Taranaki Museum

Carnegie libraries

Born in 1835 to poor parents in Scotland, Andrew Carnegie became the richest man of his age. His family migrated to Al‑legheny, Pennsylvania, in 1848, and he immediately started work, at age 13, in a textile mill, earning $1.20 a week.

Written by       Photographed by Taranaki Museum

By dint of hard work he became a great and astute industrial­ist, a doyen of the steel industry that he launched in Pittsburgh in 1873. It was Carnegie who said, “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.”

In 1901, at age 65, he sold the Carnegie Steel Company to J. P. Morgan for the astronomical sum of $480 million, and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropic activities and writing.

Carnegie believed that the rich had a moral obligation to give away their fortunes. In 1889 he wrote The Gospel of Wealth, in which he pro­claimed:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: first, to set an example of modest unostentatious living, shun­ning display; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those depend­ent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calcu­lated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.

Carnegie set about disposing of his fortune through innumerable personal gifts and through the establish­ment of various trusts. In his thirties, he had already begun to give away some of his fast-accumulating funds. His first large gifts were made to his native town, but he later created seven philanthropic and educational organi­sations in the United States, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and several more in Europe.


One of Carnegie’s life-long in­terests was the establishment of free public libraries to make available to everyone a means of self-education. When he was a poor young man in Allegheny, he lived near Colonel James Anderson, a wealthy individual who allowed any working boy the free use of his personal library. In those days, America did not have a system of free public libraries. Carnegie never forgot Anderson’s generosity and attributed much of his own suc­cess to the enlightenment he obtained from Anderson’s books. He remained convinced of, and committed to, the notion that education was the key to success in life. “Knowledge is power” was his dictum.

There were only a few public li­braries in the world when, in 1879, Carnegie began to promote his idea of free public libraries. By giving a com­munity a library, he felt that all might educate themselves as he had done. He and his corporation subsequently spent $56 million to build 2509 librar­ies throughout the English-speaking world. Although the programme end­ed in 1917, for the next 40 years the corporation maintained an interest in the improvement of library serv­ices. Other major programmes in the corporation’s early history concerned adult education and education in the fine arts.

World peace was another cause Carnegie believed in. He established the Carnegie Endowment for Interna­tional Peace and funded the building of the Peace Palace in The Hague, in the Netherlands, which houses the International Court of Justice.

By the time of his death in Mas­sachusetts in 1919, Carnegie had given away $350 million. After his death, a final $30 million was donated to foundations, charities and pensioners. He indeed lived by his adage “A man who dies rich dies in disgrace.”

Carnegie’s philanthropy brought him his share of critics. Many con­sidered him little more than a self-indulgent egotist delighting in the attention his generosity won him—as well as in having thousands of build­ings named after him. However, Carnegie never required his name on a building, although he didn’t discourage it and would provide an oil painting of himself on request to hang inside the main door. But regardless of any question of self-aggrandisement, Carnegie was driv­en by the courage of his convictions to do what he believed was morally right.

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How does Andrew Carnegie relate to New Zealand? New Zealand acquired 18 Carnegie libraries, putting it fourth on Carnegie’s gift-list behind the USA, the UK and Canada, and well ahead of Australia, which got only four libraries.

Of the 25 New Zealand town, bor­ough and district councils that ap­proached Carnegie for library grants, the fortunate 18 to receive funds were the councils of Balclutha, Gore, Dunedin, Alexandra, Fairlie, Timaru, Hokitika, Westport, Greymouth, Levin, Dannevirke, Marton, New Plymouth, Hastings, Cambridge, Thames, Hamilton and Onehunga.

When Europeans began settling New Zealand, public libraries were still something of a novelty in Britain. For a new colonial settlement, found­ing a library was part and parcel of becoming an established, civilised community. Libraries often sprang up at the behest of a local athenaeum, literary group or Mechanics Institute, as in Britain. Membership was by subscription and all too often available only to the better-off members of society.

The handsome 1909 Gore Coronation Library—one of the 18 libraries Carnegie paid for in New Zealand—has undergone recent restoration work and is now the Eastern Southland Gallery. It houses a nationally significant collection of New Zealand art including numerous works by Dunedin artist Ralph Hotere.
The handsome 1909 Gore Coronation Library—one of the 18 libraries Carnegie paid for in New Zealand—has undergone recent restoration work and is now the Eastern Southland Gallery. It houses a nationally significant collection of New Zealand art including numerous works by Dunedin artist Ralph Hotere.

Many of these early libraries ex­perienced financial difficulties, and in 1869 central government passed the Public Library Act, which vested management of any public library in the local council, required that admis­sion be free, and limited any special library rate struck to support a public library to one penny in the pound. Few local councils rushed to accept this new responsibility and expense. In most cases, the capital cost of any dedicated library building was prohib­itive. For the latter years of the 19th century, many community libraries in New Zealand enjoyed a tenuous exist­ence at best.

Carnegie required little from those soliciting a library grant. In sharp contrast to modern granting agencies, his procedures were straightforward and streamlined. No detailed applica­tion form was required. In the first instance, all a council needed to do was to write stating its needs, specify­ing the population it served and ex­plaining something of its present circumstances.

However, Carnegie’s money came subject to a number of conditions. A council had to certify that the pro­posed library site was debt-free and guarantee to provide an annual sum towards upkeep of the library. Gener­ally this sum was 10 per cent of what­ever grant was agreed to. Further, in order to sustain the library as a “free public library”, Carnegie required a council to adopt the dedicated rate allowed by New Zealand law. If he judged this sum insufficient for the library’s upkeep, he asked the council to agree to an annual top-up, as, for example, in the instance of Cam­bridge.

