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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 11 (February 1, 1938)

The Turnbull Library — New Zealand's Greatest Glory — A World Famous Treasury of Literary Riches

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The Turnbull Library
New Zealand's Greatest Glory
A World Famous Treasury of Literary Riches

You will see continually, in the great English weekly papers, travel advertisements on these lines:

“Travel Party Assembling for Instructional Tour of Greece … Apply …

“Italian Art Galleries … Apply for terms of Conducted Educational Tour.”

I am sure it is not an overlap of the imagination to hope to see one of these days, as a prominent part of our Dominion publicity, “Come to New Zealand—the Home of the Turnbull Library.”

History, as an old philosopher said, has a way of being “more cunning than the prophets,” and I am sure that even the most visionary dreamers of our pioneers would be surprised if they could come back and see this superb book collection. It was described by the eminent American and Scottish library experts composing the 1934 Carnegie Corporation Commission, as “One of the best libraries of its kind in the world.” It is a strangely fascinating story which tells of the building here in New Zealand, thousands of miles from the sources of world culture, of a library which houses an internationally known store of prize blooms in the rich garden of erudition.

Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, 1868–1918, the founder of a great library.

Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, 1868–1918, the founder of a great library.

It needs no fine writing to make everyone understand that the most precious possessions of the human race are its writings and records in book form. The gossipy diary of that first-class civil servant, Samuel Pepys, is a window through which we see the human procession in the lively reign of good King Charles. Thousands of similar records have been altogether lost. To go back to the days of Greece, Sophocles wrote a hundred plays and only seven have survived. Euripides wrote seventy-five tragedies, of which a mere twenty have come down to the present. Is it any wonder that Richard de Bury wrote so sadly in 1320: “Almighty Author and Lover of Peace … Scatter the nations that delight in war, which is above all plagues injurious to books.”

In the preservation of culture, it is rather difficult to appraise sufficiently the work of the book collector. His profound enthusiasm, his pulsing joy of the quest, his undying passion for his hobby, combine to make the precious things in bookland safe.

Pride of possession has its place, but it is notable that all the greatest book collectors have treated their libraries as community properties. I can conceive of no nobler use of accumulated riches than the creation of these cultural cathedrals filled with the holy things of literature.

It was on one of the golden days of New Zealand's history that Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull was born, making 1868 a banner year for our country. He was educated in England at Dulwich College and stayed on in the London office of his father's business until he was twenty-two years of age. He came back to New Zealand aflame with the pure passion of the bibliophile, and the library became his engrossing life work.

This unassuming, studious son of a New Zealand merchant thus entered the ranks of the Medici, Earl Spencer, Huntington of California, and Grenville whose incomparable library is the foundation glory of the British Museum.

Only rich men can work these miracles, and Alexander Turnbull devoted the whole of a liberal income for more than a quarter of a century to his high enterprise. He had formulated a policy and had a clear vision of how a library should be planned before the science of cataloguing and its allied arts had been evolved to its modern state of perfection. He had a share of the market before the entry of the American millionaire, and the consequent riotous rise in prices.

On to-day's value scales, little sections of the Turnbull Library containing a hundred or two books would embarrass many a State Treasury to find funds for their purchase. It must be remembered, too, that Alexander Turnbull was a scholar, making his purchases with selective wisdom and unrelenting care. When he died he had become an authority on many matters pertaining to books and literature, and hundreds of volumes bear his pencilled notes, showing his erudition and detailed knowledge of booklore. It is with proper pride that I can confidently record that many a longer purse owned by a man of less discrimination and patience was defeated in the struggle for priceless books by this hawk-eyed New Zealander in his Antipodean eyrie.

When, in 1918, Mr. Turnbull died, he bequeathed this edifice of his life work to the people of New Zealand. Time alone will enable the people of New Zealand to see, in true perspective, the colossal achievement of this modest and munificent Wellingtonian.

I have been in the habit for years of taking distinguished visitors to the Turnbull Library. I remember the amazement of Dame Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson and their son when they paid their first visit, and I was delighted to find that they spent there every minute of every leisure hour during their Wellington season. They were lovers of John Milton, steeped in adoration of his works, and they rated the Turnbull “Miltoniana” as “approximately equal to that of the British Museum, and certainly without any other peer.”

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The Entrance Hall, showing a portrait of the founder in the centre.

The Entrance Hall, showing a portrait of the founder in the centre.

It was the many-sidedness of Alexander Turnbull's tastes that makes his collection so distinctive. This storehouse of the records of human endeavour contains priceless materials of the widest possible variety. It is a cellar of literary wines without any restriction as to age, bouquet, or place of origin. The only quality is excellence.

