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

Origins and development

Origins and development

Libraries came to New Zealand with the first mass wave of European immigration. The ships that carried those people were in some cases furnished with collections of books and journals, intended as the base collections for public libraries in the new settlements. Examples of the taste and preoccupations of those people may still be seen at the Wellington Public Library, which has preserved a representative selection of the acquisitions that have been made over its 157-year history. A list of the survivors of the inaugural collection is provided as a footnote to Joan Stevens's entertaining article about the Library's first keeper (1968).

Three municipal public libraries—Auckland, Nelson and Wellington—have at times vied for the distinction of being the first public library in New Zealand. They began operations within a year or so of one another, but the claim of seniority goes to Wellington, which opened its Exchange and Library early in 1841. Unfortunate losses of official records have meant frustration for those who would chronicle the history of that Library. The Library is a useful object of study, passing as it did through a series of mutations, relocations, changes in governance, in a manner characteristic of many such institutions around the country. However, the only convenient sources of the history of Wellington Public Library are a paper written in 1952 by Mary Ronnie, then a student at the New Zealand Library School, and a chapter written by the City Librarian, in a collection of essays about the city: Perry (1970).

The record of the Nelson Public Library is set down in a modest but comprehensive booklet published to mark the Library's sesquicentenary: Stafford (1992).

The published story of the beginnings of the other early library, Auckland, has the further distinction of being a major work in the field, one of only two substantial library histories published in New Zealand: Colgan (1980). It tells a typical story of the interplay of municipal forces, political pressures, private beneficence, professional commitment, and community activism.

J.E. Traue (1993) examines the background to the early establishment of libraries in settlements. Ruth Graham (1996) writes against this background in describing the history of the library in the Wellington suburb of Karori, from 1844 to 1902.

Given the importance of the concept of the mechanics' institute in the origins of the Auckland Public Library, and elsewhere in the country, it is proper to acknowledge A.L. Kidson's (1971) general article about this popular education movement. However, the general history of New Zealand libraries remains to be pieced together from numerous sources which deal with individual libraries, with specific aspects of library service or with particular areas of the country. John Harris (1947) in the course of his Presidential address to the NZLA retailed the history of libraries, and thereby provided for many years the only text to which students might turn. The following year his history of Otago libraries, 1848-1948, was published. Another useful guide for this first century in library development appeared as a Library School bibliography: Foote (1948).

It is surprising that individual libraries have not been as ready as school and parish churches to produce records of their history, given the celebration of many centenaries in the past 30 years. A search of the New Zealand National Bibliography (NZNB), the Index to New Zealand Periodicals, and Index New Zealand, under the heading Libraries, will identify the few histories that exist. Here are some of special interest: Barrowman (1995) on the Alexander Turnbull Library, Bell (1950) on the Canterbury Public Library, Malcolm (1971) on the Palmerston North Public Library, Maslen (1985) on the Naseby Athenaeum, Johnson (1988) on the University of Auckland Library, New Zealand Historic Places Trust (1977) on the General Assembly Library, and Ringer (1980) on the Hamilton Public Library.

Bagnall's New Zealand National Bibliography to the Year 1960, in its earliest volumes covering to 1889, lists some printed catalogues of libraries interesting to those examining the reading tastes of earlier generations. In an age when the size and stability of library collections made a printed catalogue practicable such publications were common in even the smallest communities. A cluster of such catalogues published in the Hawkes Bay in the 1880s, serving libraries as obscure as Glenross, Maraekakaho, and Mohaka, may have owed more to the commercial enterprise of the local printer, R.C. Harding, than it did to reader utility; the large amount of advertising that appeared in the catalogue of the Napier Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute would suggest that different market forces were at play.

Enlightening also are the published rules of libraries; and here study should not be confined to the public institutions. The New Zealand National Bibliography carries references to several early private libraries. These occupied a niche in the library market which remained important up to the 1960s. However, few if any of the book clubs that were still prospering immediately prior to the advent of television in New Zealand could hold rank with the Parnell Book Club, Auckland, the rules of which in 1885 referred to 'the number of members limited to 20 gentlemen'. J. Edward Brown (1984) presents his reflections on the golden age of the book clubs in his article 'Zane Grey and Lane's Emulsion'.

The establishment of the earliest libraries was parallel with the establishment of their communities. Libraries were amongst the amenities and facilities that settlers brought with them. The subsequent development of those libraries and the development of a library network throughout the country took place because pressures were exerted from various directions, by a variety of agencies: individuals, city and county authorities, the Government, education authorities, professional librarians, and organisations with a vested interest in the growth of libraries.

There were different strands of development within the general fabric of library development, and progress in one element or another would slow or increase in pace from time to time. Each element and each type of library has therefore to be considered separately, even if all movements were tending in the same direction, and occasionally resulted in concerted action. The education and training of librarians was one such area of interest; the creation of a national library, the securing of free public library service, and the improvement of services to children were other prominent issues, each worth a chapter of its own.