Carnegie regarded the free nature of a proposed library as the essential and overriding condition to provid­ing a grant. Carved above the doors of the archetypal Carnegie library in Pittsburgh are the words “Free to the People”. He would have liked this motto over all his funded libraries. Few communities obliged.

Well-dressed patrons browse NZ books in the Timaru Public Library about 1905. Carnegie gave £3000 for the erection of this library, which was opened in 1909 and served the tow until 1979. His grants paid for the buildings, but books to go in them were local responsibility.
Well-dressed patrons browse NZ books in the Timaru Public Library about 1905. Carnegie gave £3000 for the erection of this library, which was opened in 1909 and served the tow until 1979. His grants paid for the buildings, but books to go in them were local responsibility.

In the case of the Cambridge li­brary, Carnegie spelled out exactly what he meant by “free”: all persons over 14 years of age residing in the borough should be able to take out one book free per week, with those paying a subscription able to borrow a further two books.

While most New Zealand councils complied with Carnegie’s basic re­quirements, it is clear that a number of libraries were less free than others. Although, in general, the public read­ing room was maintained as a free facility, a charge was often made for borrowing, in direct contravention of both the spirit and the letter of Carnegie’s conditions. Hastings was one library that would learn this to its cost.

Carnegie gave money only for the capital cost of the building, although sometimes he provided an additional grant for furnishings, as in the case of Hokitika. Detractors often accused him of endowing bookless libraries, but many New Zealand communities already had a good supply of books. Carnegie recognised this and simply offered the capital to provide appro­priate housing.

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The New Zealand libraries erected with Carnegie money were buildings of substance in concrete, stone and brick. Overseas not all Carnegie libraries had been well built. Shoddy construction and inappropriate designs had led Carne­gie to issue standard building plans or require that all local plans and speci­fications be vetted by his staff before construction commenced. He hated waste space, such as foyers. He wished to ensure “the utmost amount of ef­fectiv [sic] accommodation”. Often a change in the plans was required, as in Fairlie. Following completion of the building, a council was required to send him photographs showing how his money had been spent and that construction complied with what he had approved.

In New Zealand, each library was designed by a local architect, with most stand-alone libraries following a basic plan of a central hall flanked by reading, library and social rooms. Some were magnificent, as in Hoki­tika, others more mundane.

In many instances the new library became an integral part of the town centre along with the town hall, the courthouse, the police station and the post office, as in Hamilton, Thames, Onehunga and Dunedin. In other cases Carnegie’s money provided for a dedicated library wing on a new or ex­isting town hall or council building, as in Greymouth and Cambridge.

Not all communities were unani­mous about asking Carnegie for money or accepting what was offered. Labour unions were particularly vocal in their opposition. The words of one over excited American glass-worker have become enshrined as the ulti­mate anti-Carnegie tirade: “I would sooner enter a building built with the dirty silver Judas received for betraying Christ than enter a Carnegie li­brary.” In the USA, 225 communities turned down his money.

The opening of the fine Carnegie library in Hamilton by the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward on February 17, 1908, was a major civic event. The building boasted a revolving door, at the time an object of great novelty, wonder and hazard. Carnegie required all the libraries he paid for to be made from permanent materials such as brick, stone or concrete.
The opening of the fine Carnegie library in Hamilton by the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward on February 17, 1908, was a major civic event. The building boasted a revolving door, at the time an object of great novelty, wonder and hazard. Carnegie required all the libraries he paid for to be made from permanent materials such as brick, stone or concrete.

Politics aside, free public libraries were not near the top of many New Zealand local-body rating agendas in the early 20th century. A Carnegie grant and its conditions were a luxury many communities decided they couldn’t afford, opting instead for the user-pays policy of their 19th century predecessors.

All told, Carnegie donated US$207,607 to New Zealand library buildings, equivalent to NZ$5,000,000 today. The individual amounts ranged from £1000 to £10,000, with Dunedin receiving the largest.

Only two of the New Zealand buildings, those in Marton and Bal­clutha, remain in use as libraries. Ten have been restored but are used for other purposes, while six have been demolished.

In America, Carnegie built 1689 libraries. At least 350 have gone on to other uses. Another 259 have been razed or destroyed by fire or natural disasters. In 1991, only 60 were still in use as libraries, i.e. 3.5 per cent, compared with New Zealand’s 11.1 per cent today.

One quirk of Carnegie’s cor­respondence prompted amused comment from many New Zealand newspaper editors of the day. Among other enthusiasms, Carnegie was an advocate of simplified spelling, particularly the system devised by Melvil Dewey, who also gave the world the Dewey Decimal Clas­sification used in libraries. Dewey considered that in English “we hav the most unsyentifik, unskolarli, illojikal & wasteful speling ani lan­guaj ever ataind”. Carnegie actively promoted Dewey’s simplified system and required his correspondence to be conducted using it. No doubt he would have been a devotee of text-messaging.


Balclutha Borough Council received its grant of £1000 from Andrew Carnegie in mid-1913 and let a contract for construction of the library in November that year. Yet the council subse­quently exhibited a somewhat ambiva­lent attitude towards its new library, being reluctant to promote its use or spend money on it. The library was small and, in its early days, opened only two days a week and then for no more than a few hours.

Within 10 years of the opening, the council was faced with maintenance issues. The basement kept flooding, the roof leaked interminably and the building was unheated. By 1929 the running costs were causing alarm, and the council instructed the librarian that specific authorisation was required for any expenditure in excess of £5.

In the winter of 1933, £5 was splurged on a stove, which proved quite inadequate, and by 1934 the council had to bite the bullet. It fixed the ceiling leaks and even installed a heating system. In 1936–37, it made an ex gratia payment to the library of £50 and followed up this unprecedented generosity in 1939 by increasing an­nual library expenditure by £15—in order to qualify for free books from the Country Library Service.


