Purveying books, John Roberts

Landmarks in New Zealand Publishing: Blackwood and Janet Paul, 19451968
Janet Paul and John Mansfield Thomson
National Library Gallery, $13.50
ISBN 0477 027490

The Turnbull: A Library and its World 
Rachel Barrowman
Auckland University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, $39.95
ISBN 186940 1379

In 1951, much against my own inclinations, I was transferred to Hamilton by the State Advances Corporation. I quickly developed an unrelenting dislike for the commercialism pervading every corner of the town. I remember taking my wife of three days down the main street and reflecting that there were only two inviting shop windows in the length of Victoria Street. The first contained a rococo riot of purple velvet velour writhing around a gleaming separator bowl, the second a classically restrained, impeccably rectangular company of enticing books of the sort that you would like to read three at a time were it not for the danger of spoiling the display.

I was shortly transferred to Wellington where separator bowls were unknown and books plentiful. But in all my subsequent bibliophilic wanderings nothing has supplanted the image of Paul’s as the platonic ideal of the bookshop.

Landmarks is the record of a discussion between Janet Paul, artist, typographer, librarian, publisher, editor, and John Mansfield Thomson, author, musicologist, publisher and editor. The matter for discussion is an exhibition mounted by the National Library Gallery and coordinated by Peter Ireland. John Thomson gets things underway with a suggestion that “…this is a foray into uncharted territory, an attempt to bring together the aspirations, ideals and actual publications of one particular man, Blackwood Paul…”

Bred for the literary trade when he took over from his father who owned and operated a family business called Paul’s Book Arcade, Blackwood immediately applied an impressive intellect sharpened by degrees in law and the arts and an interest in the progressive ideas that prepared the way for reform. He set out to educate his employees and imbue them with pride in their occupation, not simply to improve the balance sheet but to pursue their occupation as a “vocation and a service to the community”. This is a noble theory but in practice it also meant exacting supervision which Blackwood Paul was ready to supply

But finding the title wanted by the customer and seeing to its swift delivery, though an essential element in a sound literary culture, is not the great reward of the book trade. That reward is when the publisher and author presents the bookseller with a work evolved in collaboration.

Janet Paul illustrates this argument by reference to Speaking Candidly, a collection of film reviews by the critic Roger Mirams, Wiremu, a novel on the life of a Maori child by Stella Morice and a historian’s concept of life in New Zealand This New Zealand by FLW Wood.

Thomson also suggests that Blackwood Paul felt that autobiography and biography had a useful function helping communities, “relate to the past and the present”. Anyone who has read the book he uses to illustrate the point will agree: My First 80 Years by Helen Wilson, with its jaunty title and effortless narrative, instructs as it delights. It is no wonder that the president of the British Publishers Association felt that Paul’s Book Arcade was amongst the 14 best bookshops in the world.

There is another influence at work, derived from cubism and dominant still in architecture. The modern movement is dedicated to the proposition of rectangularity and this is the form best suited to the management of books. A great exponent of the international style came to New Zealand to escape the tyrant and in 1948 set out one of the most pleasing spaces in the country. If Blackwood Paul had done no more for his adoptive country, we would still be heavily in his debt for the engagement of Ernst Plischke to redesign the shop in 1948.

If Paul’s holds a special place as a bookshop, the Turnbull does as a library. Since the days of the great Library of Alexandria, the chief distinction between an enlightened and a backward community has lain in the preservation and celebration of the written record. I have often puzzled over the Old Testament observation in Ecclesiastes 12.12: “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

I conclude that the response is, What will you? since the same passage also observes,

“Vanity of vanities” saith the preacher. “All is vanity”,

And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge, yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.

The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by masters of assembly…

Here is the text for librarians ever pursuing the uncorrupted copy and for authors struggling to fashion the lapidary phrase.

Rachel Barrowman, a historian, enters this struggle with a chronological account of the establishment, growth, achievement and conflicts of what must still be regarded, along with the Hocken Library in Dunedin, as the most influential source for scholarly inquiry into New Zealand affairs.

Barrowman defines the nature of the influences that shaped the Turnbull Library, with a series of challenging chapter headings and a reviewer cannot do better than accept her guidance to the pressure points. These developed along with Alexander Turnbull’s rather reclusive life and the need for some relief from Wellington society. It is not surprising that a man who felt that “... one might as well be an ‘artichoke’ growing in a back garden for all the good one derives from the people and surroundings of Wellington”, should turn to the instruction and passion to be gained from a Milton collection.

