By the beginning of the 20th century, Auckland had one of the finest libraries in the Southern Hemisphere.
Since the founding gift to Auckland’s citizens by Sir George Grey in 1887, Auckland City Libraries’ heritage collections have grown by purchase and generous donations. Noteworthy benefactors include J. T. Mackelvie, the Shaw brothers (Fred and Henry), Frank Reed and John Stacpoole.
James Tannock Mackelvie
Glasgow-born merchant James Tannock Mackelvie (1824-85) came to Auckland in 1867 and went into business with fellow Scots John Campbell and William Brown. He became prosperous and increased his fortune by shrewd investment in the Thames goldfields. By the mid-1870s Mackelvie was back in Britain, but he remained grateful for the opportunities New Zealand had afforded him. By way of thanks, he arranged for his artworks and books (about 500 in all) to be shipped to Auckland. His book collection included volumes with superb lithographs, and a book of specimens of tapa cloth brought back from Captain Cook’s third Pacific voyage.
Continuing the legacy of Sir George Grey were the Shaw brothers, Fred (1849-1927) and Henry (1850-1928). In 1913, Henry was appointed joint curator of the Grey collection with recently retired chief librarian Edward Shillington. By this time, he was himself an unstinting library donor. By 1928 he had given about 2300 books to the library, including 16 medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts and 65 incunabula. Fred’s donations were also generous, amounting to approximately 1400 volumes. With the eight pre-1501 printed books that Fred presented, the library's tally of incunabula rose to 111, the largest number in any single New Zealand location.
Other donations contributed to the library collections. In 1924, the chief librarian John Barr secured the gift of Whangarei pharmacist Frank Reed’s extraordinary collection of books and manuscripts relating to Alexandre Dumas père, author of Les trois mousquetaires and Le comte de Monte-Cristo. Over time, Reed gradually built up the most extensive Dumas collection outside France, including 500 first editions in French and English, 2000 sheets of original manuscripts and 51 typescript volumes of translations, letters, and bibliographies. Everything came to the library on Reed’s death in 1953.
In recent years, Auckland architect John Stacpoole gave the library world-class collections of Irish history and literature and of the works of novelist Anthony Powell.
There have been many other donations over the years, ranging from single letters and books to large collections of photographs, and the records and papers of individuals and organisations.
Not all of the library’s treasures were donations, however. Some items, which were purchased in the normal way, have increased greatly in scarcity and value with passing years. Others were bought from catalogues, while still affordable, by astute librarians who recognised their lasting worth. There have been some noteworthy last-minute rescues from the jaws of destruction too. Were it not for speedy salvage operations by library staff, the Mercury Theatre records and Herman Schmidt’s photographic negatives might have been lost forever.
The Library continues to add to the Sir George Grey Special Collections by donation and by purchase.