History of the Library Act and public library funding

Last updated:  25 March 2024

In the early twentieth century there were only two free public lending libraries in New South Wales – the Sydney Municipal Library (now the City of Sydney Library) which opened in 1909 and the free public library in Broken Hill which opened in 1906.  

During the 1930s there was a growing movement advocating for free public libraries with the publication of the Munn-Pitt report and the establishment of the Free Library Movement. In June 1937 the Minister for Education appointed a committee, including representatives of the Free Library Movement, to examine ways to improve library services and to prepare draft legislation.

The Library Act was passed by the New South Wales state parliament on 3 November 1939. This landmark law, with the inclusion of the State subsidy, aimed to encourage local governments to establish free public libraries for their citizens. 

Adoption of the Act

Within eighteen months thirty-two New South Wales councils had adopted the Act and seven were already providing library services. Sixteen were planning to begin operation during 1945. By the end of 1946 a quarter of the three million inhabitants of New South Wales were being served by a free public library.  

In the 1950s and 1960s more and more local authorities adopted the Library Act and set up free library services. Many took the option of forming co-operative library services to benefit from economies of scale and to share resources. In the 1970s several regional libraries were established in rural areas, bringing viable library services to smaller communities. In 1992 the adoption of the Act by Junee was hailed as the final step towards a complete network, but this was not quite the case. The huge and sparsely populated Central Darling Shire does not have its own library service, but its population is able to use the resources of Broken Hill City Library through its outback letterbox library service.

For more information about the history of the Library Act see David J Jones (2005) Public library development in New South Wales, The Australian Library Journal, 54:2, 130-137.

When did your library adopt the Library Act?

Use our table to find out when you council adopted the Act and opened a library. 

The table lists the dates that each NSW council adopted the Library Act and then opened a public library. Some councils and shires have changed since 1939. Councils are listed as they were known at the time of adopting the Act and annotated to show council name changes. 

Library subsidy

The State Government provides annual funding to NSW public libraries. The evolution of this funding, known as the State Subsidy, was a key incentive for councils to adopt the Library Act and open a public library.

Although the Act was passed in 1939, the NSW government was unable to immediately introduce subsidy payments.  With the onset of WWII in September 1939 the Government appeared unwilling to commit to extra expenditure and the Library Bill was deferred.  A compromise was reached which saw the Bill passed into law on 3 November 1939, but the payment of subsidies was delayed until a later date.

The Government subsequently introduced the first subsidy payments in 1944/45. 

The original Act set out a subsidy formula which considered the population of a municipality or shire, the council’s budgeted expenditure on libraries and the unimproved capital value of municipality / shire land. Under the formula some small and relatively less well-off councils were able to receive “pound for pound” funding from the State Government, although most councils did not qualify to receive a 50:50 subsidy.

Councils funded under the Library Act in 1944/45
CouncilCouncil contribution (in pounds)Subsidy (in pounds)Total expenditure (in pounds)
Broken Hill Municipality1,9601,2363,196
Burrangong Shire514141665
City of Sydney13,8862,09315,979
Inverell Municipality534309843
Port Stephens Shire283224507
Young Municipality214213427
Total (in pounds)17,3914,21621,607

By 1945/46 31 councils had adopted the Act and opened libraries and were therefore eligible for subsidies. The growth in the number of libraries in just one year was significant and continued in the late 1940s and early 1950s as councils adopted the Act in great numbers and committed to providing libraries.

Councils funded under the Library Act in 1945/46
CouncilCouncil contribution (in pounds)Subsidy (in pounds)Total expenditure (in pounds)
Albury Municipality9813271,308
Bankstown Municipality1,9961,1853,181
Bega Municipality15271223
Broken Hill Municipality1,4051,2422,647
Burrangong Shire422140562
Canterbury Municipality5,4633,4388,901
Casino Municipality307277584
City of Sydney6,3342,1118,445
Cooma Municipality101101202
Forbes Municipality271271542
Goulburn Municipality8626971,559
Grafton Municipality539214753
Greater Newcastle9,5743,19112,765
Inverell Municipality419194613
Jemalong Shire336112448
Kempsey Municipality402134536
Ku-ring-gai Municipality2,6358783,513
Leeton Shire468446914
Lismore Municipality9973321,329
Marrickville Municipality3,4791,1984,677
Mosman Municipality1,9526502,602
Narrandera Municipality213213426
Newtown Municipality1,7748032,577
Port Stephens Shire283251534
Ryde Municipality2,3619023,263
Wade Shire5665661,132
Windsor Municipality25986345
Wingecarribee Shire381381762
Wollongong Municipality1,4004661,866
Yanco Shire306102408
Young Municipality213213426
Total (in pounds)46,85121,19268,043

Six of the 31 councils operating libraries in 1945/46 (Cooma, Forbes, Narrandera, Wade, Wingecarribee and Young) qualified for 50:50 funding. The rest were mainly receiving subsidies of around 25% of their total expenditure. The councils that received 50:50 funding were all in the country and had very low expenditure compared to larger councils.

The 50:50 possibility lasted until 1952, when the Act was amended to cap subsidies with a prescribed amount per capita approach. The per capita amount grew periodically until it reached $1.85 in 1997/98 and then $2.85 in 2022/23.

After 1990 the per capita amount was no longer the only payment to councils. The 1990 funding formula introduced base payments, extra weightings for council ‘disabilities’ and discrete small grant payments for collections and special projects. The disabilities identified were the number of children under 5, number of people over 65, number of people speaking a language other than English, council isolation and dispersed populations. 

These measures were derived from the NSW Local Government Grants Commission, and the formula allocated extra funds to councils that were above average in any of these factors. This ensured extra funding was provided to country councils and Western Sydney councils in particular.

The formula was modified in 2005/06 following a $2.3M increase to the funding. The objective was to ensure that the 12% increase was shared uniformly across all councils. This was achieved by splitting the subsidy payment into 2 parts. Part 1 is the per capita amount, while part 2 is the Disability and Geographic Adjustment payment or DGA. The DGA includes the previous base payments, disability payments, small grants and each council’s share of the 12% increase. This formula continues to be in place today.

A separate capital grants program was first introduced into the State Government’s public library funding in 1974. This program was superseded by the Library Development Grants program in 1990/91 and then the Public Library Infrastructure Grants program in 2014/15.