10 Questions with Michael Keith and Chris Szekely


Q1: This book is the closing act of a couple of years of celebration of Alexander Turnbull’s life and his great gift to the nation of. Since he gave New Zealand a magnificent library it’s fitting it’s a book, right?

Chris Szekely: It’s easy to conflate ‘library’ with ‘book’, yet Alex gave so much more than books. He well understood that a research library was necessarily agnostic about formats. Thus, he gifted sketches, manuscripts, photographs, maps, etc . . . and we have continued in this vein as newly invented formats documenting New Zealand’s heritage have emerged. And books? Yes! We love them, and they matter. Alex gave us thousands of volumes and extraordinary bound pages to turn; all in the pursuit of knowledge and cultural appreciation. His library inspires thought and curiosity. That’s what we want this book to do.


Q2: Of the thousands and thousands of objects, making an indicative selection that would also tell a story of this country must have been an herculean task. How did you go about it?

CS: We cast a wide net by inviting our people, literally hundreds of librarians on staff, to suggest items for inclusion. So the selection says as much about us personally as it does about the collections. Thus, there is a serendipity and a diversity to the stories and the way in which they’re told.

Michael Keith: The selection is very much a contemporary mosaic — of the library’s people as well as its collections. It couldn’t help but be an indicative story of this country because of that — looking through a series of windows, each with a view in to the collections and out to the world, with the writer providing the lens. A herculean task? One for a hercul-ommunity at any rate.


Q3: What particular boxes did you know you needed to tick?

CS: This has to be a book that is accessible and relevant to a wide readership. The Turnbull has a devoted following of users and donors, and has done for a hundred years. Te Kupenga respects this following, while inviting all New Zealanders to partake of the library’s riches and participate in its future. A physical book takes up space. I wanted Te Kupenga to be a book that New Zealanders wanted in their lives and their homes, without a use-by date.

MK: I’d like to think that Te Kupenga will help broaden the reach of the Turnbull, that the illustrated mini-essay format we’ve chosen will appeal far beyond the lovers and users of the physical library, that the book will pique interest in what the collections have to offer, that people will explore the online links, that virtual visitation will be increased at the very least. This is the special hope for the formal education audience, and the National Library’s Services for Schools are using Te Kupenga to connect schools with the collections through this kind of application and extension of the content, particularly in studies for the new history curriculum.


Q4: The specialist knowledge that each staff writer has of the parts of the collection for which they have responsibility must have been invaluable.

CS: While we have specialists in our ranks, few of us would claim to be absolute experts. What many of us have, as librarians, is experience of the collections in terms of care, content, relevance, use and an underpinning respect for all of the above.

MK: One of the pleasures of coming into this project from the outside has been encountering the breadth of that experience and the willingness of ‘generalist’ writers to go the extra mile to seek out expertise where that was indicated, consulting with specialists in and outside the library. It has contributed to a strong sense of esprit de corps that has been a hallmark of the book’s development.


Q5: 101 and not 100? Was that extra one just irresistible?

CS: ‘One hundred and one’ is because we knew the book would be published and released 101 years after the Turnbull opened to the people of New Zealand. Also in education ‘101’ typically means ‘introductory.’ Te Kupenga is an introduction to the Turnbull collections. So 101 was a good fit. 


Q6: Was there some real jockeying for inclusion, and who sat in judgement in the end?

CS: Literally, hundreds of items were suggested for inclusion, so there was a need to whittle down. We intended to use the New Zealand history curriculum as a framework. However, when the project started, the curriculum was still iterating and unformed. We had editorial advisers who brought great insight into the thinking, but ultimately the editors, Michael and I made the final call. I confess to a couple of collection soft spots. Gold mines: the New Zealand Cartoon and Comics Archive and the Archive of New Zealand Music. But let’s call that bias Chief Librarian prerogative.

MK: The next step after gathering items for inclusion was getting the writers to write them. We had a protocol that if you suggested something, you had first refusal on picking up the writing task. They seem to be a courteous bunch in the Library, so that process was a fairly sedate form of jockeying. But the nerve-racking part was being on the sidelines and seeing items that you were desperate to include with nobody putting their hand up to write them! Come on, somebody — please! So there was a bit of shoulder-tapping for writers to give what we considered some deserving wallflowers a whirl. Then there was waiting to see what would be completed and what the balance would look like then. And some very difficult choices when quite a few more than 101 essays were completed. Out of all that the book has come together as a unique mosaic, very much of its time in people, penchants and priorities.


Q7: How would you describe this remarkable collection, which of course has been built on over the last century by Chief Librarians, the staff and through gifts and bequests?

CS: The Turnbull Library is a dynamic monument to the generosity of thousands of New Zealanders; Kiwis who care about legacy and the cultural wellbeing of future, diverse generations of Kiwis. And it all started thanks to one person: Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull.


Q8: Do you have one favourite object?

CS: The poster of David Lange in the shower singing a ‘South Pacific’ tune is hilarious, irreverent and brilliant. Lange was my local MP in South Auckland, and we’re both Otahuhu College old boys.

MK: The handwritten items had special appeal for me. But the Japanese Songbook stands out for its poignancy: beautifully handcrafted from mundane materials, anonymous, tragic, left behind after the massacre of Japanese prisoners in Featherston.  


Q9: What’s one new thing you learnt while working on this book?

CS: We have a rock in the collections! It punctured a tyre on the first car journey to Mount Cook. Crazy.

MK: The story of autograph albums, I thought they were just for signatures, but no, so much more . . .


Q10: What do you hope readers will take away from reading it?

CS: Reassurance that the Turnbull is doing this stuff. Curiosity about whether and where the stories they care about are in institutional collections, and if they’re not, a sense of what they can do about it.

MK: A sense of vitality — the diversity of things that help make sense of our past and our heritage, the continuity of people’s connection to these things, and the lively interpretation, through story, of what they signify.