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Rare Books and Fine Printing

Details of images from To the Ends of the Earth
L-R: Detail, Book of Hours, 15th century, MSR-02, f.63v | Detail, Bible, 13th century, MSR-09 | Detail, Qur’an, 17th century, MSR-34

The Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection contains about 29,000 rare books and other printed items dating from 1469 onwards. It also includes early manuscripts dating from the Medieval period.

The Collection reflects the diversity of Alexander Turnbull's own collecting interests and forms part of the Turnbull Library collections.

Related material in other formats, such as unbound early maps and prints, are held in other Alexander Turnbull Library collections.

Access items in the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection

This collection can be accessed at the Wellington Reading Room in Molesworth Street.

All items are now listed on the National Library Catalogue and Tiaki, with the exception of some music scores. All new acquisitions are catalogued online soon after arrival in the Library. Find them by searching and restricting your results to Books.

You can borrow full-text microforms from the collection by interloan through your local library. We do not lend original items from the collection. More about interloans.

Get copies from items in this collection

You can order digital photographs and microfilm copies of items in this collection.

Photocopies are possible under certain circumstances, depending upon the age and physical condition of the item. All photocopying requests are assessed on a case-by-case basis by the Curator, and are carried out by Rare Book staff. More about making copies.

Get help

We can answer your enquiries in person, by letter, phone or email. For access to uncatalogued material, contact the Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing using the Ask a Librarian form.

A list of answers to frequently asked questions about rare and old books is available on the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) website.

A glossary of terms and acronyms used in relation to rare and old books is available on the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA) website.

Details of items from the exhibitions, showing a modernist cover, an illuminated medieval representation of philosophy, and a gilded Islamic illumination.
Details of L-R: Brendan O’Brien, Magnolia tree, 2001; Historiated initial ‘I’[am] Boethius, Consolatio Philosophiae ca. 1425–1450; Illuminated opening page, Sadi, Gulistan (1649)

Some of the Rare Books and Fine Printing Subcollections

John Milton Collection

The Milton Collection contains editions of works by John Milton (1608-1674) in the original and in translation dating from the 17th century. It also includes books from and about Milton and his times.

The Collection is based on the collecting interests of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull (1868-1918), the founder of the Alexander Turnbull Library, who assembled one of the finest Milton collections in private hands. The Library has continued to add to this and today the Milton collection is still numbered among the world’s best.

A strong supporting collection is held in the Alexander Turnbull Library General Collection.

Bible Society in New Zealand Collection

Detail of The Holy Bible, conteyning the Old Testament, and the New..., 1613
Detail of The Holy Bible, conteyning the Old Testament, and the New..., 1613

The Bible Society in New Zealand Collection of 189 printed bibles, seven medieval manuscripts, and related material, was deposited in the Alexander Turnbull Library on permanent loan over a number of decades beginning in 1978.

The printed items in the Collection range from miniature to folio formats and include: five incunabula, Hebrew, Greek, German, and Latin bibles from the 16th century, Dutch, French, Irish, Welsh, and Syriac bibles from the 17th century, diglots and polyglots (including a Gothic, Icelandic, Swedish and Latin polyglot from 1671).

English bibles include examples of the main 16th-century versions: Tyndale, Matthew, Coverdale, Great, Geneva, Bishops, and Rheims bibles. Error bibles include a second folio King James Bible (She Bible) and the Vinegar Bible.

The early manuscripts include three bibles, a glossed St Matthew's Gospel, a psalter, book of hours, and an antiphonal. They date from the 12th through to the 15th centuries.

English Collection

The English Collection includes first and special editions of English literature, history and many other topics, from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

Among the writers well represented are Milton, Spenser, Donne, Dryden, Pope, Defoe, Sterne, Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, the Brownings, Morris, Swinburne, Bridges, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes, Eliot, and many others.