Contemporary accounts imply that for much of its early history the Balclutha Library was something of a sancta sanctorum. Local primary-school pupils were not encouraged to visit and were reported to be nervous about entering it. A children’s section wasn’t introduced until 1955. Even then, all children were required to be accom­panied by an adult, a rule that persisted well into the 1960s. Only in 1968 were schoolchildren allowed to borrow books from the technical section.

Despite its difficulties, the library remained free to all users, although a special pay section was introduced in 1944 that continued even when the Labour Party offered competition by opening a book exchange in 1981. The arrival of television in 1962 had the library committee reminding residents that “free membership of your public library” was available.

By 1945 it had become apparent that the Carnegie building was no longer suitable as a library. New quarters were sought, but as the building was on trust land it couldn’t be sold. For a long time little happened, apart from some badly needed refurbishing in 1962 and some minor maintenance a decade later.

Finally, in November 1988 work began on a full make-over of the building according to a design by architect Geoff White. The money for this came from the sale of half of the council’s shareholding in the lo­cal milk-treatment station following deregulation of the town milk industry in 1987. Today Balclutha’s Carnegie building is one of only two in the country that still functions as a library. It remains in good heart and a credit to Andrew Carnegie—not to mention Balclutha Borough Council.


Gore was typical of those smaller centres that replaced an exist­ing well-used athenaeum with a Carnegie library.

The council’s first approaches to Carnegie for a grant were re‑buffed, but in 1907 a grant of £2000 was made to the borough. The build­ing was formally opened on Septem­ber 1, 1910. It took the name of its predecessor, the Gore Coronation Library, not a name or sentiment that would have been approved of by the staunchly republican Carnegie, whose coat of arms bore a crest consisting of an inverted crown surmounted by a liberty cap. Another of his mottos was “Death to privilege”.

The initial book stock ran to 2125 volumes, but the architect had ensured there was “ample room for augmentation.” The library could ac­commodate 12,600 books, and had provision for a second storey. A small children’s section was included.

From the very outset, the Gore li­brary management ignored Carnegie’s standard grant conditions, although it received frequent reminders from local residents as to what these were. Access to the reading room remained free to all, but borrowing was for paying subscribers only. Perhaps this contributed to low usage, which by 1913 averaged only 10 patrons a day.

By 1922 it had become obvious that the annual subsidy of £150 was insuf­ficient to maintain the facility, so the council agreed to strike the special library rate. This brought in a much-needed £250 a year.


Dunedin’s Carnegie librarian, William McEwan, made an inspec­tion of the Gore facility in 1923. He reported favourably on what he found and made a number of recom­mendations. These included that no child under 10 should be permitted on the premises unless accompanied by an adult. Only in the 1960s was the children’s section upgraded and given new quarters.

The outbreak of World War II brought censorship. A copy of the Orange Lodge publication The Na­tion was removed from the shelves by the council as it contained a “vicious attack on Catholic soldiers” and was “filthy from cover to cover”. Despite objections, it remained off the shelves. The council’s action had repercus­sions at the next municipal elections, the mayor and other councillors believed to have been involved being tossed out of office.

The future of the Gore library, like that of libraries in other districts, was re-evaluated after the war. Meeting in 1950, council members rejected any notion of the library becom­ing fully free and hence able to join the National Library Service. They wanted to retain their independence. It took 10 years and extensive efforts on the part of the librarians to change subscribers’ point of view and so al­low the library finally to comply with Carnegie’s conditions.

A total renovation of the building took place in 1961. When a replace­ment was eventually built in 1983, the original was taken over by the Eastern Southland Gallery. In 2002, it was given a $1.2 million make-over to house the collections of expatri­ate John Money, emeritus professor at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Uni­versity, and painter Ralph Hotere. A number of early features, such as the parapet, were restored. Today Gore’s Carnegie library building appears more or less in its original form.


By 1859, Dunedin had acquired a library via the usual colonial route of a Mechanics Institute and an athenaeum. Even earlier, in 1848, over 1000 volumes had arrived with settlers on the Philip Laing. But Dunedin City Council was not an organisation to be rushed. The passing of the Public Library Act came and went in 1869 and the council showed not the slightest inclination to find funds for any public library project—unlike its counterparts in all the major centres of European settle­ment to the north.

In 1890 a group of concerned and prominent citizens formed a local lobby group, the Dunedin Public Li­brary Association. A leading light of this was Mark Cohen, editor of the Evening Star. He had been pressing the council to become involved in a library for years. The community itself was divided. A public vote in 1891 over whether to have the coun­cil strike the dedicated library rate was lost by 942 to 843.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 provided a further excuse for the association to press its case. It pressured the council to raise funds by public subscription to build a library as a way of commemorat­ing Her Majesty’s glorious reign. It approached Andrew Carnegie and he offered the princely sum of £10,000—provided the council guar­anteed to contribute £700 per annum and, of course, to establish the con­cern as a free library.


The association’s success in lob­bying Carnegie left the council lost for words. After some months, it announced that it would not be tak­ing any action until it had written to Carnegie and had him explain the precise meaning of his conditions. In particular, it had difficulty with the juxtaposition of the words “library” and “free”.

Among other things, the council enquired if the entire £10,000 had to be spent on a library, as it felt the sum was sufficient to fund both a li­brary and museum; if it could charge for lending to ensure replacement books could be purchased; and if it really had to manage the library.

Carnegie’s answers were a polite “Yes”, “No” and “Yes”. The council had to comply precisely with the terms of the original offer if it was to get the money.

The canny Dunedin councillors had no intention of letting £10,000 slip through their fingers and duly accepted the money and the condi­tions that came with it and began searching for a suitable site. Again the Dunedin Public Library Associa­tion came to the fore, lobbying suc­cessfully to have the library become part of a future municipal precinct with its frontage on Moray Place.

