Charles Wilson was the first chief librarian of the General Assembly Library. He oversaw the library's move into its new ‘fireproof’ building in 1901 and saw that the contents of the library were successfully evacuated during the parliamentary fire of 1907.
Wilson was also intimately involved in the transfer of Alexander Turnbull's collection to the government, and was subsequently appointed to supervise the development of the Alexander Turnbull Library.
Charles Wilson was born in Harrogate in Yorkshire, England, in 1857 and attended Harrogate College and Oxford. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1879, and for a number of years worked as a schoolteacher, including as assistant master at Te Aro School and master at Wanganui Collegiate School. During the 1880s he edited newspapers in various parts of the North Island, including Wanganui and Hawke's Bay. In the early 1890s he became editor of the Liberal New Zealand Mail, a position he held for approximately 10 years. He was elected to Parliament as the Liberal candidate for Wellington Suburbs in April 1897, but did not stand for re-election in 1899.
In 1901 he was appointed as the first chief librarian of the General Assembly Library. In his book Parliament's Library, historian John E. Martin notes that Wilson's appointment to this ‘highly desirable position’ was a ‘reward’ for his loyal service to the Liberal party. The appointment received some criticism at the time - some had been in favour of appointing a librarian from Britain, while others supported H.L. James, the library's long-serving, albeit de facto, librarian.
One of Wilson's first activities as chief librarian was to oversee the library's move into its new ‘fireproof’ building beside the ‘tinder dry’ Parliament Buildings. He remained concerned about the fire risk posed by the adjoining buildings, later arranging for fireproof shutters and iron doors to be installed where the library abutted them, and for windows at the rear of the library to be bricked up. He was right to be concerned. In December 1907 a fire swept through Parliament Buildings and spread to the roof of the library. On learning of the danger Wilson enlisted the assistance of staff and the public to clear the library. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of the firefighters and its fireproof design the library building survived, though the main entrance and foyer were damaged.
The remainder of Wilson's tenure as chief librarian was not marked by such dramatic events. According to Martin, he saw his role ‘in traditional terms, with an emphasis on book selection'. A well-known book collector with a substantial private library, he relished expanding the library's holdings. Perhaps a more significant moment to him than the 1907 fire was the news in 1918 that the late Alexander Turnbull had bequeathed his extensive collection to the nation. Wilson was intimately involved in the collection's transfer to the government, and was subsequently appointed to supervise the development of the Alexander Turnbull Library.
In 1926, following illness, Wilson retired as chief librarian of and advisory director to the Alexander Turnbull Library. He died in February 1932.
By Imelda Bargas
- Library disasters (NZHistory.net.nz)
- John E. Martin, Parliament's Library 150 Years, Steele Roberts Publishers in Association with Dunmore Publishing, Wellington, 2008.