Collecting is a hobby shared by people of every age,
race, religion, nationality and financial standing. In the
first of a series of articles, Rosie Manins talks to University
of Otago Special Collections librarian Donald Kerr about the
public good of collecting and how it has influenced his own
professional and personal life.
University of Otago Special Collections librarian Donald
Kerr browses through the Charles Brasch collection as a
bronze bust of Charles Brasch looks on. Photo by Peter
''The quickest way to immortality is to gift a collection.''
The quote, by American rare book collector Henry Huntington,
is one of Dr Kerr's favourites.
He says collecting is grounded in human nature.
''There is the chase, the hunt for that one manuscript or
book, and there is also the notion of completeness - getting
everything that was produced by a particular person or
company,'' Dr Kerr says.
''Collecting also has that physical, tangible nature to it.
Perhaps it is all about possessions and feeling comfortable
surrounded by things you really enjoy.''
He says the collector sees value in things, attaching
significance to items as part of a whole.
Collectors must also have perseverance.
Some collect discreetly, in private, while others proudly
display their treasures for all to see.
Collecting can be a very personal expression of oneself and
there is inevitably the question of what to do with a
collection once the collector has died, Dr Kerr says.
''Do you disperse it, push it back into the market place for
other collectors, or do you try and find an institution to
take it as a collection and make it available to the
public?''He says ultimately a collection is the legacy a
person leaves behind.
Dr Kerr has been the University of Otago's Special
Collections librarian for the past 10 years.
He is fascinated by private book collectors, particularly
those who have established New Zealand's foremost collections
of published material including Alexander Turnbull, Dr Thomas
Hocken and Sir George Grey.
''They are the trinity of book collectors in New Zealand.''
Mr Turnbull, a merchant, presented his Maori and Pacific
artefacts to the Dominion Museum (now Te Papa) shortly before
his death in 1918, when his book collection became the
nucleus of the Alexander Turnbull Collection now housed in
the National Library of New Zealand at Wellington.
Dr Hocken was a surgeon, coroner, collector, bibliographer
In 1910, a few months before his death, he offered his
historical collection of publications to Dunedin citizens and
it became the Hocken Library, originally housed within the
Otago Museum and still administered by the University of
Dr Hocken, who was the vice-chancellor of the university at
the time of his death, also gave the museum his extensive
collection of Maori cultural artefacts.
Sir George was a soldier, explorer and writer, twice governor
of New Zealand and the 11th premier of New Zealand.
In 1887 he gave Auckland citizens a range of precious
heritage material, today known as the Grey Collection, which
forms a significant part of the Sir George Grey Special
Collections: Ta Hori Kerei - Nga kohinga taonga whakahirahira
at Auckland City Libraries.
Dr Kerr wrote a book about Sir George while working with the
Grey Collection and has now finished his second publication -
a book about Dr Hocken as a collector.
''With both, I forensically examined every book and
manuscript that they owned. Working as a rare-books
librarian, I find it interesting to see or learn how a
particular book has arrived in New Zealand.
''The great thing about these three men is the fact they had
their own private collections but then gave them to us and
they became part of the public good - I think that's pretty
Dr Kerr is working on his third book in which he focuses on
12 New Zealand book collectors as well as collecting in a
more general sense.
He wants people to remember that without the determined
collecting efforts and generosity of the 12 men, including
Alfred Reed, Henry Shaw and Robert McNab, New Zealand would
be ''much poorer''.
''No-one had ever done any work on them as collectors, to
look at why and how they got their collections together.
Ideally, if you've got a whole lot of people doing work on
all the main book collectors up and down the country, say
30-plus, at the end you could have quite a large body of
knowledge about that collecting process.''
Working at institutions dedicated to collections brought out
the ''collector bug'' in Dr Kerr, who is developing his own
He takes some inspiration from Dr Hocken, who he says was an
''In every letter going out from his house on Moray Pl he
would ask people if they had any historical papers they
wanted to assign to the waste bin and he would offer to take
them. He did annual trips up and down the country and each
time he reconnected with fellow collectors and offered to
look after materials.''
Dr Kerr says some people are just born collectors, and the
world is a richer place for it.