A nationwide competition was run to produce suitable architectural plans while the council sought ad­vice from experienced librarians as to what would be required. Twenty entries were received and the win­ners were Crichton and McKay, from Wellington. Despite advice the council received to the contrary, the plans needed altering before a tender could be let, which was finally done in June 1906 for £9085.


All through this protracted saga the local athenaeum refused to have anything to do with a public library and had no intention of surrendering its books. Hence, when W.B. McE­wan, formerly of Stirling, Scotland, took up his appointment as librarian on May 27, 1908, he took possession of a shell containing no staff, no fit­tings and no books.

McEwan had won the post from a field of 69 applicants. On the li­brary’s 21st birthday in 1929 the Ota­go Witness reported his recollection of the town clerk taking him to the new building on his first day, turn­ing the key in the lock, swinging the door open and saying to him, “Here is the library. For God’s sake, tell us what to do with it.”

McEwan got busy. On December 2, 1908, he opened the reading room, while the public were let into the library proper for the first time on November 22, 1909. But there were still few books, and a lending service didn’t get under way until 1911, when the Caversham Library Committee donated 3000 volumes. Nonetheless, by the time McEwan retired in 1933, loans exceeded 330,000 books a year.

Today Dunedin has a new public library, and the Carnegie building has achieved a new lease of life as the Carnegie Centre. It contains the rehearsal room for the Southern Sinfonia (formerly the Dunedin Sin­fonia) and rooms for teaching music and dance, and is home besides to Fortune Theatre Costume Hire, a hairdressing salon and an Indian res­taurant.


Throughout much of the 19th century, European settlers in Alexandra enjoyed the services of a literary institute as well as the Manuherikia library. In about 1900, the latter was vested in the council of the now renamed district of Alexandra.

In 1909 the local council received a letter from resident William Fraser informing it that he had had an inter­view with Andrew Carnegie at Skibo Castle, as a result of which a grant would be forthcoming for a new free library building.

Like Carnegie, Billy Fraser was self-made, a Scottish emigrant and an avid reader. He had been the Alexan­dra town blacksmith and had risen to become the largest property-owner in the district. In 1909 he had made a nostalgic trip back to Scotland, where he had succeeded in angling an invita­tion to Carnegie’s castle. There he put his case for a library in Alexandra, convincing Carnegie.

In 1911 Carnegie finally wrote confirming the arrangement and stating his offer of £800. Nonethe­less, the council was not to be rushed. Carnegie’s conditions were a source of concern—and expense. While some wanted to get on with the building, others saw the facility as an expensive luxury they could ill-afford. Plans were drawn up and tenders called, but communications with Carnegie fal­tered and in August 1912 the council cancelled all arrangements.

Then, in 1913, the existing library building burned down. New offers for a library arrived on the council’s table but nothing eventuated until 1914, when a deputation of local citi­zens petitioned the council to reap­ply to Carnegie. The council took the prudent step of polling the local ratepayers, who voted in favour of a Carnegie application, which was duly lodged in July 1914. The original of­fer was repeated and accepted without further ado in January 1915.


A section was purchased for £35, and Dunedin architect Edward Ans­combe was asked to draw up plans. A tender was let in October 1915 and the completed library opened on No­vember 30, 1916. A commemorative plaque was unveiled acknowledging the efforts of William Fraser. The new, rather handsome building, with its roof of Marseilles tiles, lent a cer­tain elegance to the otherwise dowdy part of Alexandra in which it stood.

The reading room opened from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. except on public holidays and on Sundays, when hours were from 2 to 5 p.m. Books were lent to all ratepayers and householders within the borough.

Unlike in Gore and Balclutha, children appear to have been less of an issue but among Alexandra’s library rules was an injunction that “no person…who is suffering from an infectious or offensive disease shall enter the library”, and the librarian was urged to consult the borough health officer as to the best manner of protecting library users from disease. A similar concern about disease being spread through books was expressed in Gore at about the same time. Cer­tainly, no animal or bicycle was per‑mitted within the library grounds.

The building was unheated and proved dreadfully cold during Central Otago winters. It did, however, afford a cosy community social centre on Friday nights, when a small kerosene heater was brought in. It served the district well until 1978, when it was demolished to make way for a new administration building containing the present dedicated library wing.

Sadly, one of the last physical reminders of the library has also vanished—the so-called library tree, a historic beech that stood beside the building. Local legend held that it had been planted in 1891 by Billy Fraser, who intended to use the wood for his coffin. In 1987, in mid-summer, its leaves suddenly browned and dropped to the ground, and a tree specialist proclaimed it dead. Perhaps its heart had been broken by the demise of Billy’s library.


Fairlie got its first library in 1882, “owing to a number of intel­lectuals coming to Fairlie town­ship” as the Timaru Herald Mac­kenzie County Supplement of 1928 would have it. It was a small galvanised-iron building that stood at the corner of Main and Allandale Streets and proved totally inadequate for intellectual pursuits.

Inquiries by the county clerk led to the community learning in 1913 that Andrew Carnegie would give £1000 to cover the cost of a new building, complete and ready for oc­cupancy, subject to his usual condi­tions. However, this immediately precipitated dissension among the local county ridings as to how the annual £100 cost of the library’s upkeep should be spread. In the end Fairlie stumped up £50, Opuha £30 and Tekapo £20.

The Fairlie community contained a vociferous number opposed to ac­cepting Carnegie’s money “on prin­ciple”, but the editor of the Timaru Herald counselled that it was “an excellent principle to accept money freely” for any “good cause”.


The Fairlie library was one in­stance in New Zealand in which Carnegie required substantial changes to the plans. The architect appeared to have had little under­standing of the requirements of a public library and had divided the cottage-style building into a number of small rooms as well as taking up much space with lobbies, which An­drew Carnegie could not abide. In the end, two large rooms were estab­lished on either side of the entrance, one serving as the library proper, the other as a reading room. The build­ing opened in 1914.

