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Alexander Turnbull Library opens

28 June 1920

Dignitaries at the opening of the Alexander Turnbull Library
Dignitaries at the opening of the Alexander Turnbull Library (Alexander Turnbull Library, qMS-0048-001)

Alexander Turnbull’s ‘most generous bequest to the people of New Zealand’ was officially opened in his former residence at the bottom of Bowen St in Wellington on the second anniversary of his death. The ceremony began with a few moments of silence in memory of the philanthropist, who had gifted both the building and the vast collection it housed to the nation.

The recently appointed Minister of Internal Affairs, George Anderson, did the honours in the presence of 30 male dignitaries, who included MPs, academics and representatives of scientific bodies. Afternoon tea was served by the ‘lady assistants’ before the impressed guests were ‘shown over the three stories of the building with its heavily-stocked shelves’.

More than 30,000 books on New Zealand, Australian and Polynesian subjects had been catalogued under the supervision of the first Turnbull Librarian, Johannes Andersen. A large collection of pamphlets and rare English books remained to be organised. Some of these books were worth as much as $100,000 in current values, and the Minister asked users to ‘assist in protecting’ the collection for the nation – ‘if dishonest persons came there the institution would suffer’. The new library would soon incorporate the historical section of the Dominion Museum’s library, as ‘the Government wished to avoid duplication in matters of this kind’.

Conditions of entry were strict. Prospective readers had to be approved by Andersen or a member of the library’s board of management and were granted a six-month ticket of admission that could be withdrawn at any time without a reason being given. Portable possessions such as overcoats and umbrellas had to be surrendered on arrival.

Decades later, poet Denis Glover wrote Reading Room rules at the Tumbril Library after being reprimanded for pouring himself a glass of water. One verse reads:

I’m sadly mistaken and in disgrace

Should I have taken to mark my place

With a slice of the Best Bacon.

The Librarian, chewing his thumb,

Would get didactical

Should I be practical

And use chewing-gum.

How to cite this page

Alexander Turnbull Library opens, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated