Hastings's first library had its beginnings in 1875, when James Boyle, who owned 100 acres (40 hectares) of land, donated a section for a library in Market St. In 1885, a reading room was built on that land as part of an Athenaeum, where a subscription library operated for 108 members.
After the government withdrew its subsidy, financial difficulties at the Athenaeum in 1901 meant the Hastings Borough Council, after some pressure, made its entry into the library arena.
When the council struck a special rate to pay for the library, there was a public uproar, which caused the council to retreat and put it in the general rate.
The original 1885 Athenaeum in Market St had become run down by 1903, and descriptions of it were made as "the worst in the colony" and a "rude barn".
The Scottish steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie had established a fund for establishing library buildings - but the library had to be subscription-free.
At this point, the library had 201 subscribers and council was reluctant to give those funds up.
It eventually relented and Carnegie provided the funds to build the library which was opened in 1907.
As part of the condition of funding, the library services were made free by 1909 - but in 1915, the council reintroduced a subscription to borrow books, much to the annoyance of Carnegie. The council offered to repay the £2500 but the Carnegie Foundation was unmoved. When the building was wrecked during the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, no further help would be forthcoming from the Carnegie Foundation, which turned the council away.
The post-earthquake library was situated in the Hastings Borough Council Municipal building (where Hutchinson's is now) until the library moved to its present War Memorial Library site in 1959.
The library finally became subscription-free for borrowing general books in the 1960s.