8 Aug 2018

Treasures from the Research Room - Buller's Birds



The Research Room at Elma Turner Library is a treasure trove of beautiful books and invaluable information about the Nelson region, and New Zealand. It contains a number of collections – the primary ones being the Nelson, New Zealand and Māori heritage collections, but you will also find historic Government and Local Government publications, Geological Surveys, maps and more.

This is the first of a series of posts about some of the treasures in the Room, and it starts with one of my favourite books in the New Zealand Heritage Collection – a collection which contains some beautiful old books about New Zealand, many dating from the early Nelson Institute Library.

A history of the birds of New Zealand by Walter Buller

This iconic publication actually comes in a number of forms in this library. The first edition was published in 1872 and caused a sensation in New Zealand and across the world (even exciting the likes of Charles Darwin) – “the most splendid bird books ever published by a colonial naturalist”. This edition soon sold out. To fill the gap Buller published a smaller “Manual of the birds of New Zealand” in 1882. A copy of this is held in our Research Room, and in its fragile state and with a limited number of colour plates, it is an indication of the glory of the expanded second edition to come.

The real treasure of the Research Room is this second edition. Published in 1887 in two volumes, and originally priced at 10 guineas, it is both a beautiful object as well as a text which provides an essential record of bird life in New Zealand. The most significant impact was, however, not made by the text, but by the series of colour plates created by the young Dutch artist J.G.Keulemans, painted from specimens sent to him in Europe by Buller. It is these images which have been endlessly reproduced over the years. Seeing them in their original form is breathtaking – and with care, you can do this.

We do have other editions of Buller’s Birds in our collection – a supplement published in 1905 in two volumes by Buller, and illustrated by Keulemans; a new edition published in 1967 by Whitcombe and Tombs and more recently a splendid new edition with new foreword and introduction by Te Papa Press in 2012. All are in the Research Room. It is fascinating to compare the prints in the different editions, particularly the colour and tone, or simply delight information, and the images which almost bring the birds back to life.

Nelson Public Libraries is fortunate to have such treasures. Seek them out.