The easiest description of its contents for the average reader is to say that there are three broad classes of books. The first includes ethnology, anthropology, Pacific languages, folk lore and voyages. This division includes all New Zealand literature, and it is not an overstatement to say that every relevant record committed to print dealing with our country, is here on these shelves. The second category, the rare books, includes choice specimens of incunabula, i.e., books made before 1500, and an imposing array of the important first editions of English books of the 16th to 19th centuries, with special reference to poetry and drama. The third class, English classical literature, naturally supplements much that is in the rare book class.

It should be said that Mr. Turnbull's first objective was a complete collection of “Oceania.” For instance, there are no less than five thousand volumes in every language and dialect of the Polynesian island races. Students interested in the misty dawn of New Zealand history will find such things as the actual log pages of the voyages of Cook and Vancouver, the written journal of the Rev. Samuel Marsden penned in 1819, and there are countless art works of such men as Heaphy, the New Zealand Company's draftsman, Sir William Fox, Barraud (200 water colours) and many others. There are original logs of whalers and traders by the dozen.

But the Turnbull Library is rich also in other rare books of voyages. The famous Hakluyt's Voyages has its own story. This copy is the 1598 second edition, which contains the tale of “The Singeing of the King of Spain's Beard,” an adventure which was organised by the Earl of Essex. When Essex fell from favour with Queen Elizabeth, she peremptorily ordered this part of the narrative to be deleted. Only a few copies escaped, and the Turnbull book is one of them.

This takes the version into the category where the price reaches the highest figures. I should point out here that it is a very usual method of driving home the importance of rare books to mention that their value is £1,000, £350, and so on. In a large collection such as that of the Turnbull Library, the gathering from the wide world for many decades of so many unique treasures, this sort
Portion of the reading room. The catalogue is seen on the left.

Portion of the reading room. The catalogue is seen on the left.

of appraisement is largely nonsense. For instance, there are in the world, nine first printings of Robert Browning's poem “Pauline.” The Turnbull copy is in perfect condition, and has a clever note on the fly leaf in Browning's own handwriting. This book, therefore, standing by itself, is just worth what any collector who madly desires it, would give in his excitement. The library is crowded with such things, and any attempt to impress by a statement of financial values in dealing with such legions is absurd. In the library is Louis Henneping's chronicle of his journeys in the Big Lakes region of North America, a book for which American collectors would bid the earth. It contains the first engraving of Niagara Falls, which the author himself discovered.

The friendship of Robert Browning and our own Alfred Domett (Waring of the famous poem) produced many letters, and most of them are here. Indeed, the Defoe, Browning and Swinburne first editions are marvellous, many of them with autograph associations.

Carlyle too, is well represented by actual manuscripts, produced by the friendship with Walter Mantell, who was a Minister of the Crown in New Zealand. Among actual letters from famous figures, are originals from Shelley, Charles Dickens, Napoleon, Joseph Conrad, Robert Buchanan, and others. Two volumes standing like grenadiers are the famous Dictionary tomes of Dr. Johnson (1755) with his biting definitions of English words. It is idle to attempt to go on enumerating the profusion of gems in this library, and I shall select a few at random. There is a first edition of Thomson's Seasons, with the author's own corrections; Shelley's Queen Mab; Nathaniel Bailey's Dictionary (1751) with a note inside the leaf, “John Keats from B.B.” page 36 page 37
Portion of a letter from Robert Browning.

Portion of a letter from Robert Browning.

I asked to be allowed to hold this, which had been scanned by the dreaming eyes and had its pages turned by the fingers of Adonais himself. There is an autographed copy of Byron's Childe Harold. The copy of Domett's “Ranolf and Amohia” is the one that belonged to Browning himself. It would seem that a good fairy attended Mr. Turnbull in his acquisition of books that had some special magic of poetic association for New Zealanders.

Often, the most impressive possessions of great libraries are their missals incunabula, and what may be best described as “the great monuments” among books. Of these I may instance Peter Schoeffer's “Constitutions of Clement,” made in 1471 on vellum, of which there are only two other perfect copies, one in the British Museum and the other in the Bibliotheque National in Paris. There are also a 1478 edition of “Plutarch's Lives” and Ratdolt's “Euclid's Geometry” (1482).

The Shakespeare folios are splendid, and although missals were not particularly favoured by Mr. Turnbull there is a Gothic Book of the Hours which is a splendour of dull rich golds, blues, greens and reds.

Alexander Turnbull's fine taste inclined him to the worship of beautiful bindings. For the re-clothing of his new purchases, he employed the best binders in the world, without considering cost. The artistry of this work is an abiding joy to the eye. His instructions were also mandatory that only “mint” copies were to be purchased. His books are in flawless physical condition. There is a complete collection of the superb Kelmscott Press, and many other works by the men who turn volumes into art objects—editions by Elzevir, Baskerville, and William Morris is represented by the famous Chaucer. More modern work is seen in the Ashendene Press.

