Parliamentary Library (Photo: Claire Mabey, spooky design: Tina Tiller)
Parliamentary Library (Photo: Claire Mabey, spooky design: Tina Tiller)

BooksApril 4, 2024

Ghosts, gargoyles and a mystery box: What’s inside our Parliamentary Library?

Parliamentary Library (Photo: Claire Mabey, spooky design: Tina Tiller)
Parliamentary Library (Photo: Claire Mabey, spooky design: Tina Tiller)

Claire Mabey gets a tour of parliament’s library from senior librarian Bridget Rae, and discovers a wealth of fun facts – from the spooky to the serious.

Parliamentary Library is about as quirky as they come. It isn’t really there for the general public (though we can make appointments to view library materials), but exists to help members of parliament, their staff and all other parliamentary types. It’s also the oldest building at parliament, and as such is a curious blend of the functional and the peculiar.

Here’s some of the most fascinating facts and observations about the building and what’s inside – including a list of the most borrowed books from 2023 and 2024 (so far).

It’s not a church

Apparently many passers-by assume that the ornate, pinkish building with the sweeping marble-ish stairs on parliament’s grounds is a church. No offence to the holy family, but this library is a lot more exciting. Welcome to the Parliamentary Library building, commissioned by Premier Seddon in 1897 and designed by Thomas Turnbull in the gothic revival style (defined by medieval-esque features like sweeping arches, flourishes, and gargoyles (see below)).

There’s a gargoyle

You don’t even need to go through the large, fancy green doors to see this one just scoot around the side of the building furthest from the Beehive and walk along, hugging the side of the library, until you see a man’s face pushing through the paint on the side of the wall, a bit above head height. This, the gargoyle of Parliamentary Library, is the mug of one Roy Wilson, who was the lead architect of the refurbishment in the 1990s.

The Gargoyle of Parliamentary Library (Photo: Claire Mabey)

There’s also ghosts

Over the years security guards have been properly spooked by strange thuds in the library’s basement at night. One story involves a cleaner who claims to have seen an apparition of a woman in a white dress with puffed sleeves and long red hair, hanging about in the library’s bathrooms on level two. They were apparently so upset that they refused to work in the library after that. (Sounds like someone has been reading too much Anne of Green Gables and/or Harry Potter.)

The oldest book is from 1675 and it’s in great nick

Way down deep in the dungeon/basement of the library is a little room (which we will call the chamber of secrets from here on in) full of books and ephemera that are too delicate for ad hoc manhandling. The oldest books in the library can be found here, in a box. I didn’t even have to put on gloves to get my mitts all over The Ancient Method and Manner of Holding Parliaments in England, published in 1675 (the same year that King Charles II of England suspended parliament nine weeks when the members refused to vote for additional funding to him).

They really knew how to do hardy, thick parchment back then. I expected the pages of The Ancient Method to crumble under my fingers but I needn’t have worried: it’s paper-cuttingly sturdy stock, though it did not help me understand a word of the opening paragraph: “Sir, See the effect of your Commands, The want of Time, of Books, and Assistance in this my Retirement, make me very incapable of the Undertaking; But my Obedience and Performance with a Kid, will I hope be accepted, when I cannot sacrifice an hundred Bulls.”

We might well have had approximately 23 additional very old books had it not been for the thief. In 1978 it was discovered that a part-time library assistant had stolen 23 rare books to sell in London. Unfortunately for the thief he was caught and had to serve six months in prison, and all the books were returned, but transferred to the Turnbull Library instead.

The oldest book in the Parliamentary Library

There’s a mysterious box that says ‘Embargoed until 2030’

Also in the chamber of secrets is a box with an A3 printed sign taped onto it that reads “Embargoed until 2030”. The box looks like it has been taped up by someone who had to frantically make it look like they hadn’t just opened it up to have a little tiny look inside. I tried to argue that a peek wouldn’t hurt, but rest assured our Parliamentary Library staff are extremely professional and wouldn’t hear of it. So mark your calendars on 1 January 2030: “box opening at Parliamentary Library”.

What the hell is in this box? We have to wait six years to find out.

Katherine Mansfield started writing a novel here…

The Parliamentary Library started off in 1856 as a storage cupboard in the General Assembly building in Auckland and was for “gentlemen” only. But when the library shifted down to Wellington in 1865 the library grew, and in 1870 was opened to members of the public who had a recommendation from an MP, including women.

Enter Katherine Mansfield. You can just imagine the young writer sifting around in the gothic atmosphere, reclining on the leather couches. In a letter she wrote: “I have been spending days at the Library reading and writing a novel – entitled The Youth of Rewa – it is very much in embryo just at present”.

…but fiction is now a relic

If you’re looking for the latest Lee Child, or Marian Keyes, or Pip Adam, or Whiti Hereaka, or Patricia Grace, don’t go looking among the latest release shelves of the Parliamentary Library – this is a nonfiction only zone. I couldn’t quite disguise my dismay upon hearing this news, and asked many probing questions to find out why our MPs must miss out on the truths contained in imaginative capacities. Sounds lofty but actually I really mean it – fiction can point to truths that nonfiction just can’t. Metaphors are powerful; so are fables, and character studies and allegories. Pip Adam’s sci-fi novel Audition is a contemplation of incarceration and the flaws inherent in our justice system; Monty Soutar’s trilogy is a way to immerse in Aotearoa’s pre-Colonial history; Coco Solid’s How to Loiter in a Turf War is about gentrification; Whiti Hereaka’s Kurangaituku tells foundational truths about women’s lives, and language, and shows how pūrākau calls across time.

