The National Research Collections:
An Idea Realised


At the core of the Alexander Turnbull Library is a group of collections of excellence: those on New Zealand, the discovery and exploration of the Pacific, John Milton and Katherine Mansfield, which are acknowledged to be of international standing. Clustered around these are other collections: for example, those of Pacific ethnology and linguistics, early printed books, and private presses (pre-eminent in New Zealand).

What then is the proper function in this country for such a 'collection of collections' - so rich in printed matter, manuscripts,  pictures, maps and other materials?

ANTOINE CHAZAL (1793-1854), L'établissement des missionaires anglais a Kidikidi, Nouvelle-Zélande (Kerikeri, Northland, 1824), c1825
engraving, coloured, 125 x 195 mm.
Jules Lejeune accompanied Duperrey on the voyage of La Coquille, which visited New Zealand in 1824. His rough sketches were worked up by Chazal as watercolours from which the illustrations were engraved for the published account of the voyage. In 1973 the Alexander Turnbull Library purchased in Melbourne Chazal's sixty-seven watercolours of New Zealand and Pacific subjects, together with a full proof set of the plates: these appear to have belonged to Duperrey. The cost was $10,000. Especial grants of $20,000 by the Lottery Board of Control, $25,000 by Cabinet and nearly $5,000 by the Library's Endowment Trust made possible the purchase in Australia of the Chazal Collection; in New Zealand the Wilkie Collection of 350 watercolours by Sir William Fox; and in England five watercolour portraits by G.F. Angas. At the right of this picture is the Kemp house at Kerikeri, the oldest surviving building in New Zealand. Beside it now stands the Old Stone Store built in 1832. Both buildings are owned by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

When, in 1918, Alexander Turnbull bequeathed his library to the nation he used the accepted terminology of the day to describe his gift as a 'reference library'. Less than ten years later, in 1926, a new term which had been gaining currency in the United States received a formidable stamp of approval when Henry Huntington designated his even greater 'collection of collections' as a free public 'research library'.

Huntington's bequest, removed from New York to the then intellectual frontier of California, is described in his indenture as a library committed to the 'advancement of learning, the arts and sciences, and to promote the public welfare. .. to render the books, manuscripts, and other contents available. .. to scholars and other persons engaged in research or creative work in history, literature, art, science and kindred subjects. . .'

Alexander Turnbull, who had originally proposed to bequeath his library to an institute of higher education (Victoria University College in Wellington), and who was acutely aware of the need to promote the advancement of learning at his antipodean intellectual frontier, would have approved of the stress on the active use of the collections , by those 'engaged in research or creative work in history, literature, art, science and kindred subjects'.

Satan at the gates of Hell on the brink of the great dark Gulf ruled over by Chaos.
One of the fine copperplate engravings by Sir John Baptist Medina (c1655-1710) in the first illustrated folio edition of Milton's Paradise Lost (1688). Sir Roger l 'Estrange, Milton's prime antagonist during his lifetime, was among the five hundred distinguished subscribers to the edition. Although Mr Turnbull's extensive Milton Collection has been steadily added to, the major acquisition has been the 694 titles collected by G. William Stuart in the United States. This was purchased in 1974 for $107,000. aided by a grant of $10,000 from the T.G. Macarthy Trust. The library's Milton Collection is now among the first five ranking collections in the world.

The 'research library', as conceived by Huntington's advisers, is marked off from the ordinary public, special or university library by the comprehensiveness of its collections and by different objectives. The research library goes beyond the acquisition of the good books on a subject to gather in even the bad and the indifferent, in order to place the high points of a culture in proper perspective. Such a library goes beyond the printed output of a society to collect unpublished manuscripts, archives, paintings and drawings, maps and plans, photographs, films, sound recordings: in fact any record that contains information likely to be of value to a scholar. The research library is an institution not primarily designed for the dissemination of knowledge but for the enlargement or the extension of knowledge: designed primarily to assist those engaged on extending the boundaries of knowledge - those who will create the next generation of books.

The majority of the Turnbull collections are, because of their comprehensiveness, essentially research collections. This does not mean that the ordinary member of the public would be denied direct access to the collections: but that, because these collections will become increasingly the raw material of our culture, a range of specialists will be needed to mediate between them and the public. Scholars, authors, editors, publishers, art directors, scriptwriters, television producers and other creators of new forms of knowledge are likely to become the major direct users of the library's collections; and the public will tend to become indirect users.

Unlike a museum, an art gallery, or an ordinary library, success cannot be measured by a count of the number who come to view the collections or to use or borrow the books: a research library's effectiveness is measured by the volume of publication (publication in the broadest sense, and including television and radio broadcasting) based on its collections.

WILLIAM SWAINSON, (1789-1855), Young cabbage tree. Our cows, Hawkeshead, (Hutt Valley), 1847
pencil and wash 120 x 970mm
Page from The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, printed in 1930 for the limited Editions Club, New York, by Hans Mardersteig in the Officina Bodoni at Verona - the finest modern Continental press. The woodcuts are by Paolo Molnar. (From the Quentin Pope Collection of more than two hundred examples of modern fine printing, purchased by the Endowment Trust in 1962, greatly strengthening the collection of such books.)

A range of policies has now been developed for the Alexander Turnbull library, designed to build a number of specialised national research collections for the National library of New Zealand, some at an international level of excellence and some at a level of excellence for New Zealand; to conserve these collections as national scholarly resources; and to provide the services necessary to promote the maximum research use of the collections.

These objectives separate the Turnbull from other New Zealand libraries and have profound effects on its organisation and staffing. The functional organisation developed by libraries whose objective is the dissemination of printed materials is inappropriate for an institution which possesses far more manuscripts, photographs, paintings, drawings, posters, prints, maps and sound recordings than it does bound volumes of printed matter; which has a mandate to preserve its collections for posterity (a good third of the stock is irreplaceable); and whose staff are required to interpret the collections to specialist scholarly users. Specialist sections, staffed by subject specialists, have been developed to build, organise and put to use the separate collections of photographs, paintings and drawings, maps and manuscripts; and an expert conservation unit has been developed to preserve all materials.

The Library now holds in excess of 200,000 bound volumes of books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspapers, over 17,000 maps, over 200,000 photographs, almost a million feet of microfilm, over 1500 metres of manuscripts, 18,000 original works of art and 15,000 engravings and prints. The staff, a high proportion of whom are specialists, is about forty in number.

The Library is being stocked, organised and staffed for its research role. The next step that the Turnbull must take to fulfil its specifically national role (a step already taken by some other research libraries in the United States with collections of national significance) is to provide assistance for scholars to come and work on the collections.

New Zealand, unlike Britain and France, is not dominated by a metropolitan capital city. The majority of the Turnbull's potential users are located outside Wellington. The Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust, with the strong support of the National Library's advisory committee for the Turnbull, has agreed to an alteration of its deed to allow the Trust's funds to be used for fellowships to support full-time research at the Turnbull, for grants-in-aid to provide added assistance to scholars for travel, accommodation, copying and secretarial expenses, and for a programme of conferences and seminars in the Library.

J.E. Traue, Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, was previously assistant Chief Librarian at the General Assembly library, and Chief Librarian, D.S.I.R. He has served on the national executive of the Public Service Association, and was honorary editor of New Zealand Libraries for many years.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 9 February/March/April 1978