The Timaru Herald was impressed with the result. It felt the need to comment on “the noble lines” of the building as well as “the absolute cleanliness of the interior… Over all there is that essential quiet so indispensable to the enjoyment of the mental refreshment so lavishly provided; and the well-lighted and well-heated reading room is redolent with that cosiness that constrains one to settle down to a surfeit of the pleasure it affords regardless of the passing time.”

In the early 1990s the Mackenzie District Free Library was combined with the Mackenzie College Library, and in 1995 the new Mackenzie Community Library was opened. The Carnegie building was refurbished and today serves as The Old Library Café, and very pleasant it is too.


Timaru got its first library in 1862 following a public meeting about the formation of a Mechanics In‑stitute that incorporated a public library. A permanent building to house both institute and library was erected in 1870, with members being charged a subscription. How­ever, from 1876 the institute experi­enced 30 years of increasing financial difficulties and struggled to maintain its library services.

In 1905 the council stepped in. At the behest of Mayor James Crai­gie it took over the building and approached Andrew Carnegie for support. The council also took a decision that books from any new library would be freely available to every person whose name was on the district electors’ list. Timaru was one of the few Carnegie libraries in the South Island to interpret “free” so magnanimously.

Carnegie was impressed by the ef­forts of the council and made a grant of £3000. A contract was let in Febru­ary 1908 for erection of a whitestone (i.e. Oamaru limestone) building at a cost of £2951. The new library opened on June 4, 1909. Subsequently, council offices, also in whitestone and of a de‑sign concordant with the library, were erected next door, and a clock tower was added in 1934.


Library membership grew ex­tremely rapidly, and in 1911 the librarian (male) saw fit to employ an “intelligent and smart girl who has been through the standards and re­ceived a recommendation from the schoolmaster for solidity of character and mental alertness”.

This was followed in 1913 by the appointment as chief librarian of a woman, Miss Culverwell, from the Dunedin Reference Library. Her appointment ahead of 112 other ap­plicants in such a male-dominated arena was a sufficient rarity to earn comment in the monthly journal American Library, while the Timaru Post was agog. It editorialised on the matter, reporting that “people in the street” had observed how the selec­tion of a woman was preventing a married man with a family from ob­taining a living.

The library prospered under Miss Culverwell. It was one of the few in the country to receive warm praise in a pre-war international report commissioned on New Zealand libraries paid for by the Carnegie Corporation.

By 1945 it was widely recognised that a new building was urgently re­quired. Nonetheless, as in Balclutha and Gore, nothing happened for over 30 years, although the library contin­ued to flourish in its cramped, turn­-of-the century quarters. Not until 1979 was a modern building provided, and today only the façade of the old building remains.


Hokitika got into the book business at the height of the gold rushes in the 1860s. A literary society was formed in 1866, members paying a subscription of five shillings a quarter. Serious fund-raising for a library began in 1867, by which time the society possessed 600 books. Two rooms were secured in the town hall in 1869 for a public reading room and a subscribers’ library.

Although this was better than noth­ing, a major library was needed, but no substantial source of funds pre­sented itself until Andrew Carnegie gave £2000 for a free public library in 1906, later adding a further £500 for furnishings. The Hokitika Savings Bank chipped in with a donation of £400, while further monies came from the borough council and the local Mechanics Institute. The foundation stone was laid in November 1906.

The architect, A.R. Griffin, com­bined a number of styles to produce “the finest building architecturally on the West Coast”. Typical was the impressive pillared portico that fronted the library, complete with large dou­ble doors topped by a transom and a fanlight glazed with Muranese glass. The projecting cornice imparted a massive appearance to the building.


The rooms were large and included a newspaper room, a reference room, the library itself with an adjacent committee room, and a public reading room. Throughout, the ceilings were adorned with ornate metal fittings imported from Sydney. All rooms were well-lit and ventilated. The hip roof was of slate and surmounted by a 2.6 m octagonal ventilator, capped by a cast-iron finial.

The building opened on June 24, 1908, with the literary society and Mechanics Institute handing over their book collections to Hokitika Borough Council, allowing everyone in Hokitika to have access. Since a subscription was charged for bor­rowing books, the library does not appear to have complied fully with Carnegie’s terms; however, any local resident could call in and read books or newspapers in the library for free.

The building continued to serve Hokitika as a library until 1975. In the 1990s, it was rescued from a state of disrepair and restored, and today it serves as the West Coast Histori­cal Museum and Westland Visitors’ Centre and is known as the Carnegie Building.


On New Year’s Day 1903, the original Westport library, the Athenaeum, burned down. The council had become aware of library grants being sought by other South Island communities, and the town clerk was prompted to write to Andrew Carnegie seeking assistance. The millionaire promptly made a grant of £2000, and the new building was to occupy the Athenae­um’s site.

Compared with such projects in some other New Zealand towns and cities, the erection of the new library was very straightforward. No fuss, no delays; the Coasters just got on with it. The first brick was laid by the mayoress on June 30, 1904. A few weeks later, the Mayor, Fergus Fergusson Munro, placed parchment copies of all the correspondence with Andrew Carnegie in cavities in the walls, along with contemporary news­papers and coins. The building was opened ready for business the same year, with Thomas Dollman the first librarian.

It still stands, thanks to the ef‑forts of the Buller Historical Society, which fought to save it from demoli­tion following the library’s relocation in 1990 to the Buller District Council building. It has now been extensively renovated ready for reincarnation as an arts centre.



The Grey District Library had its beginnings in the Greymouth Literary Association, formed in 1868. This was an exclusive club. Membership was by ballot with an annual fee of £2 5s, putting it beyond the means of the ordinary cit­izen. In 1871 the association became a public club, the Greymouth Literary Society, with a public library.

