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

Government and governance

Government and governance

Public library service in New Zealand has been, with a few exceptions, a community issue and has been accordingly a responsibility of local government. We do not have library law governing the administration of public library service, as may be found in other countries, such as those of Scandinavia. Stuart Perry (1948) describes the background in his article on library legislation in New Zealand.

The statutes under which public libraries operate in New Zealand have been permissive rather than prescriptive. The Danish Public Libraries Act, a prescriptive statute, was published in New Zealand Libraries (1954) with the hope expressed that it might generate ideas about the development of New Zealand library service. In 1988, when comparisons were drawn between services in New Zealand and those in Norway, the lack of library law remained the outstanding difference: Dobbie (1988).

However, some saw an association between the notion of library law and the bogey of state interference, particularly when the concept of state aid to public libraries was discussed. The two ideas are of course linked: state aid must be balanced by accountability. Cyril Tolley (1959) in three articles describes the interaction of these ideas in the earlier period of our library history, from the Provincial period to World War I. A series of articles by D.C. McIntosh (1952) describing the situation at the time of writing brings the story into the modern era

State aid and the role of the state in library service has a story of its own. There was as much apprehensiveness on the government side as there was on the local government side. New Zealand Libraries reported a sharp response by the Minister of Education, Algie, and by some newspaper editorial writers, to an address given at the NZLA Conference in 1953 by the President, on the subject of the State and public libraries: Perry (1953). The government was funding at that time the Country Library Service, the National Library Service and the Alexander Turnbull Library, and was sensitive to any suggestion that more might be expected of it. Perry (1971) returned to the subject, and the plight of the larger public libraries in particular, 20 years later. His paper is complemented in the same issue of the journal by a description of existing levels and types of State aid to public libraries: O'Neill (1971).

The disparities in scale and quality of service which are characteristic of the New Zealand public library sector (one could certainly not call it a 'system') stem from the local, largely unregulated nature of service, and the dependence for funding on local rates. There has been from the outset a large gap between the levels of service achieved in urban areas and those achieved in rural areas; there have even been significant gaps between poorer and richer urban communities, even gaps within individual urban regions. Part of the reason lies in the fact that we have not had the mechanism for encouraging and achieving consistent standards across the country that exists in other countries with which we generally like to compare ourselves, namely direct funding assistance by central government to local services. This has been a weakness of our public library structure, but it has been argued that it may also be a strength which has allowed progressive authorities to achieve the highest standards.

The principle of 'State aid' came close to realisation in the period of the Provincial governments, but the low level of assistance that was offered had little effect, and no useful precedent was created.

The principle found a different form of expression in the mid 1930s, when the idea of the Country Library Service (CLS) was conceived. It was an idea whose time had come: the right conditions existed in the immediate post-Depression period, the right people were in power and the right people were on hand to make it work. The Service in its many manifestations flourished for over 30 years, becoming part of the folklore of rural communities and a vital element in the operations of public libraries in the smaller towns.

McIntosh (1952), in the conclusion to his third article, addressing the weaknesses in service, applies the concept of regional library service to North Auckland. This was not a novel proposal. The idea of regional units was planted firmly in the Munn-Barr Report (1934), and it had been about in the minds of some New Zealand librarians in rudimentary form prior to that. The concept drew together several threads: concern about rural service, the disparities between various local authorities, organisational inefficiencies, lack of coordination between libraries and the schools sector, state aid, and service standards. Regional library service was to become a major campaign object for the NZLA and the National Library Service from the 1950s through to the 1980s. It needs no further commentary here; the subject is treated thoroughly by Ronnie in her history of regional library services in New Zealand, Books to the People (1993). Suffice it to say that the concept failed to gain acceptance; the effect that its promoters were seeking had to await the implementation of general local government reform in 1989. However, the progress achieved by that reform has been extremely uneven, and it has been obscured by negative factors which have come to bear on local government.

The difficulty in achieving fair standards of library service in rural areas was a prime motive in the campaign for regional service. Service to rural areas and isolated places is a story in itself. Ronnie covers the strategic and political dimensions of that story, but the feeling and flavour of library work in rural areas can be gauged from sources such as Sutherland and MacLean (1967) writing about the CLS bookvans, and Mercer (1951) describing the smaller borough libraries. The nature and dimensions of the problem, observed in a particular and typical area can be studied in Sutherland (1984), writing about Northland. An interesting perspective on the subject, with some predictions on the direction that rural society might be taking, is provided by a specialist in rural education: McSweeney (1964). Similar interest exists in a study undertaken by the sociologist Claudia Bell (1986). The results of the Bell study form part of the Report of the Ministerial Review of National Library Services to Rural Areas (Chalmers, 1987), from which sprang a series of reforms of that service, summarised by Liz McLean (1990).