Nelson Public Libraries


The Nelson Public Libraries as we know them today consist of the Elma Turner LibraryNightingale Memorial Library and  Stoke Library. The Library was one of the first to be established in New Zealand, and  has provided continuous library service for a longer time than any other New Zealand public library.

Elma Turner Library entrance, 2009. Nelson City Council
Click to enlarge

Nelson’s library was first established in 1841 as part of the Nelson Literary and Scientific Institute [see this story, and the  timeline below, for a fuller account and pictures of the early years ]. The first collection of books came from donations to New Zealand House in London from private collections, with 700 books reaching Nelson on the Whitby.1 The first Nelson Institute building opened 27 September 1842 at the top of Trafalgar Street on part of Town Acre 445, with an entrance fee and annual subscription fee of 1 guinea. It remained on this site until 1861 when a new facility catering for a library, museum and lectures was constructed on the corner of Hardy and Harley Streets. The Institute Library, located in Hardy Street from 1861, operated as a small subscription book service. Destroyed by fire in 1906, only the back part of the library remained and a new library building was opened on the same site in 1912. Sentiment around the new building was that exclusiveness was out of place and that libraries ‘should be like fresh air and sunlight and education – free to everyone.’2

Former librarian Ivy Clarke (nee Poole) had worked successfully to make the children’s library at the back of the building free for children living in Nelson, and entry into the museum on the second floor of the building above the library was free, although the museum did not contain any books.3  However, Nelson was the only town in New Zealand which did not have a free and rental library, making it ineligible for National Library membership.4

Nelson Institute Library on Hardy Street, Nelson Evening Mail, 1989.
Click image to enlarge

A 1957 report indicated that less than 10% of people in Nelson used the library, compared with at least 40% in other areas. Examples from other cities such as Auckland, which had a free library since 1946, indicated that a free library is ‘a more economical service’ as continuing a subscription service would require high subscriptions from members. In this report a free library service was defined as ‘a scheme financed by the community to encourage people to read more than light ephemeral fiction and so create a demand for a more comprehensive library.’5 A subsequent report in 1962 indicated that a paid subscription ‘forms a barrier to membership’, with low library membership as a result.6

The debate about a free and rental library became more heated in the 1960s. In 1964 a motion proposing a change to a free and rental library system was rejected in Council by 7 votes to 4,7 however Council were persuaded to assume responsibility for the Nelson Institute’s library service following campaigning by  Elma Turner (President of the Nelson Institute) and Sonja Davies (Nelson city councillor). The subscription service remained, because Councillors felt that money was tight and  other projects such as roads, sewage and water needed to be prioritised. The 1970 flood which left the city in ‘chaos’ and turned into a $1million repair project also delayed the direction of funds into the library.8 But Roy McLennan (Nelson’s Mayor from 1971), agreed with City Librarian Bryce Jones that Nelson should not be different from other centres of similar or smaller size which already had free libraries, and for the first time Bryce felt positive that the prospect of Nelson’s library becoming free like other libraries in the country was near.9 Elma Turner, elected to Council in 1972, was a strong supporter of the free library movement, and the need for a new library building.

Council did finally introduce a free and rental library system on 1 October 1973, one of the last Councils to do this.10  McLennan was followed by Peter Malone, and his terms in office saw increasing concerns over the suitability of the Hardy Street building as a library. As early as 1966, National Library reports indicated that the Hardy Street Library building was inadequate for Nelson’s population of 27,000.11

Working in the crammed library in Hardy St, Nelson Evening Mail, 1989
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A new library for Nelson - The Elma Turner Library

Former Councillor Seddon Marshall, who was heavily involved in the building industry, recalls that the old, dank musty English building on Hardy Street was outdated and not appropriate for a library, with very high studs, and windows that let light in at all the wrong places – ‘at the time a grand building, but built for the wrong reason.’12 Children’s librarian Jenny Hitchings recalls that the library ‘looked a little bit like a prison’, with wire nettings over the windows in case the windows fell in during an earthquake and a high ceiling which made the building very cold.13

Mayor Peter Malone and Elma Turner at the opening of the new library in 1990. Photo courtesy of R. Venner.
Click image to enlarge

By 1977, the Nelson Evening Mail reported that the ‘Nelson Public Library is too old and too small for a city of 33,000.’14 Mayor Peter Malone, who was also a trained  pilot, led the Council Library Committee on a tour of libraries in the lower North Island in his aeroplane in the mid-1980s, and sent Councillor Seddon Marshall to visit libraries around the South Island to consider options for a new library building in Nelson.15 Marshall recalls that the most important factors for a new library site in Nelson were easy access and plenty of parking. Sites considered for the new library included the Buxton carpark,16 Millers Acre and corner of Trafalgar and Hardy Street.17 But when a car sales yard and showroom on Halifax Street became available, it was regarded as the ideal site for Nelson’s new library.18                        

Marian Gunn, Library Manager from 1987, oversaw the move into the new library in 1990, after months of architectural design and construction work. Mayor Peter Malone and former Councillor Elma Turner officially opened the new building, aptly named the Elma Turner Library, on 28 February 1990. The service celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1992, with celebrations and a plaque commissioned by the Nelson Institute. The 170th anniversary19 was celebrated in 2012, with a series of information boards commissioned for the exterior of the building.

By 1998, books issued from the library exceeded 1 million for the third year in a row, making Nelson residents ‘the most avid readers of Public Library materials in New Zealand.’20

The 1990 building

A car sales yard was transformed into the new Elma Turner Library in 1990, with a building contract awarded to Kidson construction in May 1989.21 It was to be a "no frills" design, using the existing building, fittings and finishes where possible - the barn-like facility proved to be somewhat of a challenge.

Much was made at the time of the building's energy efficient design and its garden atrium.  The objective, from a plan drawn up by the Victoria University School of Architecture, was to keep the temperature below 27°C without the use of an air conditioning system and to reduce the need for electric lights.It won a major energy efficiency award in 1992.22

In 2005 Elma Turner Library was extended, adding 600sq m to the building, but losing the garden area fronting onto the river outside the children's library. There was a major refurbishment following in 2013, plus various improvements, including the installation of various exterior murals.

Timeline of significant events in the life of Nelson Public Libraries

  • 1841 - May: Nelson Literary and Scientific Institute is founded on board the Whitby. Committee is chaired by Captain Arthur Wakefield.
    700 books on board ship were to form the basis of a library.
    October: Whitby reaches Nelson. Idea for the institute is strengthened by meeting with passengers of the sister ship Mary Ann, who had been planning a Mechanics Institute - to promote literature and science.
  • 1842 - 27 September: first Institute building opens - south end of Trafalgar street on Town Acre 445 (plaque marks spot). Dr David Monro is the first President. There is a membership fee and charge for each item borrowed (it remained as a subscription library until 1972).
  • 1848 - William Moses Stanton is appointed as the first Librarian (Charles Elliott, editor of the Examiner fulfilled this function unpaid before this appointment)
  • 1858 - The Provincial Government invites the Institute to become a literary and mechanics institute and contributes to funding new premises
  • 1859 - foundation stone for new building is laid at the corner of Hardy and Harley Street by Dr. F. Hochstetter.
  • 1861 - new building opens in Nelson
  • 1884 - appointment of first woman librarian - Miss Marion Clark (thereafter it is a female dominated workforce)
  • 1906 - fire destroys the wooden building - only the rear part survived, which became the children's room in 1935 (it is still standing). Most of the contents were retrieved.
  • 1906-1912 - Institute and Library move to temporary premises in Bridge street
  • 1907 - Nelson Institute Act is passed, establishing the Institute as an Incorporated body
  • 1911 - Mayor T.A.H. Field lays foundation stone for new permanent building on existing site on Hardy Street. It is officially opened as Nelson Public Library, Institute and Museum in 1912, with the library on the ground floor, and museum on upper floor (the brick building still exists as part of NMIT)
  • stoke lib sign for prow2

    The doors from the old Stoke Library, currently at La Capilla Restaurant on the Appleby Highway

    1958 - Institute takes over the running of the library in Stoke from the NZ Country Library Service. The Library is in the cloakroom of Stoke Hall and in 1965 it moves into the vacant Methodist Church building, Bail Street
  • 1960's - the Museum gains independence from the Library, and is relocated  firstly to the former home of the Marsden family - Isel House, and subsequently to a concrete block construction behind the House, designed by Alex Bowman,  in 1973.
  • 1965 - Miss Elma Turner (President of the Nelson Institute) and Sonja Davies (Nelson city councillor) persuade the City Council to assume responsibility for the library. It only became a free service (ie no membership fee) however, in 1972. The last Council in NZ to offer this. (The Museum is taken over by Council separately in 1963)
  • 1978 - Nellie Nightingale Memorial Library opens in Tahunanui
  • 1989 - Installation of the first computerised library system.23
  • Feb 1990 - after much campaigning by Councillor Elma Turner, the new Nelson Public Library building opens and is named the Elma Turner Library.
  • 1993 - Stoke Library opens in Putaitai Street,  9 December
  • 2005 - Elma Turner Library extended, adding 600sq m to the building, with a major refurbishment following in 2013.
  • 2011 - major refurbishment of Stoke Library