Greymouth had been long overdue for a town hall and council offices, and after much politicking in the early 1900s, a scheme was approved by a new council and by ratepayers. However, the lowest tender was well beyond the budget available, and the notion was conceived of obtain­ing funds from Andrew Carnegie to incorporate a library wing in the new building and thereby reduce the cost to the council. In 1906 a grant of £2250 was received. The establish­ment of the library in a wing of the town hall building brought it under the control of the borough council.


The architect Edward Iveagh Lord created a building in Italian Gothic style and kept costs down by avoiding excessive external embellishment. It was the largest brick building on the Coast. The main external feature was a clock tower rising to 21.5 m.

A record from 1942 notes the li­brary being made free to the ratepay‑ers of Greymouth in order to qualify for assistance from the National Li­brary of New Zealand via the Coun­try Library Service. Presumably some sort of lending charge had been in force until then but details are scant.

The town hall and library were destroyed by arson in 1947.


Little is known of the circum‑stances behind Levin Borough Council’s application for Carne‑gie funding for a public library in 1910, but Carnegie granted £1500 on his usual terms. James Bennie was selected as architect and tenders were called. The usual anti-Carnegie voices were raised with a proposal that the library should bear a tablet proclaiming it to be “Built by sweated labour [Carnegie] and outside labour.”

Like Westport, Levin did not delay. Its new brick-and-concrete li­brary was up and ready to go in only eight months, graced by a distinctive domed entrance and a superb tiled roof. It was opened on November 29, 1911, by the prime minister, Sir Joseph Ward.

It began with 1000 books and furnishings donated by local worthy Mrs Goldsmith and her Ladies Com­mittee, who provided funds from their winnings of £100 in a Tonkings Emulsion competition. The Levin town clerk, Philip Wharton, was ap­pointed librarian with a Miss Palmer as his assistant.

The library was truly free, al­though records show that it had 200 “subscribers” in 1913. Certainly bor­ough residents had free membership, while folk in surrounding areas could join on payment of a fee. Children could use the library without charge. Borrowers could take out two books at a time with additional books being charged at threepence each.


However, in common with other councils that availed themselves of Carnegie’s largesse to build a library, the Levin council struggled with the word “free”. It had written to Carn­egie in 1910 asking to charge five shillings a year per subscriber—and been turned down flat. By 1917 it had become very concerned that the public was getting use of the library too cheaply, and the suggestion was mooted that use of the reading room should be kept free but book loans should be charged for. However, when push came to shove, the council was not prepared to breach the terms of its agreement with Carnegie.

Despite its financial concerns, the council appears to have been some­what ambivalent about striking a special library rate. It had started out with one, but in 1913 agreed to pay £100 from general funds to buy books in lieu. It repeated this exercise in 1916. Indeed, for much of the library’s early existence all expenses, including the assistant’s salary, appear to have come from the general rate.

The library prospered, particularly once the Country Library Service ar­rived in 1940, when the Levin Chroni­cle noted 37,285 books had been issued in the previous year. By 1946 the book stock stood as just under 6000.

A new public library opened in 1965 at a cost of £55,000, and the council demolished the old Carnegie building.


As in many other small New Zea‑land communities, a library was organised in Dannevirke soon after European settlement of the area and, in common with others of its kind, it struggled to sur­vive, lacking both finance and space. A letter to the editor in a local paper in 1902 prompted the council to con­sider writing to Andrew Carnegie, but cultural concerns moved very slowly in early Dannevirke. No specific ac­tion was taken until 1905, when the council suddenly found itself faced with large costs if the existing sub­scriber library was to continue. Carn­egie responded promptly and offered a grant of £2000.

The council consulted both Thames and Westport for their ex­perience before deciding whether to accept the money on the usual terms. The majority of councillors saw no difficulties, but Councillor McIntyre pointed out—frequently it seems—that entry to the existing library was by subscription only and that no provision had been made for the new facility to be a free public library. He was voted down by those councillors who felt that having a free reference room would be sufficient to keep Carnegie happy. Unlike their Dunedin counterparts, Dannevirke’s councillors had no intention of asking Mr Carnegie to explain the meaning of “free”.

From the very start the project was bedevilled by penny-pinching. A number of councillors were unhappy to spend any money, even Carnegie’s, on a library. When, for example, a push was made in July by those sym­pathetic to the library to have steel ceilings installed, the matter was put on hold, delaying completion of the building. Then a debate as to whether or not to install urinals consumed in­ordinate amounts of council time.

The foundation stone was eventu­ally laid on May 2, 1907, with the Dan­nevirke Advocate in full support. The newspaper pointed out that the library would be the first public building of any consequence in the township and roundly condemned any who saw the town’s application as a “Carnegie crawl”, such comments being “a jaun­diced view which mainly arises from jealousy and ignorance and therefore cannot be taken into serious account”.


Eventually the building was opened on May 27, 1908. As in other New Zealand Carnegie libraries, the entrance was flanked by double Corinthian columns with fluted shafts. Tablets of marble recorded the “gift to the people of Dannevirke by ANDREW CARNEGIE of Skibo Castle, Sutherland, Scotland”. For the first time in New Zealand, a Carnegie library was heated by piped hot water.

At the opening the mayor made frequent reference to the facility be­ing a “free public library”. However, like other Dannevirke councillors, he presumably had trouble with the word “free” as he stressed that “a charge will be made for books read outside the library”. Nonetheless, he called for three cheers for the American benefactor, describing the new facility as “a credit to Mr Carnegie and an or­nament to our town”. He then moved a motion, carried by acclamation, to approach Mr Carnegie for a further £500 to cover additional costs, such as the steel ceilings. Afternoon tea was then served.