The fine Kinsey collection has been the most substantial addition to the Turnbull Library since the foundation. Housed in the building is the useful Carter collection, industriously garnered by the man whose name was perpetuated in Carterton. In this room sits Lindsay Buick, New Zealand's leading historian.

Public spirited citizens occasionally add to the library's store of treasures, though the library is by no means as yet in the position of the United States Library of Congress where a form has to be filled in by a proposed donor for approval by the authorities. It is the obvious duty of New Zealanders who own books of rarity or unique interest to pass them over to this national collection. I could fill a hundred pages with details of the matchless masterpieces and rare book-jewels on these miles of shelves. The Turnbull Library, by itself, invests New Zealand with a distinction which marks it off from all the others of Old England's young family of nations—something not possessed by any other land classed as “a new country.” Its value to the Dominion both as a cultural and a practical asset is beyond all dreaming. Therefore, when we are rightly standing up for the land of our birth, the Turnbull Library should be in the forefront of our claims to worth.

The library was opened under the control of the Department of Internal Affairs in 1920, and its first librarian was Johannes Carl Andersen, “one of New Zealand's most eminent scholars.”
A Portion of a letter from Perey Bysshe Shelley, the poet.

A Portion of a letter from Perey Bysshe Shelley, the poet.

This largely self-educated man of letters has had an astonishingly wide range of activities and is the author of a long list of works which have their abiding place in our literature. No account of the Turnbull Library would be complete without mention of his long career of faithful service. He was succeeded this year by the present Librarian, Mr. Clyde R. H. Taylor, M.A., Dip. Jour. Mr. Taylor is a much-travelled young man of broad outlook and unbounded energy, and is equipped with a vast fund of practical knowledge of library management. His unit card catalogue system is working smoothly like a sweetly running dynamo, and duplicates go to Canberra and as far as the U.S.A. Library of Congress. Modern library administration has become one of the ranking professions, requiring a special combination almost of organiser, advertising expert, engineer and scholar.

There are, I find, many misconceptions about the Turnbull Library. The simple brick building has the appearance of a three-storyed private home, and it seems almost to have inherited its air of detachment and quietude from Alexander Turnbull himself.

However, the doors are open all day and all who are interested are welcome. It is the only purely public State library in New Zealand, perfectly free to all. Not only is there a free reference library for those students and writers who are doing research work or require information, but casual visitors are cared for thoroughly. An experienced page 38 page 39
Mr. C. R. H. Taylor, the Librarian, in his office surrounded by bibliographical works of reference.

Mr. C. R. H. Taylor, the Librarian, in his office surrounded by bibliographical works of reference.

guide conducts them through the avenues of treasures, explaining and describing them. It is obvious that permission cannot be given for folks to wander unattended among such irreplaceable riches. One hour, and an hour is easy to spare, will give one a peep at pages of Captain Cook, Browning, Tasman, Robinson Crusoe, Marsden and Chaucer, just to name a few. I want to stress the fact that the library is not only for the writer, although no one attempting to deal with our early history can afford to overlook this exhaustive collection of works covering every phase of life's activities in our early days.

It is one of the boons of our heritage of pioneers possessing genuine culture that writing has been continuous since the first four ships. Never before in the history of a country has such a complete panorama of a people been committed to the printed page. This boon is enriched by the fact that owing to the beneficent genius of Alexander Turnbull, the whole of this record is housed and preserved for the generations that come after.

The Turnbull Library is the scene of progressive and continual activity. Special exhibitions are arranged at intervals of sections of the library, as, for instance, the brilliant show illustrating our pioneer days. There I remember learning from the diary of Joseph Banks who accompanied Captain Cook, that he gave Botany Bay its name on account of the superabundant flora of the Sydney neighbourhood.
The Log kept on the “Endeavour” on Cook's first voyage to New Zealand in 1769–70.

The Log kept on the “Endeavour” on Cook's first voyage to New Zealand in 1769–70.

The diary of the Revd. Richard Taylor was shown opened at the page he had written on the eve of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and there were hosts of other woodcuts, pictures and fascinating relics and writings of the period. It was an engrossing and enlivening exhibition even for the entire stranger or the casual business tripper to Wellington.

I look every time I enter the hall at the two oil paintings done in 1818 of the Maori chieftains who were taken to England by Marsden. Their handsome, aristocratic faces have no signs of the primitive, and in the library will be found thousands of cogent proofs of the fine cultural standard reached by our Maori fellow countrymen.

Finally, I find it difficult to keep to sober terms in saying the last words of an article on this noble and inspiring temple of learning. I have mentioned before that fine old Bishop, Richard de Bury. Hear him on books. “In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth the laws of peace. All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”

What we have to do as good New Zealanders is to understand and appreciate the glory that is ours in the possession of the Turnbull Library.

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