Alexander Turnbull and his collection

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 for the first time to the public.

'Most generous bequest...since the beginning of New Zealand time'

In 1918, Turnbull’s gift was hailed by the New Zealand Times, in a breathless string 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. (Quote from The Turnbull: A Library and its World, page 1).

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 and maps.

Photo of Alexander Turnbull
Photo of Alexander Turnbull by William Kinsey. Ref: PA7-14-35. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The wondrous, the rare and the obscure

The bequest 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.

Collection originally about New Zealand

Born in Wellington but having lived for a time in England, Turnbull finally settled for good with his family here 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.

Alexander Turnbull Library collections

Alexander Turnbull Library research library of international standing

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.

Collection has grown and broadened

The Alexander Turnbull Library 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 is part of the National Library of New Zealand, which currently sits within the Department of Internal Affairs.

Turnbull will celebrate twice

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. We want to 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.