How We Began: the First Six Years of the Dunedin Public Library

September 18, 2008 at 11:01 am | Posted in Books, Centenary, City Library, Display, Events, Exhibition, Free Event, Heritage, Library_News, New Zealand, Reed Gallery, Suggestions, Tours | Leave a comment

Anthony Tedeschi Rare Books Librarian discusses the latest Reed Gallery exhibition celebrating our centennial year at Dunedin Public Library

Library patrons will no doubt be aware that 2008 is the centennial year of the Dunedin Public Library.

The current Reed Gallery exhibition How We Began: the First Six Years of the Dunedin Public Library commemorates the event by highlighting the early years of the Library’s history.

I initially planned this exhibition to focus on just the first year of the Library.  When research began, however, this expanded to six years.  Why the change, you might wonder?

These first few years were pivotal for the Library, which was growing by leaps and bounds.  By the time the Library had been open for seven years, it had developed to include a large reference collection, a children’s library, an adult lending library, and housed a fine collection of New Zealand material donated by Dr Robert McNab.  How We Began features books from each of these milestones.

The Library collection was comprised mainly of newspapers, magazines and a reference collection of perhaps 1,000 volumes when the doors opened in December of 1908. The reference collection steadily increased as Dunedin’s first public librarian, William Barker McEwan, brought the number of titles to 2,698 by November of 1909.

A highlight among the reference books on exhibit is the very first book purchased by the fledgling Library – a four-volume edition of poetry by Robert Burns.  This was a most fitting first purchase given Dunedin’s Scottish roots, and the fact that McEwan was born in Edinburgh and was working in Stirling before taking up his position in the Edinburgh of the South.

The majority of books on exhibit, such as the edition of Burns poetry, are the very same copies borrowed and consulted by adults and children.  Many still proudly bear their original bookplate and accession number, written in ink upon the front endpaper.

McEwan bought in multiple subjects from Literature to Natural Science, and History to the Fine and Useful Arts.  A selection from these categories is on display, offering visitors a sample of the types of titles patrons were reading.

One treasure on display is a first edition of William Morris’s Some Hints on Pattern-Designing (1899) printed at the Chiswick Press.  Morris was an influential founder of the British Arts and Crafts movement, and his Kelmscott Press produced some of the most exquisite hand-printed books of the nineteenth century.  This book will soon find a new home among the Reed collections.

The Library saw the addition of a new wing 1910, and the opening of the children’s reading room in March followed by the children’s lending library in June of that year. This collection must have been in demand.  A letter on display dated 2 July 1908 by McEwan states that a children’s library can only be established after an adult lending library.

In fact, Evening Star editor Mark Cohen agitated so vigorously for the establishment of a service to young people that it took priority.  It was difficult for us to find material from that early children’s collection – children are not the gentlest of library patrons, and tend to read their books to death.

Two cases of children’s books are on display nonetheless, including a first edition of Edith Howes’s Maoriland Fairy Tales (1913).  Howes was the first children’s author in New Zealand, pioneering the use of traditional Maori lore for children.

Dunedin’s adult population was finally allowed to borrow books to read in the home when the adult lending collection opened in 1911.  The subjects covered did not vary greatly from the reference collection.  The main difference was that historical biographies made up a large portion of the lending collection, and were considered popular reading.

These biographies and tales of exotic exploration were popular among Dunedin’s reading public.  For example, few stories have linked both subjects so well and captured the imagination like that of Henry Stanley finding Dr David Livingstone. Livingstone went missing for six years in the African interior during the 1860s.  The New York Herald commissioned Stanley in 1869 to find him, which he did on 10 November 1871.  How I Found Livingstone (1872) was a huge success, and a first edition of Stanley’s account is on display.

A milestone for the Library came in 1913 when historian, lawyer and Member of Parliament Dr Robert McNab decided to donate his collection of 4,200 books on the history of New Zealand and European exploration of the Pacific.

McNab was connected to Dunedin through his university days when he earned a BA in 1883, an MA in 1885 and an LLD in 1891 from the University of Otago.

The McNab New Zealand Department opened in 1914, forming the basis of a collection that numbers over 90,000 items today.  A selection of books from McNab’s donation is on display, among them first editions of Buller’s Birds of New Zealand (1873) and Edward Wakefield’s Adventures in New Zealand (1845), the first published Maori grammar (1820) and an early description of northern New Zealand and the Maori people during the turbulent times of intertribal wars brought about by the introduction of the musket in Richard Cruise’s Journal of a Ten Months’ Residence in New Zealand (1825).

Archival material from the Dunedin City Council Archives is also on display.  Some of these documents date to 1891 when the debates over whether or not to establish a public library in Dunedin were being carried on in the Town Hall.

The original letter books in McEwan’s handwriting and letters related to the McNab donation are available for viewing, including the original telegram from then mayor William Downie Stewart to Wellington book collector Alexander Turnbull asking if the McNab collection is ‘sufficiently valuable’ for the Dunedin Public Library.  In addition to these letters, the original desk (sadly minus its lovely roll-top) used by a succession of City Librarians has been moved into the Reed Gallery as part of the exhibition.

Many of the books purchased for the Library between 1908 and 1914 are no longer in the collection.  Some were weeded out when their information became outdated or a new edition published; others could not stand the physical demands of an eager public.

A surprising number, however, have survived.  Those still held by the Library provide a window into the lives and interests of Dunedin’s residents during the early-twentieth century.  The books and archival material on display in How We Began offer a glimpse of the readership during this time, and I cannot help but wonder – what will the Rare Books Librarian exhibit for the bicentennial celebrations in 2108?

This exhibition is free and open to the public.

  • Reed Gallery, Floor 3
  • 19 September to 31 December 2008
  • Dunedin City Library

† McEwan bought in other categories as well (e.g. Religion and Philosophy). Examples from every collecting area, however, could not be exhibited due to space limitations

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