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Alexander Turnbull's Birthday

Issue date: 
Thursday, 14 September 1989
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

Alexander Turnbull nearly gave his collection to Victoria University College and that may not have been a bad idea. Instead he gave it to "his Majesty The King" to be the "nucleus of a New Zealand national collection", and that was an inspired choice. I stand here as the representative of the Crown, as someone who grew up in this City and for whom the Turnbull Library is important. Thank you for the invitation to speak.

Eric McCormick describes Turnbull as having "sunny self assurance combined with opulent good taste". I noticed at Dulwich College he won no academic prizes but played for the 1st XV. Such an order of priorities may have been a sign of his self assurance. At one stage the Turnbull family owned a small shipping line, tea plantations in Fiji, a sheep station and a couple of farms. That sounds opulent to me. Turnbull's friends included Percy Buller, Thomas Hocken, Stephenson Percy Smith and Elsdon Best who constructed the myth about the Moriori being a pre Mori inferior race, John Logan Campbell who never liked living in New Zealand, Downie Stewart, MacMillan Brown the grandfather of James K. Baxter, Augustus Hamilton and Herbert Williams, one of my predecessors as Bishop of Waiapu, who was known to the Maoris as 'Hapata'.

So the Turnbull Library began as the private library of a wealthy gentleman who reflected the literary and speculative itch of talented and sturdy men at the turn of the century. The Library as we know it evolved slowly. Johannes Carl Anderson, the first Librarian, did the unmentionable thing and asked the Government for money to build up a national collection based on Turnbull's gift. The reply was "You've got a good library, look after it." Not surprisingly this library was the private preserve of a few scholars for the first 15 years of its life. They held it together and looked after it. But since the mid 1930s, it has developed from being a reference library for the public to a national research collection of great worth and world wide reputation.

Turnbull told one of his London dealers that his plan for his New Zealand collection was "anything relating to this Colony, or its history, flora, fauna, geology and inhabitants will be fish for my net, from as early a date as possible until now." Now just as politicians hold weekly clinics in their electorates these days where presumably they offer medicine rather than advice, so organisations fervently adopt mission statements. We could say that Turnbull's words are a good mission statement of a research library: the search for comprehensiveness, the search to gather in all the documentary evidence. The search is for everything related to New Zealand, not just the choice and the beautiful but the lot. Janet Paul expressed the principle some years ago when she wrote "not all the items in the art collection are works of art but they all tell our history."

This gathering marks Alexander Turnbull's birth 121 years ago. Without that event we would not be here this evening. But what we really want to do is to recognise the importance of donors to the library which bears his name and enshrines his original gift. Most of the collections have come by way of donations, bequests and purchases funded by the Endowment Fund, by sponsors, public appeals and the Friends of the Library.

To tell the truth we want to encourage you to keep up the good work. It has been a substantial contribution. Over the past 20 years, donations have ranged between 300 and 700 a year. For the 1988/89 year, donors have numbered 531. In essence what began as a gentleman's collection of high quality has become a library of great range and breadth. It has also become a participatory library to which people can contribute records, books, documents and art which express their lives and make up the mosaic which is our society.

As you know, the strength of this Library lies in three main areas: Milton, New Zealand and the Pacific. One way of looking at this Library is to say that it is the intermediary between the scholar and the public. The collections become the raw material of our various cultures. What then becomes important is the volume of publication based on the collections. Researchers come from all over the world to use these materials.

One of those who has mined the information which the Turnbull offers is Alwyn Owen whose Spectrum documentaries have graced Radio New Zealand for many years. He was asked what makes this such a special research library for him.

Alwyn Owen made five points. The collections in the Turnbull are of such size and variety that they can never be worked out. The Turnbull owes much to the utterly dedicated and highly skilled staff who are here. I think we must acknowledge Clyde Taylor and Jim Traue in this regard. The Turnbull is much more than a library of books. It is the repository of our culture in all its forms of records, minutiae, perspectives, chronicles and creation. The Turnbull has always had superb surroundings. In Turnbull House there was an abundance of vertical glass structures, even the temporary structure on the Terrace was attractive and now in this context of the National Library the setting works. And finally the Turnbull expresses a vital two way process. People offer this library family records, books and material because they respect and trust it as an important part of the New Zealand to which they belong.

Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon and the Thin Man series of detective stories. Diane Johnson, his biographer, said "The heroism of his life lay not in his Horatio Alger success but in the long years after success when money and gifts were gone. It is the long blank years that prove the spirit."

That comment has some relevance to Alexander Turnbull. For him life was not easy. The family resources he inherited declined over the years. Yet the ideal of a national collection would still be just that if it had not been for him. Turnbull's gift to the nation, made over 70 years ago, has encouraged others to make their contribution and become partners in this great enterprise. What we now have is something of which we can be very proud.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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