The Munn Barr report on libraries

The Munn Barr report on libraries

Dame Elizabeth Gilmer, the chair of the Libraries Committee of Wellington City Council, is issued the first free library book in Wellington in 1951. Beside her is Wellington City Councillor C. A. L. Treadwell. Wellington was one of the libraries criticised in the 1934 Munn Barr Report for not providing a free library service.

The Munn Barr report

The Munn Barr report of 1934, officially titled New Zealand Libraries: a survey of conditions and suggestions for their improvement, was a seminal publication in the history of New Zealand library development. Providing a picture of the deficiencies in the country’s library system and recommendations for remedying them, it is credited with setting the direction for the development of New Zealand’s modern library system.

The report came about following a 1932-33 trip to the United States by John Barr, the chief librarian of the Auckland Public Library, on a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. During the trip the Corporation’s president, Frederick Keppel, suggested to Barr that the best first step they could take in New Zealand library development would be to undertake a survey of the condition of the country’s libraries. The Australian Council for Educational Research had asked for such a survey in their country and Keppel thought they could be done at the same time. Barr agreed and following his return to New Zealand set about generating interest in the survey. The Libraries Association of New Zealand, of which Barr was a council member, subsequently polled their members on the idea of a survey. They voted in favour and in December 1933 the Libraries Association's secretary, Ernest Bell, made a formal request to the Corporation.

The Corporation appointed Ralph Munn to undertake the surveys in Australia and New Zealand. Munn, an American, was a qualified librarian who had been involved in library development in Pennsylvania for many years, as director of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library and Dean of the Carnegie Library School. In Australia he was partnered with Ernest Pitt, chief librarian and secretary to the Victoria Public Library. In New Zealand he was partnered with Barr, who had not only initiated the survey, but was seen to be the most suitable New Zealander for the task.

Munn arrived in New Zealand at the end of April 1934 with his wife Anne. Over the next month he and Barr toured the country, accompanied by their wives. They visited libraries in all cities of above 10,000 population (except Nelson), all university libraries (except Lincoln), and ‘a representative group of borough, school and special libraries’. Munn alone undertook the survey of Barr’s own library.

Their resulting report, New Zealand Libraries: a survey of conditions and suggestions for their improvement, was written largely by Barr, but incorporated the ideas of both men. In it they detailed the deficiencies of New Zealand’s library system. These included the widespread use of the subscription system in public libraries, the limitation on the library rate, the often inadequate service offered in smaller towns and the lack of a national library.

Munn and Barr outlined a plan for a national system, with specific recommendations in ten areas (summarised):

  1. Function of libraries - more consideration should be given to the threefold function of libraries (cultural, vocational and recreational).
  2. Free libraries - all public libraries should aim to be free in all departments for ratepayers and residents.
  3. Library rate - the penny in the pound rate should be eliminated, or the limit raised to threepence.
  4. Subsidy for country libraries - the subsidy should be reinstated as it was the main source of book supply; recommended a new plan for its disbursement to allow for bulk buying.
  5. Urban and rural libraries - a plan for their development was outlined.
  6. Regional grouping of libraries - libraries should be grouped regionally, with a voluntary system of interloans and a regional headquarters.
  7. National library for Dominion - a national reference library should be created with the General Assembly Library as a focal point. A national circulating library should incorporate the Alexander Turnbull Library and the science library of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
  8. Professional training and remuneration - training should be enhanced, with salary increments when training completed.
  9. School libraries - the Education Department should provide more funding; there should be more cooperation with school authorities.
  10. Libraries Association of New Zealand - a plan for its development was outlined.

While many of the deficiencies and recommendations had been described or discussed elsewhere previously, they were now brought together in one place for the first time. The report was sent to the Corporation in August 1934 and, following their approval, was printed and released in New Zealand in December. At their annual conference in March 1935 the newly renamed New Zealand Library Association committed to promoting the report's recommendations.

Though the Depression and Second World War slowed progress, the recommendations were largely implemented over the next 50 years. The report is described as a turning point in the development of the country's modern library system.

Further information

  • Book & print in New Zealand: A guide to print culture in Aotearoa, ed. by Penny Griffith, Ross Harvey and Keith Maslen, Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1997.
  • Library service in New Zealand, 2nd edn, ed. by Alan D. Richardson, Wairarapa Education Resource Centre, Masterton, 1995.
  • Wynne Colgan, The Governor's gift: the Auckland public library 1880-1980, Auckland City Council, Auckland, 1980.
  • W.J. McEldowney, New Zealand Library Association 1910-1960, Wright and Carman Ltd, Wellington, 1962.
  • John Harris, Library development in New Zealand, Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1947.
  • Ralph Munn and John Barr, New Zealand Libraries: a survey of conditions and suggestions for their improvement, Libraries Association of New Zealand, Christchurch, 1934.
  • Maxine K. Rochester, The revolution in New Zealand librarianship: American influence as facilitated by the Carnegie Corporation of New York in the 1930s, Occasional paper 50, Dalhousie University School of Library and Information Studies, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1990.
  • David Verran, ‘Government subsidies for public libraries in New Zealand 1877-1935', Aplis, Vol 18 No 4, December 2005.

Community contributions

2 comments have been posted about The Munn Barr report on libraries

What do you know?


Posted: 23 May 2010

Thanks very much for letting us know about this unfortunate error, John - it looks like the wrong person was cropped out of the original group photograph. We will fix it asap.
And thanks also for your offer to send an image of your grandfather. If you have one that we could use on the website please email it to [email protected] . Regards, Jamie Mackay,

John Skelton

Posted: 23 May 2010

Hi I am the grandson of John Barr. The photo you have on this page is definately not my grandfather. If you would lile a real photo please let me know and I can send to you. Regards John