Incunabula

Detail of In no[m]i[n]e d[omi]ni amen..., 1482
Detail of In no[m]i[n]e d[omi]ni amen..., 1482

Incunabula are the earliest printed books, printed between 1450 and 1501.The Alexander Turnbull Library has 92 incunabula in 87 volumes, two of which are duplicates. The earliest publication is 1469.

The collection includes many fine examples of the art of the earliest typographers, illustrators and binders. Branches of knowledge represented are theology, literature, law, science, philosophy, history and geography.

Since the foundation of the Turnbull Library in 1918, 26 titles in 26 volumes were added to the collection by donation or bequest, and 40 titles in 36 volumes added by purchase. The remainder are believed to have been in the personal collection of Alexander H. Turnbull (1868-1918).

Active purchasing of incunabula stopped in the 1960s, but in 2009 an auction in Wellington provided the opportunity to add two further titles to the collection. Donations and bequests have provided a more steady stream of new additions. The most recent donation was received into the Library in 2001. With one exception, all donations came from New Zealand collectors.

View a selection of images from this collection on our Flickr Commons account.

Further information about the collection and its earlier New Zealand collectors can be found in Ruth Lightbourne, '"Where did they come from?" Incunabula in the Special Printed Collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library'.

Fine Printing Collection

Detail of Choix de sonnets, 1902
Detail of Choix de sonnets, 1902

This collection consists of fine printing from New Zealand and international private presses; the international component dating from the late 19th century to the present day.

Included are complete sets of Kelmscott and Doves Press publications, and a representative selection of other influential presses such as Golden Cockerel, Nonesuch, and Gregynog (UK), Grabhorn (USA), Cuala (Eire), and Brandywine and Brindabella (Australia).

Ephemeral items, prospectuses, small broadsides, and invitations produced by a broad range of private presses and book artists are also held in this collection.

Fine and Trade Bindings

Detail of The glory of Her Sacred Majesty Queen Anne..., 1703
Detail of The glory of Her Sacred Majesty Queen Anne..., 1703

The Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection includes many fine and trade bindings of English and European origin dating from the 15th century to the present day. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century binders such as Zaehnsdorf, Riviere, Sangorski & Sutcliffe, Ramage, and Bedford are strongly represented. Other named binders include Kalthoeber, Payne, Staggemeier, and the New Zealand binder Edgar Mansfield.

In addition to the main covering materials of calf, goat, sheep, pigskin, textile, and vellum, there are a number of other materials including original paper wrappers, a beaten silver binding, and embroidered bindings. There are also examples of gauffering, fore-edge paintings, armorial bindings, silk and leather doublures, and medieval manuscript fragments used as binding material.

View a selection of images from this collection on our Flickr Commons account.

For more information, see Ruth Lightbourne, '“I wish you to send it to Zaehnsdorf in London for binding”: Alexander Turnbull and his bookbindings', Script & Print vol.34, no.1 (2010): 9-33.

Fletcher Broadside Collection

Detail of Die Veneris, 4. Decemb. 1646
Detail of Die Veneris, 4. Decemb. 1646

This collection of 363 English broadsides published between 1629 and 1756 includes almost 100 official publications, together with political and religious tracts, news-sheets, accounts of crimes, trials and executions, and satires and 'lybels' in verse and prose. It was acquired from the London bookseller, H.M. Fletcher, in 1976.

The collection is focused on political material. Well-represented names and events include:

  • Titus Oates and the Popish Plot
  • Rye House Plot
  • Progress of Lord Russell, Algernon Sidney, and Sir Thomas Armstrong to Tyburn
  • Death of the Earl of Essex in the Tower of London
  • Popular agitation in favour of Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, and against the legitimate and Catholic heir James Duke of York
  • Murder of Thomas Thynne of Longleat.

Further information about the collection can be found in "A sort of appeal to the people": a recent acquisition of English broadsides and broadsheets 1641-1714 by J.E. Traue, pp 104-111.

