John Barr was the chief librarian at Auckland Public Library from 1913 to 1952. He instituted significant changes and steadily campaigned for free library service in the city. He also co-authored a report which is credited with setting the direction for the development of New Zealand's modern library system.
John Barr was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in July 1887. As a young man he worked as an assistant in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, eventually gaining certificates in librarianship from the Library Association. Around 1910 he emigrated to Australia, where he took up a position as a senior cataloguer in the Fisher Library of the University of Sydney.
Barr moved to New Zealand in 1913 when the Auckland City Council appointed him as the chief librarian of the Auckland Public Library. The library, established in 1880, had until then been headed by Edward Shillington, who had not trained as a librarian. On Shillington's retirement in 1913 the council was determined to find a librarian ‘with a good literary knowledge'. Barr was seen to be so well qualified that his was the only name the selection panel sent to the council for consideration.
Barr instituted significant changes during his time as chief librarian. He improved conditions at the central library and oversaw the development of many of the city's suburban libraries, services for children and schools, and a mobile library. Throughout his tenure Barr also campaigned strongly for the introduction of a free library service in Auckland; this was finally instituted in 1946.
Barr also made a broader contribution to library development in New Zealand. In 1934 he and American Ralph Munn co-authored a report based on a survey they had undertaken into the conditions of the country's libraries. The Munn Barr report, officially titled New Zealand Libraries: a survey of conditions and suggestions for their improvement, is credited with setting the direction for the development of New Zealand's modern library system.
Barr's own Auckland Public Library was referred to favourably in the report. Munn, who wrote this section of the report, noted that Auckland had ‘the most fully developed library system in New Zealand'. His only criticism was reserved for the subscription system which Barr had long lobbied against:
Auckland is an outstanding example of the poor economy of the subscription plan. The city pays 10000 pounds in rates for the library and only about 3000 pounds is paid in subscriptions. The subscription fee acts as a barrier, however, to thousands of residents. Through failure to pay the additional 3000 pounds and make the library free to residents, the city is losing much of the value of its 10000 pounds.
In 1948 Barr was made an OBE principally for his campaign for a free library service in the city. He had already been honoured with life membership of the New Zealand Library Association in 1938, and been made a fellow of the (British) Library Association in 1939.
Barr's contribution was again recognised during Auckland Public Library's 70th anniversary celebrations in 1950. Poet and critic A.R.D. Fairburn commented that ‘if you want to see John Barr's monument go into the public library and look about you'. Barr retired as chief librarian two years later, and died in December 1971.