The mayor’s book charge was to become the subject of correspond­ence with the Carnegie Foundation in the 1920s, when Hastings, wishing to introduce a charge for borrow­ing, cited Dannevirke’s example. The town clerk staunchly defended Dan­nevirke’s interpretation of the Library Act when queried by the foundation. In the circumstances, it seems appro­priate that the council’s earlier request for additional funds was rejected.

An earthquake in 1934 destroyed the ornamentation along the library’s parapets and later the brickwork was plastered over. In 1984 a new library was built and the existing building renamed the Carnegie Community Centre, housing among other things a kura kaupapa Maori and a toy library.


Marton’s library was the last in New Zealand to receive a Carnegie grant. The bestowal was confirmed just before the outbreak of World War I. Carnegie’s secretary took the unusual step of sending an application “scedule” [sic] to help the Rangitikei burghers with their application “as you ar [sic] so far away”.

The Rangitikei Advocate was not a happy camper when it came to ac­cepting Carnegie’s funds: “To us it seems to mean a loss of independ­ence and self-respect… Such gifts are merely ostentatious, and might be made by a person who accumulates after the manner of Bunyan’s ‘Man with the Muck-rake’.”

In the event, £1250 arrived in 1914 and was used to construct a single-storey brick building with a corru­gated-iron roof. The new facility was opened in 1916.

76_Carnegie_17 76_Carnegie_18

Before obtaining the Carnegie money, Marton Borough Council had followed a common turn-of­-the-century practice of allowing the library to rent rooms in the council chambers. It maintained this close physical connection by building the new library hard up against the cham­bers and requiring readers to enter it through the same.

The building is still in full opera­tion as the district library. Indeed, it has gone on to absorb much of the adjoining council building, erected in 1959. At this time, a decision was also taken to modernise the façade of the Carnegie building. The urns and other masonry trimmings were stripped. A new doorway and window were added and the entire brick front was given a plaster make-over. The result is the very epitome of 1950s ru­ral architecture.

The district is proud of its Carn­egie heritage. It is one of the few to have maintained a comprehensive file­and-cutting record of the Carnegie grant. Today, membership and use of the library are free, as is children’s borrowing, although most adult bor­rowing incurs a charge.

New Plymouth

Taranaki must once have been the literary capital of New Zealand. A Colonists’ Library was set up on the first immigrant ship to the area, Amelia Thompson, in 1841, and a book club with a reading room was up and running in New Plymouth by 1847. A Mechanics Insti­tute with library had been formed by 1848, but, as elsewhere in the coun­try, ran into financial strife and was wound-up and its books sold in 1878.

In 1905, former mayor A.C. Fookes asked for help from Andrew Carnegie, who contributed £2500 in February 1906 towards a library building, subject to his usual conditions.


A substantial two-storeyed struc­ture with an impressive colonnaded porch and large double doors was subsequently erected. Appropriately, the new librarian was a Miss Free, employed at an annual salary of £120. Regrettably, the council reneged on Carnegie’s conditions soon after the library had opened and adopted a user-pays policy that saw the library struggle to make ends meet for many years.

The building was demolished in 1957 to make way for a new complex. No foundation stone for the library was ever found, but heart rimu and kauri recovered during the demolition proved extremely popular at auction. A new library was opened in 1960.


In 1904 a grant of £2000 towards a free library building in Hastings was received from Andrew Carnegie. The council accepted this and agreed to strike the annual penny‑in-the-pound rate to fund the £150 per annum required for support.

Erection of a two-storeyed red­brick edifice was commenced but the funds proved insufficient to complete it and a request for an extra £500 was sent to New York and agreed to by Carnegie. The building was opened in September 1907.


By April 1910, the council had decided the wear and tear on its free books was excessive and proving expensive. It moved to require that people borrowing its books pay a deposit of 2s 6d as a guarantee that the items would be returned in good order and condition. This had little effect—in the eyes of the council at least—and in July 1915 it was decided that the condition of the books had deteriorated to a point where the only option was to abandon Carnegie’s free system and introduce subscriptions: 7s 6d per annum to borrow one volume at a time, or 10s per annum for 2 vol­umes, the money payable half-yearly and in advance!

In the event the library build­ing failed to survive the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of February 3, 1931. Local reports tell of the building’s collapse “entombing newspaper readers”.

When the council approached the Carnegie Foundation for funds to replace the building, its request was declined, as the old library hadn’t re­mained free.


Fund raising for a library in Cam­bridge began in July 1904. A li­brary committee was formed, and for its chairman, George Dickin­son, the enterprise became both his hobby and a labour of love. His daughter acted as librarian. The com­mittee’s coffers realised an initial £32 from the sale of a piano but the only other substantial sum that had been raised by 1906 was £22 from a fund­raising ball.

Matters had advanced little by May 1908, when a competition was run to find a design for a new town hall. The specification included a “Public Library and Reading Room, with Librar­ian’s office and a Chess Room”. The total cost was not to exceed £4000.

As elsewhere in the country, lo­cals were ambivalent about applying to Andrew Carnegie for funds. The Independent of June 23, 1906, acknowl­edged the need for a new library but did not favour “begging from Mr Carnegie’s purse”. When the council did apply to Carnegie for assistance, the library committee wrote also to say his money was not needed.


In the event, Andrew Carnegie ad­vanced £1000 for the proposed library wing. The building, designed by A.B. Herrold, was completed in 1909 and opened in December that year. The government provided a subsidy of £20, while a further £45 was raised from the special penny-in-the-pound rate. Carnegie required that the coun­cil pledge a further £30 a year to sup­plement this rate.

The Carnegie Free Public Library stayed in the town hall until the books were moved to lower Victoria Street in 1977. Today the building has become the town’s information centre.


