Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection collecting plan

Find out about collecting and priorities for the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection.


The Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection is a national collection, built on the collecting interests of Alexander H. Turnbull. Developing a research collection of rare books is stated as a purpose of the Alexander Turnbull Library, in the National Library of New Zealand (Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa) Act 2003.

The purpose of this collecting plan is to describe the extent of collecting to be undertaken, and any subsequent priorities, specific to the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, part of the National Library of New Zealand.

This collecting plan was developed in accordance with the collecting principles outlined in the National Library of New Zealand Collections Policy.

National Library of New Zealand Collections Policy


The term ‘rare books’ is used by institutions in different ways depending upon the context of the collection. In the Library, ‘rare books’ refers to pre-1800 printed matter, but also includes post-1800 items printed in limited editions or with inclusions of particular or unusual interest. It also includes medieval and renaissance and some modern manuscripts where they represent part of the history of the book.

Fine Printing is used in the Library to refer to hand-printed items of the late 19th century to the present day, but also includes machine-printed items which have special design features combined with a limited print run. Cross-over works, e.g. machine-printed but with hand-printed covers, are accepted at the discretion of the Curator. Artists’ books produced in small runs are collected where they fit other fine printing criteria and at the discretion of the Curator to form a representative collection of an artist’s work. ‘One-off’ and three-dimensional artists’ books are not normally collected, though examples of works by recognised artists and works of design value will be considered for acquisition as part of the long history of the book.

Scope of the collection

The Rare Book and Fine Printing Collection is one of New Zealand’s foremost collections of its type. It includes printed works, particularly those printed before 1801 but also rare and valuable items up to the end of the 19th century; medieval, early renaissance, and some modern manuscripts; and fine-printed items dating from the late 19th century to the present day. While many of these are directly related to New Zealand and the Pacific, others are of more general or international importance. All represent important aspects of our common cultural heritage as New Zealanders.

The collection is housed in a secure storage area with limited access, and includes approximately 29,000 items, sub-divided as follows:

  • c. 14,500 early printed books principally arranged according to the language of publication, and within this, ten separate collections (c.1,500 titles) kept together according to donor, format, or subject (Howard, Stuart, Bible Society, Wellington District Law, Carter Observatory, Castle, Society of Mary, Juvenile, Fletcher).
  • A small collection of 41 early eastern and western manuscripts plus some fragments, and special modern manuscripts where the artistic work and calligraphy form the major rationale for the creation of the object.
  • Fine printing collection of c. 5,500 titles
  • Ephemera collection of c. 5,000 pre-1800 and some post-1800 items
  • Full-text microforms (c. 4,000) providing comprehensive coverage of various aspects of the collections e.g. incunabula, books in English to 1801, early English newspapers.

Formats include:

  • Bound monographs (printed and manuscript)
  • Serials (18th and 19th century)
  • Newspapers
  • Music scores
  • Maps and prints (bound in as originally issued)
  • Ephemera
  • Printed broadsheets
  • Microforms

There are no restrictions on geographic coverage.

Material that falls outside the scope of this plan may be accepted if it forms part of a larger multi-format collection that the Library wishes to acquire, or if it provides context for other items in the Library’s collections.


Copies of rare books in poor condition are excluded, unless they are very rare, e.g. fewer than ten known copies in the world, or include significant and important provenance evidence or content, based on the Curator’s discretion.

Duplicates of existing collection items within the Alexander Turnbull Library are not necessarily excluded, as no two copies of early printed works are exactly the same – these are acquired at the discretion of the Curator.

Fine printing material that does not build on existing collections strengths is generally excluded, though allowances are made for new trends and areas of printing interest.

Collection strengths

Collection strengths are identified as subject areas or formats that are already strong in the Library. Highlights in the rare books collection include:

  • First and special editions of English literature and history from the 16th to the 20th centuries, including the works of many influential writers. Pre-eminent among these are the printed works relating to John Milton (1608-1674). The Library has one of the world’s major resources on Milton’s works, comprising a comprehensive collection of 17th and 18th century editions of Milton’s works and a research collection of 17th century editions of works on the theological, historical and literary background, including sermons and pamphlets.
  • Pacific voyages from Magellan to the 19th century and, in particular depth (i.e. foreign language translations), material relating to James Cook and his voyages to New Zealand, voyages to the South Pacific and the Antarctic regions. It includes a study level collection of early accounts of voyages and travels to other parts of the world. In the context of the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection, ‘Pacific’ encompasses the entire region, including and expanding beyond Polynesia.
  • Books from the earliest period of printing (pre-1501).
  • Early printed books in all the principal European languages.
  • Medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts where they represent part of the history of the book.
  • Religious material including bibles.
  • Important works from the 19th century, e.g. Dickens, the Romantic Movement.
  • The book as an artefact. This includes bookbindings, and provenance in its widest sense.
  • Fine printing from the late 19th century to the present day:
  • New Zealand hand printing is collected comprehensively where possible. o New Zealand printers printing overseas where known (e.g. Alan Loney).
  • Representative selection of English and Australian presses, mainly filling gaps in current press runs. o Significant examples of hand printing from other or newly established English and Australian presses.
  • North American and European presses are not normally collected unless they fill significant gaps or have New Zealand content.
  • Other hand-printed materials where they form significant examples of the history and development of the private press movement.

Collecting principles

The National Library of New Zealand collection policy provides a suite of principles that guide all collecting across the published and unpublished collections by the National Library and Alexander Turnbull Library.

National Library of New Zealand Collections Policy

The relevant principles from the collection development policy are provided below, with an explanation of how they will be realised for the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection.

Principle 1

Developing breadth and depth in the Library’s research collections requires decisions to be informed by, and responsive to, current and emerging research trends as well as the anticipated needs of future generations of New Zealanders.


Staff working closely with the Rare Books and Fine Printing collection take an active role in the New Zealand research community and the New Zealand hand-printing community, and maintain close links with international research scholars and organisations.

Anticipating the needs of future generations is more difficult. However, through good relationships with national and international research communities and by maintaining a good understanding of current research, these needs can be identified for the New Zealanders of tomorrow, if the needs fall within the scope of the collection.

The Library welcomes and encourages dialogue with any part of the research community regarding the collection of rare books and fine printing that supports an existing or identified future research need.

Principle 2

Meaningful engagement with iwi, hapū and whānau helps build good collections of documentary heritage and taonga created by Māori and relating to Māori, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.


The Library will continue to build on the strong collection of early printed works relating to Māori, history and traditions, dating from the 18th century. These include descriptions and illustrative material as seen through European eyes. Relevant Māori material that falls within the area of fine-printing will also continue to be collected.

Principle 3

The Library has an important leadership role in collaborating and coordinating collection related activities across institutional and national boundaries to enable New Zealanders to connect to information important to their lives and to support strong documentary heritage and taonga collections for all New Zealanders.


The Library always considers the most appropriate repository for a collection prior to acquisition, which can often be another institution within New Zealand or further abroad.

Principle 6

The Library takes into account the cost of acquiring, storing, managing, and making accessible collection items when building its collections.


The Library’s process for approval to purchase collection items is followed at all times when using the Crown’s acquisition budget to build collections.

Collecting priorities

The Rare Books and Fine Printing collection is built to preserve heritage taonga in perpetuity for all New Zealanders, sustain advanced research into the history of print culture in New Zealand and to enable researchers to place this country in a world context by building on existing collection strengths, filling notable gaps within the collection and identifying new collecting streams.

In general there are few specific priorities within the scope of the collection (see below), as the ability to collect depends on what is made available on the market or, in a limited number of cases, what is offered for donation.

Rare Books and Fine Printing will continue to develop its collection in line with the broad topical, geographical and chronological parameters outlined under ‘Collection Strengths’. Further to this, the following topics have been identified as having priority within the 2021–2023 plan:

  • Material more reflective of New Zealand’s diverse demographic
  • Books by female authors or owned by women collectors
  • Where possible, books in support of and related to collection strengths in other format areas

The Library welcomes expressions of interest and donations from a range of people, communities and organisations.

Supporting documentation

This collecting plan is supporting by further documentation that outlines some of the criteria and objectives for assessing and documenting Rare Books and Fine Printing collecting decisions.


Anthony Tedeschi, Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing, Alexander Turnbull Library
Email — anthony.tedeschi@dia.govt.nz

Download the Rare Books and Fine Printing collecting plan

Rare Books and Fine Printing collecting plan (pdf, 280KB)

Last updated 2022