One might also expect that such a man would want to see the ideas conjured up in a wealthy bachelor’s smoking room preserved by public support and professional skill: the amateur’s “fascinating folly” preserved by the professional’s mundane durability. Johannes Carl Andersen, the first Turnbull librarian, was certainly durable. His regime lasted from 1919 to 1937. But it was a penurious time for the library, reflecting the prevailing political attitude towards public expenditure.

Nonetheless a progressive mood had gradually spread over the country especially among the younger professionals encouraged by the radical political programme of the first Labour government. A notable product of this attitude was the formation of a branch of the international writers movement, PEN, and there was a notable pressure on the resources of the library and all other information‑gathering institutions to answer demands in connection with the New Zealand centennial celebrations in 1940.

As the exactions of war increased the amenities of the library altered. Of the centennial J C Beaglehole wrote that the library became, “a sort of editorial‑historical‑typographical‑literary‑ public relations office”. His own position he describes as the “somewhat unclassifiable role as part‑time public servant”. At the same time he held a lectureship in history at Victoria University College. The outcome, encouraged by the powerful Secretary of Internal Affairs, was Beaglehole’s masterwork on James Cook and the appointment of a Historical Branch of the Department which facilitated the acquisition of the library’s Cook collection.

It is worth noting that this development led to the employment of Janet Wilkinson (later Paul) whose career in publishing began here with her collaboration with Beaglehole and as an art historian would later include nine years as the Turnbull’s art librarian.

While it would be wrong to suggest that the Turnbull became the resort of university specialists and popular official history it is true that it was used to illuminate some murky passages from the past. Barrowman reports that the librarian drew the undersecretary’s attention to research being undertaken by Department of Land and Survey officials…

… to combat claims by Maoris of the Wanganui river country for compensation on a huge area of land… While I do not go so far as to say that the library is likely to save the government a pretty large sum, I think it is just to claim that we can contribute to a very important piece of work ‑ certainly a very telling argument should the library’s justification be questioned. It is one of its practical and positive values, as distinct from purely cultural considerations.

One wonders whether a public library would be quite so eager to peddle its “practical and positive” values today.

Barrowman names this section of her account, “Turnbull Library Lures The Man in The Street 1937‑1960”, presumably to emphasise this practical contribution the library made in different areas of social change. It was followed by a development which many saw as a threat to the vital interests of the Turnbull as a separate entity. The question was whether a National Library should be established from the various public institutions then offering services to citizens at large or to public institutions. This was an old bone of contention but resistance to it became widespread when legislation was proposed to establish a National Library incorporating the Turnbull within the administrative authority of the Department of Education.

This was an issue that united all the enemies of active government from the literary buccaneer and poet Denis Glover to Robert Stout, scion of a famous Wellington family and deathbed benefactor of the Turnbull. Though no one could propose that the resistance was especially logical, Glover’s assertion that he was simply airing a “well-founded prejudice against the monolithic state” gets the correct note. One finds it hard to disagree with Beaglehole’s remark: “I am beginning to doubt whether rational discussion of the needs of a National Library in New Zealand can serve any useful purpose.” Sentiment and defence of privilege are incompatible with effective service to the library’s clients.

It appears from the record that the rational disposition of functions has led to more effective acquisition of material. The greater prominence of the Turnbull and the more professional management of records generally have put greater pressure on the library. Barrowman draws attention to the conclusions of an American archivist who suggested that: “The aim should be for quality rather than quantity, for representative rather than comprehensive collections.”

The most recent stage in the library’s evolution has been the occupation of the substantial and handsome National Library building. The exhibition galleries, theatres and concourse have added substantially to the aesthetic and intellectual life of Wellington. However the new surroundings have not solved the problem of protecting the identity and unique function of the Turnbull.

Barrowman refers to the rhetoric of a former newspaper editor, “To arms for beleaguered Turnbull” and rails against “murderous fate disappearing down the craw of an encompassing bureaucracy, to be lost in the insensitive belly of the National Library”. At the moment this seems not only excessive but irresponsible. Barrowman’s careful balancing of the issues suggest that the reputation of the Turnbull as a resort for scholars around the world will not diminish. Yet in a time when the transfer of information increases exponentially the need for cooperation rather than competition seems to me both obstructive and vain.

John Roberts is a social commentator on New Zealand Public Radio.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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