The Alexander Turnbull Library turns 100

Sarah Knox (Assistant Chief Librarian) and Fiona Oliver (Curator New Zealand and Pacific Publications) of the Alexander Turnbull Library | National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa commemorate a most generous gift.

The library came into being when Alexander Turnbull – Wellington merchant, yachtsman, golfer, collector, confirmed bachelor and handsome dandy – bequeathed his library to the nation in 1918. Two years later, in 1920, the doors of the library opened to the public for the first time.

In 1918, Turnbull’s gift was hailed by the New Zealand Times in a breathless concatenation of superlatives as “the most generous bequest to the people of New Zealand ever made by a New Zealander since the beginning of New Zealand time”. Since the dawn of time itself, one is almost tempted to conclude. But it was true; the scale of the bequest was unprecedented in this country. The collection comprised over 55,000 books, along with thousands of original artworks, prints, manuscripts and maps. They included the wondrous, the rare and obscure, which were hunted for, sourced and bought through a network of dealers, mostly in London. Turnbull’s collection of about 500 Pacific and Māori artefacts went to what was the Dominion Museum, now Te Papa Tongarewa.

Born in Wellington, but having lived for a time in England, Turnbull finally settled here for good with his family in 1892. He quickly developed what he’d already described as his “disease” of bibliomania into a mission to collect anything he could lay his hands on that was published in or about New Zealand. His interests extended to works of literature (Milton, in particular), voyages and exploration of the Pacific, history, flora, fauna, geology, and works about the people of New Zealand and the Pacific and their society and cultures.

That “nucleus”, as Turnbull had imagined it in his bequest, of a national library has since grown to become a research library of international standing, with a mandate to collect, protect, preserve and make accessible the documentary heritage and taonga of national significance for all New Zealanders. Its collections have broadened to also include oral histories, photographs, ephemera, music, digital materials, rare books and fine printing. These collections have been built through donation, bequest, legal deposit and targeted purchase, to contain millions of items. Today, the Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL) is part of the National Library of New Zealand, which currently sits within the Department of Internal Affairs.

On 28 June 2018, the Hon Grant Robertson will launch the centenary on behalf of the Friends of the Turnbull Library at their Founder Lecture, “Books and their Readers”, given by Lydia Wevers, followed by a reception in parliament’s Grand Hall. The launch marks a 30-month period of celebrations, culminating with the centenary of the library’s opening in 2020.

And so the Turnbull will celebrate twice: once for the generous legacy, and again for the 100 years as a leading research library. There are many opportunities to highlight the library’s achievements and look to its continuing development and relevance in the future. They’ll focus on the critical roles of donation and philanthropy in creating and maintaining a research legacy; acknowledging the role of research in generating new knowledge; and the importance of both analogue and digital information for future generations. The centenaries will enable us to deepen relationships with established communities as well as engage with new audiences.

Many of the founders, friends and lovers of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa have books, recordings, and personal archives in the ATL. It supports New Zealand and Pacific literature through its collections and services, as well as through the Poet Laureate award and research grants. And, on that note, of special interest is the Friends of the Turnbull Library’s lucrative essay competition, which invites fresh perspectives on the life of Alexander Turnbull: a century after his death, there’s still much we don’t know about this most intriguing benefactor.


Three researchers describe their experience with the Alexander Turnbull Library collections:

Aleisha Ward PhD
Douglas Lilburn Research Fellow 2017

In late 2016 I was honoured to become the third Douglas Lilburn Research Fellow for my project investigating the jazz age in New Zealand. I became interested in New Zealand’s jazz age while working on my PhD on jazz in New Zealand 1920-1955. While my thesis was primarily music-focused, I quickly realised that, in the 1920s, jazz was this vivid, multifaceted creation that could paint a picture of New Zealand not usually found in general histories. I spent 2017 splitting my time between the ATL and National Library collections and other collections around New Zealand and Australia, examining an extensive variety of material relating to jazz and its importation to New Zealand. These days, we tend to think of jazz as just being music but, in the 1920s, jazz was music, dance, fashion, architecture, design (art deco), emotions (think jazzy nerves), the term jazz was also used as an advertising buzzword, and it was slang for sex or disreputable people. 

I examined an interesting assortment of collections at the ATL for this research, too many to talk about here, so I’m just going to mention three collections I used. My first point of call at the Turnbull was the Dennis Huggard Jazz Archive (DHJA). Dennis Huggard (1928-2017) was New Zealand’s foremost collector of jazz material and he self-published a series of discographies and miniature jazz memoirs relating to New Zealand jazz. The DHJA includes artist files, scrapbooks, magazines, interviews, recordings and other jazz related ephemera. While the bulk of the material begins in the 1930s, I was able to extrapolate backwards for information on musicians, bandleaders, radio stations and venues, and use other sources (such as Papers Past) to expand on the information.

In the 1920s, vaudeville was one of the main ways that jazz was imported into New Zealand, so another collection I used for research was theatrical ephemera. Ephemera collections are central to my research, as I find most of the pertinent information through advertising and anonymous news columns. Theatrical programmes tell me a great deal about jazz on the vaudeville circuit and in the local community. In addition to seeing which bands/dancers were performing, theatre programmes are also good sources of advertising for local dance halls/cabarets, music stores and a variety of other venues and products that feed into the importation of jazz and its place in New Zealand society.