But in 2014 (the year The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton won the NZ Post Book award for fiction) the Parliamentary Library decided the fiction collection didn’t support the work of parliament and so gave the novels and the poetry away to other New Zealand libraries. It’s a far cry from 1958 when The NZ Truth ran an article in response to New Zealand’s first female cabinet minister, Mabel Howard, who claimed that “19 out of 20 books in the library are murder stories”, and that she herself liked “ghost stories and tender romance”.

Now the only signs of fiction are literal signs, relics of a more imaginative past stashed down in the chambers of secrets.

Fiction: officially on the shelf

It has probably the best signage of any library

Speaking of signs though. Parliamentary Library features some of the very best signage I’ve ever seen: from the sublime to the ridiculous. My favourite was the Dune-inspired warning in the basement / chamber of secrets:

There are some nice historical artefacts from the 1990s too

In one of the chambers of secrets was a shed ton of Croxley envelopes and a beautiful big transistor radio that looked straight out of the set of The Goonies.

Other artefacts include VHS, and the historic wooden card file system with some amazing actual handwriting and little wooden drawers. There is nothing that makes you feel more from “the future” than marvelling at human handwriting and just how people managed to archive stuff without the internet, with just paper and pens. There is also, in the reading room, a very impressive set of shelves  for community newspapers – only it’s completely empty now.

Artefacts from the 90s

Planking: not just a social media fad

At first I didn’t notice the short black and yellow planks on the floor beside the chunky sliding shelves in the basement. But then Bridget pointed them out and explained that if we wanted to walk down between the shelves we’d need to place a plank between them – so that if there was an earthquake we wouldn’t get squashed.

It’s a bookish sort’s dream work environment

Most of the librarians work in an open plan, two-storey room with spiral staircases, lush carpets, and shelves upon shelves of leathery books (which turned out to be Hansard).

Left to right: the earthquake safety planks; and the really, really lovely office / library.

Beautiful tiles, massive photocopiers

The tiles in the Parliamentary Library are just beautiful: Instagram-worthy, even. I especially loved the effect of the tiles, with stained glass windows and chandeliers, and two huge photocopiers that look like they come from the Death Star.

The toilets are the oldest part of the building (and they smell it)

The men’s toilets near the gargoyle are the oldest part of the building and they are quite grand, with elegant urinals which are clearly still in use.

Tiles, tiles, tiles. Toilets. Photocopiers!

There is Book Art

Parliament has a famously great collection of New Zealand art and some of it is in the reading room at the library. My favourite one was Alan Wehipeihana and Daryl Gray’s piece called Poutama, made from book covers, wood and glue.

There is someone with the title ‘New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary’

I had no idea what or who this is but the New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary has their own office and their own green and gold sign.

Left to right: book art and impressive job title.

The most overdue books were returned over 100 years late

In 1899 Mackay John Scobie Mackenzie, an MP for the Mount Ida and City of Dunedin electorates, got out The Constitution of the United States and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley. They were not returned until one of Scobie Mackenzie’s relatives took them back in 2010.

And the most borrowed books of 2023 and 2024 are…

Obviously we’re not going to see any fiction here, but some fascinating insights nonetheless.


The Drinking Game: how big business, the media and politicians shape the way you drink by Guyon Espiner (Allen & Unwin NZ)
On the Record by Steven Joyce (Allen & Unwin NZ)
Overreach: the inside story of Putin’s war against Ukraine by Owen Matthews (HarperCollins)
Fear: New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists by Byron C. Clark (HarperCollins NZ)
Yes, Minister by Chris Finlayson (Allen & Unwin NZ)
Matangireia: a space for Māori in parliament, a centenary history of the former Māori Affairs Committee Room, edited by Ellen Andersen (Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga)
Tikanga: an introduction to te ao Māori by Keri Opai (Upstart Press)
Empire City: Wellington becomes the capital of New Zealand by John E. Martin (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Blue Blood: the inside story of the National Party in crisis by Andrea Vance (HarperCollins NZ)
How Big Things Get Done: the surprising factors behind every successful project, from home renovations to space exploration by Bent Flyvbjerg with Dan Gardner (Pan Macmillan)

2024 (so far)

Machines Behaving Badly: the morality of AI by Toby Walsh (Black Inc.)
An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific essays by Damon Salesa (BWB)
Making Laws That Work: how laws fail and how we can do better by David Goddard (Bloomsbury)
Blood and Dirt: prison labour and the making of New Zealand by Jared Davidson (BWB)
How not to be a politician: a memoir by Rory Stewart (Penguin)
Under the Weather: a future forecast for New Zealand by James Renwick (HarperCollins NZ)
Technofeudalism: what killed capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis (Penguin)
Cult Trip: inside the world of coercion and control by Anke Richter (HarperCollins NZ)
The Future of Geography: how the competition in space will change our world by Tim Marshall (Simon & Schuster)
Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist by Kate Raworth (Penguin)

Keep going!