The Oamaru Public Library began its life with the Oamaru Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute in 1878, who built the 'new' Athenaeum building on the corner of Thames and Steward Street. This building (at present housing the North Otago Museum), was opened in 1882 with 4000 volumes already accumulated for the beginning of a circulating and reference library. The first books were issued from the new Athenaeum in early 1883 and evening classes for young people were established in 1887. By 1938, the Athenaeum and Mechanics Insititute had a record of 74 years library service to the community. The total issues for that year were just over 79,000 which represented 10 books per head of population. Membership of the Athenaeum, however, was still by subscription.
In 1945, a large public petition was presented to the Borough Council proposing that the Athenaeum become a municipal library, and in 1948 the eventual handing over of the Committee's assets to the Council took place. The Council, in turn, agreed to set up a free public library and carry out improvements to the library. By 1973, however, library services had outgrown the building, with the Librarian at that time reporting that, "At present the overcrowded, cramped conditions, which affect both the public and the staff, are hampering the working of the service to such an extent, that I sometimes feel it is impossible to continue." A new library building was proposed, situated nextdoor to the 'old' Athenaeum library and, on the 19th September 1975, the new library was officially opened by the Mayor, Mr R.D.Allen.
The intervening 40 years have seen many changes to the style of services provided within the building and outside of it, with branch libraries extending to Palmerston, Kurow, Hampden, Omarama and Otematata (forming the Waitaki District Libraries collective) - these services continue to evolve as new technology replaces old.