"Of the year's operations the most outstanding feature was the presentation by Mr. Robert McNab of his library of New Zealand books to the City. The value of the collection lies in its all-round excellence, and it contains many volumes of a unique nature not usually found in such collections."
W. B. McEwan, Annual Report of the Dunedin Public Library, 1913-14
It is 100 years since Robert McNab gifted his library of New Zealand books to the city of Dunedin. McNab was one of the prominent collectors of his time, and his library included many items not normally found in colonial collections.
Robert McNab was born on the 1st of October 1864, the first born son of Janet and Alexander McNab, at the family farm in Knapdale, Southland. A high achiever, he gained an MA in Physics and Mathematics, and later an LLB, both from the Otago University College. He was a lawyer, a politician, a farmer and an historian. McNab remained a bachelor his whole life, and died in Wellington on 3rd February 1917.
McNab had written to the Mayor of Dunedin, in November 1913, offering his library to the city. The Press, in reporting on the donation, stated that McNab's library was "regarded as the most complete and valuable library of New Zealand works with the exception of that of Mr A. H. Turnbull at Wellington"1.
City Librarian W. B. McEwan travelled to Wellington to meet with McNab on 20th November to oversee the packing and transport of the library from McNab's home in Palmerston North, and the collection was formally handed over at a public ceremony on 9th March 1914. His gift was the kernel from which the McNab New Zealand Collection of today has grown.
In his speech on presentation-day, McNab outlined his collecting interests and his reasons for offering his library to the citizens of Dunedin. It is from this speech that we have taken our inspiration for the exhibition. He explained one of the reasons for choosing Dunedin Public Library as the repository
for his collection:
"Of the cities, Dunedin is the home of my old University, and here alone will her future students be able to take advantage of it."
The exhibition was jointly curated by a team of seven staff from the Heritage Collections of Dunedin City Library. We portray some of the strengths of McNab's library, as highlighted by the man himself. We include accounts of early exploration in the Pacific, works on science and technology, politics, and early New Zealand history, and maps and charts. Also on view are some of the extensive collection of serials and school magazines of which McNab was particularly proud, and examples of McNab's writing and research.
Like many others, McNab's collecting began in support of his research interests, but he was soon caught, on his own admission, by the collecting mania. Finally, he settled on the following collection policy: books written about New Zealand, books written in New Zealand, and books written by New Zealanders. McNab said of the writers of the last type, that they "put a distinct New Zealand flavour into their work".
1 The Press, 13th November 1913, page 3.