What does your book collection say about you?

When I’m invited into someone’s home for the first time I can generally restrain myself from rummaging through their medicine cabinet. But I can very rarely restrain myself from browsing their bookshelves. The bookshelf, I can’t help but feel, is an intimate view into my host’s inner life; their inspirations and aspirations, their comforts and escapes.

I browse the titles of their books, and the authors. I take note of the state of the spines and I notice how they are organised. I feel like I can glimpse something essential and private on a bookshelf. And that’s why the Turnbull Named Collections are so fascinating.

The Turnbull Library’s Named Collections are primarily personal libraries of collectors that have been donated to the library. (Although not all private collections that were donated were retained as discrete entities: for example, the J. M. Ranstead collection of children’s books from the 1820s to 1840s was incorporated into the Turnbull’s juvenilia collection.)

The collections that have been kept together tell a number of powerful stories. They reflect the personal tastes of their collectors, and give remarkable insight into their intellectual lives. The formed collections give us a privileged, voyeuristic peek at the bookshelves of some intriguing New Zealanders.

Mantell Collection

One of the largest named collections, and amongst the earliest to be donated to the Library, is the Mantell Collection. It was formed by three generations of the Mantell family, who were active within scientific communities and contributed to civic life: Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790–1852), the geologist and palaeontologist; his son, Walter Baldock Durrant Mantell (1820–1895), noted New Zealand politician and naturalist; and his son Walter Godfrey Mantell (1864–1927), a Wellington dentist.

Mantell enthusiasts will certainly appreciate the mix of professional and private reading represented in the collection. There are editions of Gideon and Walter Mantell’s own publications, along with other scientific works on geology and natural history, such as Alexander von Humboldt’s Aspects of Nature in Different Lands and Different Climates (1840 and 1849); W. M. Maskell’s An Account of the Insects Noxious to Agriculture and Plants in New Zealand (1887); and Hochstetter’s The Geology of New Zealand (1864).

Botanical illustration from plate 57 of Joseph Dalton Hooker's The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H.M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror.Joseph Dalton Hooker, The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H.M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror, 1844–1860. Record page

Included, too, are books on ethics and philosophy, along with classic literature, satire, parlour magic, poetry and religion. The varied nature of the collection offers a great study of the lives of a well-read family, with diverse interests, and a distinct sense of humour.

Though mostly kept together, the rarer volumes, such as first or early editions by authors like Ben Jonson, Lord Byron and Francis Bacon, were transferred to the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection; the Mantell ownership is captured in the individual catalogue records.

Danish Collection

By contrast, the Danish Collection was not a private library, but it is a vivid reminder of Scandinavian settlement in New Zealand, and specifically that Danish and Norwegian were once widely spoken in places like Dannevirke and Norsewood up until the early twentieth century.

Although the exact provenance of the collection is unknown, many of the titles were originally held by the Wellington Danish Society and the Dannevirke Public Library, evident by the presence of their ownership stamps.

Cover of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler with detailed gilded inlays.Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler: skuespil I fire akter, 1890. Record page

There had clearly once been a demand for Danish language books that has since disappeared. This once-thriving language community was one who read popular contemporary fiction and the collection has no less than four copies of Katherine Mansfield’s works in translation, such as Afsløringer: nye noveller (1936) and Breve (1948), selections of Mansfield’s short stories and correspondence respectively.

Today there are traces of the languages spoken by the early Scandinavian settlers in the surnames of local families and in the names of streets, and the Danish Collection offers a fascinating insight into a multilingual past here in Aotearoa.

Wright Collection

The Wright Collection, a personal library, is a particularly lively and intimate collection. Henry Charles Clarke Wright (1844–1936) was a notable Wellington figure. He was a man of strong opinion (to put it mildly), and his character resonates through the collection that he bequeathed to the Turnbull on his death in 1936. He collected books on religion, sex and science, and a number of volumes are heavily annotated.

Covers of The Goodness of Gods and Foods for the Fat, both black text inlaid on red covers.L-R: Edward Westermarck, The goodness of gods, 1926. Record page; Nathaniel Edward Yorke-Davies, Foods for the fat: the dietetic cure of corpulency, 1898. Record page

Wright’s library is a fascinating collection of titles encompassing comparative religion, anti-Catholic works, ethics, Rationalism, diet and phallicism. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the collection is Wright’s annotations. While any personal library can be revealing, Wright’s handwritten opinions and thoughts (along with the occasional newspaper clipping pasted-in) provide direct commentary on individual titles and offer us insight into his reading practices and beliefs.

You can read more about Wright and his collection in Peter Lineham’s ‘The Curious Henry Wright and His Library’, published in the Turnbull Library Record n. 38 (2005).

Earp Collection

One of my personal favourites of the formed collection is the Earp Collection. It was donated in 1936 by Edgar Allen Earp, an avid beekeeper and senior governmental Apiarist Instructor. His charming collection is made up entirely of works relating to bees, bee-keeping and bee culture. It’s a bee-autiful collection. And, my sorry pun aside, includes a number of very attractive volumes.

Cover A.I. Root's The ABC of bee culture, illustrated with an inlaid gilt bee.A.I. Root, The ABC of bee culture, 1881. Record page

The cloth bindings stamped with buzzing bee motifs are particularly lovely, and Earp’s focussed, devoted collecting has provided us with a whimsical, and handsome collection.

The Named Collections are (with the exception of the Esperanto Collection) all available through the Library catalogue and are well worth your time. (See the individual collection pages under ‘Named Collections’ for how to retrieve the holding records.) So, if you’ve ever wanted to have a nosey through the bookshelf of a country solicitor, a convivial socialist cyclist or a Prime Minister then these collections offer a rich resource; beautifully diverse and delightfully idiosyncratic.

By Charlotte Darling

Charlotte is a linguist and print culture historian, Museum Studies student at Victoria, and Research Assistant with Wai-te-Ata Press.

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Peter Ireland July 19th at 9:16AM

Lovely to see this, Charlotte. Very nicely written and a good idea to give the formed collections deserving profile. Well done. Peter

Desiree Mulligan August 3rd at 4:14PM

How interesting , a thoughtful browse , thanks

Michael Brown August 19th at 7:12AM

As a footnote, Henry Wright was also a notable amateur photographer and the Library holds a collection of 434 of his glass negatives, encompassing many subjects. 90 of these images are available to view online: