction classification and an organisation for reviewing fiction regularly in terms of the classification.

The second view saw a distinction simply between books which were in high demand and those for which there was lower demand. This view, espoused notably by R.N. O'Reilly, and practised at Canterbury Public Library, saw rental charges applied to the high demand items, with a proviso that there would be other copies of these books also in the free collection, which existed to serve the library's social and educative functions. This practice has had a revival in the 1990s, with the introduction of 'bestseller' rental collections in public libraries.

The earliest manifestation of the conflicting views is in the papers presented at the 17th conference of the NZLA by Barr (1948), arguing for restriction of fiction, and O'Reilly (1948b), arguing for satisfaction (and control) of popular demand.

The NZLA was a promoter of the first view of the free-and-rental system. For decades it had a Fiction Committee, the function of which was to classify fiction and publish lists for the guidance of member libraries. The basic reference is the Association's Report on (A) Standard and (B) Popular Authors (1942). A useful description of the work of the Fiction Committee is provided by O'Neill (1967a). The Fiction Committee published numerous editions of the Guide to Authors of Fiction, a comprehensive list of writers of fiction, against each of whom a classification was allocated. The classification system was developed to a point of refinement which would be fascinating today to students of literature. The Guide was supplemented by monthly lists of new fiction, each item carrying a description and commentary on the book, and a classification.

Readers wishing to gain further understanding of the tension between the two schools of thought on free-and-rental service should consult New Zealand Library School (1961) which records the proceedings of a seminar on the subject, and the review article on the book: Priscilla Taylor (1962). The main protagonists were on the seminar platform together with other senior library managers and a political scientist.

The effect that the free-and-rental system had on patterns of borrowing was studied by O'Neill (1969). His article suggested that reading of fiction purely for entertainment would wither in the face of competition from television, and that the free-and-rental distinction might eventually become redundant.