Library Service in Gisborne

Adrienne Simpson and Mako Allen

The first meeting of the first public library committee was held in Tūranganui on 12 April, 1869. Gisborne was not yet a township, so there was no borough council, no rail and no roads. The institution of the Tūranga library began in a room in the old courthouse, with a 10 /- entry fee and an annual subscription of 2/6 payable quarterly. Library hours were 7 to 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday.1

In 1872 the library moved into MacFarlane’s Music Hall in Customhouse Street, and by 1874 the library had been renamed the Gisborne Public Library. Growing dissatisfaction as to how the library was being run led to the suggestion, in 1879, that it should come under the Public Libraries Act of 1849. In February 1880 this took place, and five trustees were appointed.2

An advertisement was placed in the Poverty Bay Herald in April 1883 by Mr Josh Sigley, chairman of the library committee. He was tendering ‘Capitalists’ for a loan of £600 for new library premises. In October 1883 the library moved into its new premises in Lowe Street, next to the Masonic Hotel, and was renamed the Tūranganui Public Library.

Library service in Gisborne continued to develop over the next few decades. The stock of books gradually increased, but the library was dependant on subscriptions, occasional small grants from the borough council, and a government subsidy of £20-30 a year. It wasn’t until 1900 that the loan to construct the library building in Lowe Street was finally paid off.3 Led by Mr Townley, the Mayor and president of the committee, the library committee realised that once the loan was repaid the library building would need to be enlarged. An application was presented to American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1903 in the hope that he might finance a whole new building. Unfortunately Gisborne did not meet his criteria, as he only contributed to libraries that were entirely free and ratepayer funded.

In 1904 Mr H J Bushnell began erecting a new brick building on the corner of Gladstone Road and Peel Street. When it was completed, the library took over the entire upper floor from September 1905. Unlikely as it seems, the move upstairs resulted in an increase in subscribers. The book stock at this point was 4,800 volumes.4

By 1924 the issue of the building was raised again, as the library faced the expiry of its current lease in 1926. The borough council and the library committee could not agree upon a new site, and the council expressed its unwillingness to take over the running of the library.5 In 1934 the library moved into the upstairs of the Albion Hotel in Gladstone Road.

Library service in Gisborne and nationally was evolving into something that required greater technical skill and more resources.6 During the 1940s and 1950s the library seemed to be on the wane, so in 1953 advice was sought from National Library Service.7 With their advice, and the promise of more money from rates, it was decided to change how library service was delivered.

In 1955 the city council decided to support the free and rental system, rather than the subscription method. Encouraged by the Mayor, Mr H H Barker, a passionate supporter of learning during and after formal schooling, the library committee was encouraged to make a large contribution to the fund.8 The Director of National Library Service recommended that a trained librarian be employed to prepare the way for the change over from subscription to the new system. Miss Helen Cowey was librarian until 1959, followed by Miss R S Mackay, who is said to have set a standard of library service in this community which any coming after her would find hard to live up to. The new free and rental system brought the library within reach of many more users. Within a year of having transferred to the free and rental system, the library membership had risen from 3477 to 5658.9

It quickly became clear that the local authorities would need to take more responsibility for the library, and by 1961 it was decided that the administration of the library should be taken over by the local bodies (the Gisborne City Council and Cook County Council). The increasing popularity of the library, the continued growth of its membership and the trebling of the number of books issued to borrowers, made it apparent that efficient administration and adequate service to the public could not be maintained in the existing restricted accommodation.10 The local bodies responsible for library service were heavily committed to other capital expenditure, and were not in a position to provide a new building. In 1962 the family of the late Mr H B Williams offered to donate £70,000 for the purpose of erecting a new library building. In honour of this generous gift, the name of the library was changed to the H B Williams Memorial Library.


1 R.S. Mackay, ‘The Library and the Community.’ Unpublished text, 1962, p.2. H B Williams Memorial Library, Gisborne.

2 Mackay. p.2.

3 Mackay. p.3.

4 Mackay. p.6.

5 Mackay, p.7.

6 ‘History of library service in the Gisborne district’, Gisborne Herald, 8 April 1967, p.4.

7 Mackay, p.9.

8 ‘Mayor: Milestone in history’, Gisborne Herald, 6 April 1967, p.11.

9 Gisborne Photo News, 18 October 1956, pp.28-29.

10 ‘Mayor: Milestone in history’, p.11.

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