A collection of 15th and 16th-century books, some printed within 25 years of the Gutenberg Bible, have been donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.
Some of the 20 books contain handwritten annotations that curator Anthony Tedeschi hopes could reveal hidden histories and forgotten stories recorded nowhere else.
Valued at almost $200,000, the collection was bequeathed by John Barton, of New Plymouth, who named it the Dalberton Library.
Another volume, a history of the world by 15th-century archbishop Antoninus of Florence, is one of only eight known copies globally.
Tedeschi said the books were mainly works of theology, Latin classical texts, and astrology written in Latin and German.
One, cataloguing the lives of saints, contained pages of neatly written notes in the margins – which it was hoped could reveal hitherto unknown facts or stories about the saints.
“The writer seems particularly interested in the lives of female saints,” Tedeschi said.
“They could be additional notes on the subjects or commentary. I’m not sure yet.”
Barton was born in England in the 1930s, and moved to New Zealand in the 1950s.
He worked primarily as a radiographer in Taranaki for 20 years, and then took up a position at a book shop in New Plymouth, where he lived until retirement.
“According to his widow, he caught the collecting bug quite early,” Tedeschi said. “He bought his first single-leaf from an early-printed book when he was a teenager – so a long history of collecting.”
The donation of the books followed an unsolicited email from Barton’s widow. “It’s a marvellous example of public benefaction.”
The Gutenberg Bible, published in the 1450s, was the first book printed in the West using moveable metal type. The new additions increase the Turnbull’s collection of books from the era by roughly a fifth.
Tedeschi said that, to truly appreciate the books, it was necessary to understand the effort that would have gone into creating them.
“Authors don’t write books; authors write manuscripts. A group of people made a book. You have your paper-maker, your type-cutters and setters and correctors, a whole industry [existed] around these objects.
“They don’t exist in a vacuum here and now. These books were made through hard labour.”
Delicate coloured letters and small illustrations at the start of chapters and verses testify to this, all of which would have been added by hand by rubricators post-printing.
The condition of the collection is excellent, and Tedeschi said the books would be kept in a climate-controlled environment to ensure excess moisture or temperatures did not damage the pages.
Sophie Barton said her father had an intense love of old books and their writers.
“He liked the little things like notes in the sides, or a cat that had walked across the ink and left a paw print.
“He started seeing books as very precious because he grew up in England during World War II and paper was really hard to come by for a while, so he would copy books out into his exercise books.”
She said her father wanted the books donated to the National Library because he knew that was where they would be safest.
The John Barton Collection will be available to view from July.