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

The National Library of New Zealand

The National Library of New Zealand

The readiest source of summary information is Susan Bartel (1993). The Library as a major government agency is required to publish a corporate plan and to furnish an annual report setting out its policies, programmes and activities. These reports are issued as public documents. Parallel with these are the annual reports of the Trustees of the National Library.

The institution which came into existence with the enactment of the National Library Act 1965 was a merging of several institutions: the General Assembly Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library, and the National Library Service (itself an earlier merging of the National Library Centre, the Country Library Service, the School Library Service, and the Library School). These were joined in 1989 by the National Film Library.

A national library was a major structural element in the library system that had been envisaged in the succession of reviews of the country's library services by overseas experts. An even earlier example of a national library model, proposed by the Librarian of the General Assembly Library in 1915, can be seen in Griffith (1987). Later models were provided in the Munn-Barr Report and in the 1960 Osborn report.

The national library concept was the object of one of the most persistent campaigns pursued by the library profession. It was a campaign which in its later stages became bitterly divisive. The professional opposition that was mounted in the early 1960s against the government's proposal for a national library stemmed from concerns about a loss of identity by the Alexander Turnbull Library and the General Assembly Library. Ironically the situation 30 years later sees the Parliamentary Library existing independently of the National Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library maintaining a clear and strong identity, and many of the elements of the old National Library Service demolished or diminished greatly in importance.

The various schemes for a national library proposed a monolithic structure, similar to those that existed in other countries. However, it is generally believed that the seed of the National Library as it came to develop in this country was planted well away from a major urban centre, in a rural education scheme that operated in Canterbury in the early 1930s: Alley (1950). The attention of the new Labour government was caught by the idea of books carried to people in rural areas, and by the man at the scheme's frontline. The Country Library Service was established in 1938 to develop the concept nationally. The story of the service is told in Alley (1956) and in several articles in a special issue of New Zealand Libraries (1967). Mention must be made also of a brief note published two years after the latter, which sets out to demonstrate the powerful role played by ministerial advisers in this development: Sutch (1969).

Further development of the national library concept was an organic and incremental process. The Country Library Service set up a schools section in 1942 to provide specifically for children in rural areas; in 1951 this became the School Library Service. The New Zealand Library School, providing training in librarianship for graduates, began in 1946. The National Library Centre grew in scale as it took over administration of national bibliographical activities, many of them initiated by the New Zealand Library Association or groups of libraries: the National Union Catalogue, the Interloan Scheme, the Union List of Serials in New Zealand Libraries, and the Index to New Zealand Periodicals. This development took the National Library Service to a point where the formation of a National Library from the merger of this and the other national libraries (Alexander Turnbull and General Assembly) seemed a logical progression.

The NZLA intensified its campaign in the 1950s, to a point where the government agreed to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the proposition. Perry (1958) provides a summary history of the campaign and a commentary on the report of the Committee. The Association found itself making submissions again in 1961, to a Royal Commission on the State Services; the submissions are set out in NZLA (1961). The Royal Commission's recommendations regarding a national library were published in New Zealand Libraries ('Royal Commission on the State Services', 1962). In 1963 the government announced its intention to form a National Library, and in 1964 appointed the first National Librarian. The enabling Act was passed in 1965. An unusual perspective on the political campaign is provided by the Minister in charge of the Bill at the time: Kinsella (1990). A unique and useful record of the campaign, made by Stuart Perry (1972a), is in the collection of Wellington Public Library. It comprises letters, reports, minutes and other documents accumulated through a long involvement with committees and working parties.

With the institution firmly established the library profession next turned its attention to the accommodation difficulties of the National Library. At the height of the problem the Library was occupying 13 buildings in Wellington, not one purpose-built. New Zealand Libraries published in 1973 a chronology of the National Library and its buildings in Wellington: Olsson (1973). Conditions were to get much worse before the building in Molesworth Street was opened in 1987. The professional project manager of the Library retails the story of the new building's planning and construction: Alan Smith (1989), and an architect provides an independent appraisal of the completed building: Alington (1988).

The most comprehensive description of the functions and achievements of the National Library, when it was most active and its influence was most pervasive, can be found in a chapter of the handbook that was supplied to library students: New Zealand Library Association. Certificate Course, Paper A: Library Service in New Zealand (1972).

The record for the 1980s and 1990s is most readily to be found in the annual reports of the Library. Although they came increasingly to be couched in the language of state corporatism and management-speak, there can be discerned through them a trend away from the classical functions of a national library to those of an agency seeking simply to coordinate the activities of other libraries in the country, and to provide some bibliographical services, where possible on a cost-recovery basis.

A person wishing to trace the shift in philosophy might find enlightenment in reading the personal statements of successive National Librarians, made on those occasions when fundamental values are exposed, broad policies are sketched and futures are predicted: Alley (1967), Macaskill (1971), McIntosh (1973), Scott (1987, 1991).

Anyone searching for turning points in a trend as significant as the reformation of the National Library might wish to contemplate the brief and limited debate that occurred in the mid 1970s, about the desirability of developing a national lending library, on the model of the British Library at Boston Spa. Ken Porter (1975) was the advocate; R.W. Hlavac (1977), speaking for a NZLA working party, said in effect 'not like that, and not yet', preferring to see completion of the National Library building, and a strengthening of the Library's role as a coordinator of interloan and as a lender of last resort for research material. The subsequent dispersal of the strong central collection of the Library might be seen as rooted in the latter view of the Library's role.

National Library strategic policy in recent years has been based amongst other things upon a development doctrine known by librarians as 'resource sharing'. The theory would have it that sharing of resources, by various processes, produces a national information 'stock' which is significantly greater than the sum of the individual parts.

The Library Interloan Scheme was the first of these processes that was put in place. Initially it was a contractual arrangement between certain libraries, lending and borrowing from one another on roughly equal terms. In time, with the involvement of the National Library and its stock, it grew into a scheme for balancing the strongest and the weakest ends of the library system. Wylie (1981) analyses the patterns of interloan borrowing and lending in the period 1959 to 1979. The joint committee of the National Library and the NZLA/NZLIA, which administered the scheme in the latter years, collects and publishes annual statistics of interloan traffic. Janet Caudwell (1987) shortly after a radical change in the rules of the Interloan Scheme published an article on the state and likely future of the Scheme.