Sources used in this story

  1. Stafford, Dorothy J. (1992) The Library from the Sea: Nelson Public Library 1842-1992. Nelson: Nelson Institute
  2. Stafford
  3. Interview with Bryce Jones, 5 September 2011.
  4. Stafford
  5. Russell, J.W. (1957) Statement by the Nelson Institute. [Report Written for the Nelson City Council, 1957, Nelson City Council Records, File No. G.05.01.]
  6. National Library Service, Report for the Nelson City Council and Nelson Institute, 1962, Nelson City Council Records, File No. G.05.01.
  7. Nelson Evening Mail (1964, June 19), p1.
  8. Interview with Seddon Marshall, 10 October 2011.
  9. Interview with Bryce Jones, 5 September 2011.
  10. Nelson City Council Minutes, Minute No.15417.
  11. Country Library Service, Report for the Nelson City Council, 1966, Nelson City Council Records, File No. G.05.01.
  12. Interview with Seddon Marshall, 10 October 2011.
  13. Interview with Jenny Hitchings, 7 October 2011.
  14. Nelson Evening Mail (1977, June 22), p.2.
  15. Stafford; Interview with Seddon Marshall, 10 October 2011.
  16. Where should the library go (1986, November 8) Nelson Evening Mail
  17. Nelson to get Civic Centre (1984, February 22) Nelson Evening Mail
  18. Interview with Seddon Marshall, 10 October 2011; Car firm site gets nod for library (1988, August 17) Nelson Evening Mail, p.1
  19. Plaque marks library milestone (1992, September 29) Nelson Evening Mail, p.3; A friendly hand for Nelson's Library (1992) Haven, 11, p.3; Dissmayer, T. (1992, September 27) 150th anniversay of the Nelson Public Library. North & South, p26-27
  20. Report of the City Libraries: A Year in Review, 1997/98, Nelson City Council Records, File No. G.05.01 
  21. A Blissful ending (1989, May 4) Nelson Evening Mail
  22. 1992 Beta awards (Building Energy Efficiency) brochure; Isaacs, N. & Donn, M. (1991, November) Monitoring and evaluation report. Nelson City Council Library Energy Efficient Design. Report no. 13. File No. EM 37-34 [Nelson Public library, Library archives]
  23. Books now on computer (1989, August 10) Nelson Evening Mail


Want to find out more about the Nelson Public Libraries ? View Further Sources here.

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  • Libraries are at the heart of the community and are so much more than "buildings with books in them".

    Thank you for articles on the origin of libraries in Nelson (Nelson Literary and Scientific Institute), the libraries themselves (Nelson Elma Turner Library, Stoke Library, and Nellie Nightingale Memorial Tahunanui Library) and people involved (such as librarians Bryce Jones, Marian Gunn, and Jenny Hitchings. Also the efforts of Elma Turner and others) in Nelson.

    Why are our libraries important today?
    1. They provide easy access to information.
    2. They are free, so the resource is open to everyone.
    3. They are important meeting places for the community.
    4. They connect us to others.
    5. They are a technology hub.
    6. They provide a work/study space.
    7. They are safe.
    8. They help with wellbeing.
    9. They preserve our history.
    10. They enable us to understand ourselves.

    Posted by Libraries are at the heart of the community, 22/10/2023 1:00pm (9 months ago)

  • Nice story I will enjoy hearing more about Nelson's heritage

    Posted by Jack Baker, 18/09/2016 7:34am (8 years ago)

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Further sources - Nelson Public Libraries



  • Dissmeyer, T. (1992)  150th Anniversary of the Nelson Public Library. North and South, Oct 1992,  p.26-27
  • Kwasitsu, L.(1986) Early libraries in Nelson [PDF] New Zealand Libraries 45(1), p.1-6
  • Nelson Provincial Museum and Library (1977) Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 3(3), p.12-13
  • Unimaginable life without books (2011, March 3) The Leader
  • Traue, J. E  (2006) Public libraries and access to reading materials in early colonial Nelson. New Zealand Libraries, 49(13): p.465-473
  • Verran,  D. (2007) Mechanics' institutes in New Zealand. New Zealand Legacy, 19 (1):p.13-19



  • Interview with Bryce Jones, 5 September 2011
  • Interview with Seddon Marshall, 10 October 2011 
  • Interview with Jenny Hitchings, 7 October 2011.


  • Russell, J.W. (1957) Statement by the Nelson Institute. [Report Written for the Nelson City Council, 1957, Nelson City Council Records, File No. G.05.01.] 
  • National Library Service, Report for the Nelson City Council and Nelson Institute, 1962, Nelson City Council Records, File No. G.05.01.
  • Country Library Service, Report for the Nelson City Council, 1966, Nelson City Council Records, File No. G.05.01 
  • Report of the City Libraries: A Year in Review, 1997/98, Nelson City Council Records, File No. G.05.01

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