Thames Borough Council assumed control of an existing Mechanics’ Institute and library, and opened the Thames Free Public Library in January 1880—one of the na‑tion’s first such institutions.

In July 1902 the council decided to seek funds for a new library from Andrew Carnegie. It may have been the first council in the country to do so, beating Dunedin to the draw. Carnegie had no qualms about grant­ing £2000 given Thames’ established record in the free-library business.

Local architect J. Currie provided plans for a brick building, which were duly forwarded to Carnegie for ap­proval. Final consent was received on December 22, 1904, although Carn­egie felt that space was wasted in a 3 m wide hallway. The tender for construc­tion was delayed as a bonanza strike in the Thames gold-field created a local shortage of workers. It was finally let for £1964 on February 14, 1905, to Lye and Son. The foundation stone was laid on April 6, 1905, and the building opened on November 2 of the same year by Mayor Arch Burns. It housed a main library room with 4000 books, a newspaper room, a ladies’ reading and writing room (with a separate entrance), and a librarian’s room. All rooms had grates for fires.


By November 20, 1905, a new resi­dence for the librarian—Mrs Lowe, the widow of the former librarian­ had been completed. It consisted of a “neat cottage” behind the new library.

By 1930 complaints about a lack of space were being made, but it wasn’t until 1990 that a new building was erected. Today the original building is the home of the Thames Little Thea­tre and has been renamed Carnegie Hall, much to the delight of folk at the Carnegie Foundation.


Following a stuttering start in 1870, Hamilton has enjoyed the services of a public library more or less continuously since 1884. When, in 1906, Carnegie made an offer to finance a new building, the local councillors, like their compatriots in Dunedin, had a serious problem with the word “free”. Given Hamilton’s size, Carnegie expected the council to agree to a “sizable annual grant”. When the best it could come up with was £100 a year, he advanced only £2000.

A battle now ensued over the best site for the new facility. The Waikato Times soon lost patience with the parties involved and made numerous disparaging references to the “library squabble”. In the end a mayoral fac­tion won the day with a site on Garden Place being selected. The architects Rigby and Warren described their neo-classical design as Otium cum Dignitate. It was rendered in brick and stone and opened by the premier, Sir Joseph Ward, on February 17, 1908.

A contemporary report described the building as “splendid…attractive not only by virtue of its stock of books and pleasant architectural proportions but also because it was entered through a most novel and exciting piece of modern machinery—the revolving door”. Hamiltonians were rapt with this innovation, something that most of them had never seen. Librarians reported members of the public fre­quently getting their hands caught in it—“We would hear the crunch”—and dogs becoming trapped, “howling pite­ously until released”.


The reading room was furnished with cane chairs and enormous dark-stained tables. In the winter, a coal fire provided warmth and proved a magnet for “elderly gentlemen”, who had to be regularly turned out “like toast”.

The populace were assured that nothing was kept on the shelves that might corrupt local morals, with fa­vourite authors proving to be Mrs Henry Woods, Rider Haggard, George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In 1960, the library shifted to the more spacious City Administration Building, with the new facilities be­ing financed in part by sale of the old site to the Bank of New Zealand. The historic building was demolished and a new glass and ferro-cement temple of mammon rose from its dust.


Onehunga was among the first set­tlements in New Zealand to have a truly free library, as the British Treasury decided to establish one for the use of the Royal New Zea­land Fencibles there in 1848. In 1854 all Onehunga citizens were given the right to borrow and use the books for free. A reading room opened on March 14, 1855.

Onehunga became a borough in 1877, and for the next couple of dec­ades the council dithered as to whether it should take over the library, by then in the care of the local Mechanics In­stitute and suffering the usual financial woes. When it finally accepted respon­sibility for the books, it merely stored them in a spare room in the council building, where they were ordered and issued by whichever staff member had some spare time.

In 1901 a public meeting saw the books reclaimed by a citizens’ trust. They were rehoused in the disused Mechanics Institute building and a librarian was appointed. The council must have recognised it had some responsibility as it commenced to charge the penny-in-the-pound im­post in rate estimates at about this time, although it is unclear how much of this was passed to the library.

In 1909 Carnegie offered the trus­tees £2000 for a building. His stand­ard conditions were beyond the power of the trustees to implement, so the borough council reluctantly took re­sponsibility for the library.

A brick-and-concrete design by James Park, aptly described by Mervyn Cull in the New Zealand Her­ald of 1975 as displaying the “archi­tectural exuberance of the Edwardian era executed with a naïve, almost primitive quality”, was erected.


The façade featured a large en­trance flanked by two Corinthian columns on either side, each of which bore a head peering from be­twixt acanthus leaves. Two are the crowned heads of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The other two are perhaps John Rowe, the mayor, and the secretary of the council’s library committee, T.S. Bassilt. A large pro­file of Carnegie rendered in concrete was placed immediately above the door, with a plaque showing a book with markers at the summit of the building.

As with many Carnegie libraries, the ceilings were quite ornate, and plaster decorations incorporating children’s heads, possibly the royal children, surmounted the doorways throughout the building. A total of 215 m of shelving was installed, able to ac­commodate 4000 volumes. The library opened on September 11, 1912 and following World War I, the Onehunga roll of honour, rendered in massive oak, was installed in the entrance hall.

In August 1957 the word “Free” was deleted from the name of the li­brary and replaced with “Public”. The council had never been truly happy about not charging for book-lending. In 1989, when the borough of One­hunga was disestablished, the library was absorbed into the Auckland City Library.

The building was declared an earthquake risk in 1984 and scheduled for demolition, but a local Friends of Carnegie group mounted a success­ful fight to save it. The fully restored building is now protected by a cov­enant, and the Historic Places Trust has given it a B classification. Today it is occupied by an up-market res­taurant and bar named, appropriately, Carnegie’s.

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