2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of Alfred Hamish Reed’s original gift of his rare book and manuscript collection, officially donated to the Dunedin Public Library in 1948 in commemoration of the centenary of the founding of the province of Otago.
The founding collection, of several hundred printed and manuscript books and more than 1,000 autograph letters, was named the Alfred and Isabel Reed Collection, in his honour and in memory of his beloved late wife. Reed also established a trust to fund the purchase of new material, gave over properties and shares to the Library shortly after his initial gift, and remained highly active in the building of the Collection until the early 1970s.
Reed began collecting rare books and manuscripts around 1907, when he purchased a 1599 Beza New Testament from a London bookseller. His early interests included English Bibles, ‘association’ books, and autograph letters - typically purchased by the bundle from London dealers. His collecting later expanded into medieval manuscripts, early printing and the works of Dickens and Johnson.
Having donated his initial collection of Bibles to religious institutions in 1925, Reed next proposed the idea of eventually donating his book collection to the Dunedin Public Library. The City Librarian William Barker McEwan suggested that he display books in the Library, which Reed did anonymously, notably his large album of autograph letters, the pages of which were turned weekly. Reed had made a number of one-off book donations to the Library from the 1920s, and many of his books were lodged there on loan. By 1948, Reed was 72 and decided the time was right to donate the collection as he had for many years intended.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bibles formed a relatively small proportion of Reed’s original gift. However, by the time he wrote his Autobiography in 1967 Reed described his Bible collection as “in all probability the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Reed’s collecting was largely driven by his philanthropic nature and he desired to build a collection that could be handled and studied, not just admired from a distance. He continued to add to the collection, with the most fruitful period of acquisition – especially in terms of ‘high-point’ books and manuscripts - occurring during the 1950s and early 1960s. The Library has continued to build the collection since Reed’s death in 1975 through purchases and donations.
The current Reed Gallery exhibition showcases a range of items which were part of Reed’s original gift of 1948, including medieval manuscripts, biblical works, ‘association’ books, Dickensiana and other ‘books of unusual interest’ as Reed enigmatically described them. The exhibition prominently features examples of two of Reed’s notable hobbies which derived from his collecting: his hand-illuminated autograph letter albums, and extra-illustrated or ‘grangerized’ books.