The final collections I want to highlight are the personal papers and collections from pioneering radio engineers and personalities. These collections from Bruce Anderson, William Huggins and Reg Morgan (among others) contain material ranging from circuitry diagrams, to institutional and personal papers and photographs. These papers illuminate how early broadcasting was operated, how music was used in early broadcasting (both records and live performance) and the impact that broadcasting had on spreading jazz around New Zealand (especially outside of the urban areas).

The information found in these collections helps to form a lively portrait of 1920s New Zealand and illustrate the vibrancy of the jazz and wider entertainment scenes during the period. 


Angela Lassig
Dress historian
Recipient of The Friends of the Turnbull Research Grant 2017

I first discovered the ATL collections soon after moving to New Zealand in 1988 to take up the position of Assistant Curator of Applied Arts at the Auckland Museum. Prior to my move, I had worked as a Curatorial Assistant in Decorative Arts at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. It was while working in Sydney that I developed an interest in 19th– and early 20th-century women’s creativity, particularly in relation to fashioning “home crafts” and clothing.

Being based in Auckland meant that my use of the Turnbull’s collections was sporadic. However, various projects requiring research trips to Wellington revealed the richness of these collections, particularly in relation to my research on a number of creative women for the Book of New Zealand Women and Volume 4 of the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography.

One of the benefits of moving to Wellington in 2000 to take up a curatorial position at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa was readier access to the ATL, and the luxury of more time to explore its resources more thoroughly. I loved the formality of the experience: the signing in, the quietness of the “inner sanctum” of the reading room, and being surrounded by so many card catalogues, indices, reference books and other resources made accessible by the incredibly well-informed staff. The possibilities for research seemed (and still seem) boundless.

I became more intimately acquainted with the ATL’s resources in 2006 when I began writing my first major book – New Zealand Fashion Design (Te Papa Press, 2010), while continuing to work at Te Papa as Senior Curator of History. For this project, it was the library’s matchless collection of New Zealand periodicals that underpinned my research on leading contemporary New Zealand fashion designers.

Since the late 1980s when I first used the ATL’s collections, the institution has undergone many changes. In particular, the digitisation of the photographic collections has been of utmost significance to my work as a fashion historian. Being able to explore that collection remotely, whenever, wherever, and for as long as I need, has been the single most important catalyst for sparking the idea for my book that was the subject of my successful application to The Friends of the Turnbull Library in 2017. While I continue to utilise the ATL’s digital collections in Auckland, my grant allows me to travel to Wellington for research trips, focusing on those collections that can only be accessed in person.

My book is a visual history of New Zealand women’s clothing between 1840 and 1900 and draws primarily on strong, evocative photographic and pictorial sources – drawings, paintings, prints and cartoons – in the ATL’s collection. Being a social history, the clothing seen in these images will be contextualised with other material drawn from the library’s manuscripts, printed ephemera and curio collections, and underpinned by research using the ATL’s incomparable New Zealand and Pacific Collection, Serials Collection and Family History Collection.

I would like to thank The Friends of the Turnbull Library and the ATL staff for their continuing enthusiastic support for my book.


Vincent O’Malley
Author of The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato, 1800-2000; currently researching a New Zealand Wars reader with the aid of a Friends of the Turnbull Library Research Grant.<

In 1993 I came to Wellington on a three-month contract to research Treaty of Waitangi claims. Somehow, a quarter-century later, I am still here doing much the same thing – working for iwi and others involved in the claims process. This is the coal-face of New Zealand history, and it has all been based on painstaking primary research, accumulated over many years and often compiled into what are called document banks. These consist of thousands of pages copied from the letters, journals, diaries and reports of governors, imperial and colonial officials and politicians, soldiers, settlers, rangatira and others from the early 19th century onwards. But, beyond the claimant communities, Waitangi Tribunal members and lawyers, very few people get to hear the stories that emerge from this ground-breaking research. And that is why I spend what little spare time I have writing books, and talking at literary festivals, public events, schools and elsewhere, about what this history is and why it matters. The response, especially to my most recent book, has been incredible. There is a real thirst for these stories.

The ATL plays a vitally important role in allowing this history to be told and revealed in all its many facets. At Archives New Zealand, we mostly get the official records, often with considerable spin in those intended for wider public consumption. These are crucial for understanding what was known to officials at various points. But, at the Turnbull, we get to learn what they were really thinking. And so, politicians who in official correspondence justified the invasion of Waikato in July 1863 as a reluctant response to the threat posed by the Kīngitanga, would write privately of the need to once and for all crush Māori independence in Turnbull-held letters. Without the ATL’s remarkable repository of manuscripts, including the huge collection of Donald McLean papers, along with other missionary, Māori and other letters (plus maps, plans, photographs, paintings and ephemera), we would be left with only part of the story.

That’s why the ATL has always been the go-to place for me from the time of my first trip there in 1993, even if these days the visits are increasingly virtual ones – long hours spent on websites such as Papers Past substituting for appearances in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room. Online searches have helped to transform the nature of historical research in recent years. Pop in a keyword or two, and tasks that might previously have taken weeks or even months to complete are done to a much higher standard within seconds. But it will never compare with the quiet tactile thrill of holding in your hands a letter written and composed by Wiremu Tamihana, or even Sir George Grey. You still need to visit Thorndon for that experience. With digitisation gathering pace, I worry it’s one that future historians will miss out on completely. But, regardless, the Turnbull will still be there in one form or another, allowing coming generations to tell the stories that need to be told.

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