General Assembly Library of New Zealand Rare Book Collection

Detail of books from the GA Rare Book collection
Detail of books from the GA Rare Book collection

The rare books held at the General Assembly Library of New Zealand were transferred to the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library over several decades, beginning in 1976/77. The collection includes purchases and donations assembled from the foundation of the General Assembly Library in 1858 to the time of transfer. Imprints range from an incunabulum of 1494 to fine print works of the 20th century. This collection is now interspersed with other items in the Alexander Turnbull Library Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection.

Archival material relating to the donation and purchase of books in this collection is held at the General Assembly Library, now known as the Parliamentary Library, Wellington.

Medieval and other Early Manuscripts

Detail of Gulistān, 1649
Detail of Gulistān, 1649

There are 24 Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts held in the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection plus a number of fragments. These date from as early as the 12th century and originate from England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. There are also 12 Eastern manuscripts and one from Ethiopia.

The European group includes a very fine copy of Boethius’ treatise on music, De Musica, copied in the second quarter of the twelfth century, three books of hours, a missal, several bibles, two psalters, and a breviary, as well as other items.

Take a closer look at Boethius' De Musica

A few later manuscripts are also held, including an 18th century copy of a work by the Roman poet Claudian, and a modern liturgical manuscript copied in England between 1925 and 1935 for a Bishop of Wellington.

An increasing number of early manuscripts have been fully digitised and can be viewed through the online catalogue. A selection of individual images from this collection can be viewed on the Fickr Commons account.

Music Scores

Detail of Messiah an oratorio in score as it was originally perform'd, ca. 1769
Detail of Messiah an oratorio in score as it was originally perform'd, ca. 1769

There are a small number of rare music scores, many being settings of the words of John Milton (1608-1674). Included are such composers as Arne, Clementi, Handel, Haydn, Corelli, and Beethoven. Also held is the Zillah and Ronald Castle collection of 282 printed music scores and two manuscript scores dating from 1599 to c.1887.

Sir Arthur Howard Bible Collection

Detail of The most sacred Bible, 1539
Detail of The most sacred Bible, 1539

The Bible Collection of English collector, Sir Arthur Howard (1896-1971), entered the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1974. It consists of 55 bibles and liturgical texts, most from the 16th century, and focuses principally upon the English Bible and Book of Common Prayer. The non-English component of the collection is made up of a small number of 16th-century texts in Greek, and Greek and Latin, and includes two incunabula.

Further information about this collection can be found in David Pearson, 'The Howard Collection: early bibles and liturgical books in the Alexander Turnbull Library'.

Society of Mary and Archdiocese of Wellington Rare Book Collection

Detail of Postilla Guillermi Super epistolas et euangelia, 1483
Detail of Postilla Guillermi Super epistolas et euangelia, 1483

The Society of Mary and the Archdiocese of Wellington Collection of 514 titles was deposited on permanent loan in the Alexander Turnbull Library in December 2001. It includes the collections of Jeremiah Purcell O'Reily (1805-1880) and James Ambrose Story (1844-1901).

These items were formerly held at the seminary library at Greenmeadows, Napier and the Colin Library in Auckland.

The collection contains imprints from the 15th to the 18th century (including eight incunabula), in addition to pamphlets and a small number of post-1800 imprints. A high proportion of these imprints are foreign-language publications.

Archival material connected to this collection is held at the Marist Archives in Wellington.

Further information about the collection can be found in 'Jeremiah Purcell O'Reily and James Ambrose Story: Two Nineteenth-Century Collectors and their New Zealand Connection' by Ruth Lightbourne.

In this collection

The rare books and fine printing collection includes:

The collection also includes:

  • 18th- and 19th-century English periodicals and newspapers
  • Carter Observatory Collection (early astronomical texts)
  • a research collection of children's literature which includes over 500 titles dating from 1799 to 2000
  • Wellington District Law Society Collection (17th and 18th century legal reports)
  • Voyages and travels

Get advice

About De Musica by Boethius, and four works by Guido of Arezzo

Read more on the blog

Fascinating stories about these fascinating objects

Highlights from the collection

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