State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 26 December 1980

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ADDRESS ON THE OPENING OF THE FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF BALLARAT EAST BY SIR REDMOND BARRY ON FRIDAY, 1st JANUARY, 1869

The foundation stone of the Free Public Library of Ballarat East was laid on 21 January 1867 on land granted by the Ballarat East Borough Council. The building was completed on 20 December 1868 and officially opened to the public on 1 January 1869 when there were 6000 volumes on the shelves.
In his speech at the formal opening Sir Redmond Barry addressed himself to the themes of self-education and improvement, the importance of free access to libraries and of free choice of reading matter. He also argued that native Australians should see themselves as heirs to the historical and literary traditions of Britain and expressed his hope for the eventual federation of the Australasian colonies as well as allowing himself a self-congratulatory statement of the importance and world-wide recognition of the Melbourne Public Library.
Barry's speech was printed by the Ballarat Star in 1869 but few copies are known to have survived, two of which are held in Barry collections in the La Trobe Library.

MR. MAYOR, LADIES, AND GENTLEMEN,

It is to me a source of unmixed pleasure, the enjoyment of which will not be limited to the fleeting hour, to have been honored with an invitation to assist to-day at the opening of your Free Public Library.
To have been associated with you, Mr. Mayor, and your respected colleagues of the Committee on the occasion of laying the foundation stone of this building was a compliment of which you may believe me to be ever duly sensible. To see your enterprising labors brought to completion in so short a time, in a style which contributes so satisfactorily to the architectural embellishment of your town; to be received in a chamber so spacious, so commodious, so well stored already with so many books, chosen with such creditable discrimination, is gratifying to me in the extreme. You will allow my thanks to precede my warmest congratulations.
In a town so pre-eminently remarkable for industrial vitality as Ballarat, where each day brings to light new projects, blazing forth enticing share lists in companies with limited liability for the exploration of exhaustless mines of incredible richness, this goodly assemblage betokens a healthful condition of the body politic …
When, therefore, on an occasion such as this, we can abstract our minds from the ledger and the desk and expatiate on things outside the verge of our immediate affairs, we may, by a natural train of reasoning, arrive at the conclusion that the promotion of an object such as this is one of the most useful forms of development which the well-directed in telligence of your community could assume. For there is perhaps no feature of society of the age in which we live more strongly marked than the great desire for knowledge of every kind which pervades all classes. The appetite for knowledge increases as it is partially gratified, and the gratification of it, instead of leading to satiety, makes it more voracious — yet more dainty, and ever clamorous for a higher order of food.
Happily for us, the controversy as to the expediency of confining learning to the rich, and the imprudence or impolicy of entrusting
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it to those in the humbler walks of life, supposed unable to understand or make a right use of it, is now closed — to the entire confusion of those prophets of evil consequences, which it was predicted must flow from educating the masses.
Many of use can recollect the lamentations of those alarmists of the old school, and it seems strange that the race of apostles of ignorance was not effectually silenced, and for ever, by the pregnant sentences of Archbishop Cranmer, uttered more than three hundred years ago … “if the gentleman's son be apt to learning, let him be admitted; if not apt, let the poor man's child that is apt enter in his room.”
If such admirable, such large-souled sentiments ought to regulate those to whom is confided the direction of the primary tuition of youth, are we to trammel by vexatious prohibitions, by restrictions expensive, cumbersome, and useless, the government of institutions like these, intended for men responsible in every sense to every agency recognised as affecting the society in which they move?
Nevertheless, there still linger in existence timid philanthropists, perpetually alarmed at the seductions, as they call them, from honest labor presented by public libraries, who condemn the freedom of admission, the honorable confidence reposed in readers, and lament the inducements to waste time in the perusal of unprofitable, trashy books.
We might meet the first objection by the sober enquiry if it be true? — if it be fact that men, who can readily earn from six to sixteen shillings a-day, are indeed such bibliomaniacs, — and whether they do throw up or avoid engagements from which they derive support for themselves and their wives and families (if they have any) to become such ill-timed students?
Now, if there ever were a country in which this objection is inapplicable, it is in this. The hours of labor reduced to eight, leave to artisans, tradesmen, and other dwellers in towns a vary large portion of the remainder of the twenty-four virtually unoccupied. The high rate of remuneration for every kind of labor places within the reach of all, means to indulge in the sensual excesses so destructive to health, strength, and reputation, temptations to which are so numerous on all sides.
How is this leisure to be disposed of? In the public-house? the singing hall? the dancing-saloon? which hold out seductions somewhat more dangerous, methinks, to honest labor than those presented by a library; or in listless inaction, in weary unoccupied solitude? That cannot be. While man is a social animal society he must have, and better a thousand times that he should seek relief from the tedium of unemployed hours in the improving conversation of worthy authors, dead or living, than in the debasing, brutalising communications from which it is so difficult otherwise to escape.
We may well rejoice, then, when we see a room such as this filled with attentive and reflective readers. And when we occasionally recognise at an unusual hour in the day-time the well known face of an habitual evening visitor, we may feel assured without inquisitive intrusion upon him for the cause that he can supply a reason which reflects upon him no kind of discredit as a deserter from his necessary avocation.
Respecting the freedom of admission, it seems not only one of the most unreasonable of objections, but singular enough to say, it is only to be heard of in this land of wide equality. Elsewhere it is made matter of astonishment and of envy that a people whose time is supposed by those ignorant of our real position to be altogether engrossed in the pursuit of wealth, relieved only by periodical political convulsions, can nevertheless expend £70,000 in the erection of a Free Library in its metropolis, and place 47,000 volumes of choice and valuable books at the disposal of 200,000 visitors in the course of one year. You will not object to hear the terms in which we are spoken of in a country the circumstances of which resemble in many particulars those by which we are surrounded. The extract is from the 15th annual report of the Mercantile Library Association of the City and County of San Francisco, California, 1868:-
“As a specimen of what a young population can do, we refer, almost enviously, to a catalogue lately received from the Melbourne Public Library. It is true that that establishment has a wealth created by
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government munificence; but an institution upon which, for building and books, the amount of over half a million of dollars has been expended during a period of ten years, in addition to all that single generosity and effort have performed, might well make us jealous of the reputation of our entire State for intelligent generosity.”
Some abuses of the privilege of free admission may be easily corrected by a firm adherence to your regulations. If your visitors will not qualify by a decent attention to their persons, by respect for the feelings of others in abstaining from habits which offend against delicacy; if they will not conform to the rules of behaviour prescribed for their comfort and convenience as well as of those around them, they cannot complain if they are excluded from these walls. If they disregard your right of property and steal your books let them be punished as they deserve to be; and let those who have the management of these institutions consider well whether they cannot devise some means of holding up to public reprobation, and of meeting out exemplary and ignominous chastisement to those guilty of a more insidious injury than open theft of a volume — those who cut out paragraphs, or articles from scientific works — no common men these — that they may earn some imaginary triumph in a newspaper correspondence by the exclusive possession of what has been gained through the disgraceful act of felonious plagiarism of double dye, — of the author's ideas, — and of the vehicle through which they are promulgated — who with a selfish meanness more dastardly still excise prints and illustrations from rare books, which it is impossible to replace here. Against such men, who have not the poor excuse of the hypocrite pretending poverty and extenuating his petty larceny under the subterfuge of the want of bread, it is most difficult to be prepared, however constant the vigilance.
Still, although a few representatives of this most disreputable and odious band of pilferers molest us occasionally, are all the honest and the true to suffer an abridgment of their just rights in consequence of indiscriminating suspicion including them in the criminal class? Let me presume to answer for you — emphatically No! — certainly not. The rigorous visitation of the law and the universal execration of all insulted by such conduct will suffice. Meanwhile let the innocent remain unscathed by the imputation.
The insinuation of the waste of time in the perusal of unprofitable, trashy books must be met also by the enquiry — What does the expression mean?
It is not to be presumed that those honored with the management of this institution could be so destitute of acquaintance with the calibre of mind of the public for whom they cater, as to allow its shelves to be occupied with such works. From my inspection of them, careful and scrutinizing, it may be confidently asserted that of the seven thousand volumes, the use of which is so liberally offered to the public, there is not one of an avowedly hurtful character, while very many of the highest order of useful literature are by their costliness altogether beyond the reach of the vast bulk of the reading population.
But why this indignant crusade against classes of works at the least harmless and entertaining, even though their aim may not openly be that of positive instruction in some particular branch of abstruse learning or favorite doctrine?
Men's minds are not cast in one mould — what charms one may repel another — nor is one man's mind at all times in the same frame. It will vary as the cloud of adversity lowers over him, or the sunshine of well-being smiles upon him. It will vary with the tone of his bodily health. Of the men who will avail themselves of the privilege of admission to this library many will have been educated at different schools, in different countries, under different habits of thought; many may be self-educated: all are not approachable through the direct avenue of cold, stern reason. Variety must therefore be provided. It is a question, moreover, whether the cause of religion itself, or temperance, or of any other virtue which it is desirable to inculcate through secular channels, can be most effectually promoted by tendering to all readers alike, under all circumstances, and at all seasons, works exclusively devoted to the treatment of those subjects and of none other.
Persons of wavering religious principles are not always to be captivated by a tract. Those who partake too freely of intoxicating drink are not usually allured by a Rechabite lecture.

6. Sir Redmond Barry, through the eyes of the caricaturist for the Weekly Times, 1873.

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Whereas works professedly on other topics which under the garb of fiction, narrative, or description, introduce sound doctrine, moral instruction, or persuasive argument may win the attention, and operate more powerfully on the mind of the materialist, the indifferent, the libertine, or the drunkard, than austere volumes for which, at the outset of their studies, their minds are not fully prepared.
With some it is customary to speak in disparaging terms of the cheap literature of the present day. Here, again, discernment is required, for it is only to Beotian dulness or to culpable prejudice that a sweeping condemnation of books of that nature can be ascribed.
A vindication of the merits of (what are termed) “popular works” is not called for now, but the zenith and the nadir are not more far apart than the vile trash and ribald effusions given forth by those who trade upon the ignorance and licentious propensities of the vulgar — be they rich or poor — and the books carefully prepared with a sacred regard for the moral edification, as well as the material instruction of the people
Why, then, this insatiable desire for superintending the studies of our guests? The majority of mankind will not become painful students, and are we to attempt to make them all philosophers?
There must be hours of relaxation; these must be recruited by what relieves the mind from the sterm exactions of business. Prurient tempers may skulk to gloat in private, unobserved, over base and inpure thoughts perpetuated by a prostitution of the talents destined one might imagine for a more decent use — but those who come here to read their own books, provided for them by the prudent dispensers of public funds, require no screen to hide their studies from the broad daylight of the public gaze. Are they then to be dragooned into a formal course of compulsory self-improvement? Books free from demoralising or dangerous principles are supplied, let them be used without interference or dictation.
In physical life nature displays a marvellous faculty for assimilation of what is wholesome and nutritive, and for the rejection of what is baneful to the system. There are few well regulated minds in which a similar compensating principle is not to be found.Though it be doubtless true that people cannot be much wiser or better by acquiring a vague superficial smattering of knowledge, we may give our readers credit for common-sense, — we may rest assured that they will not select for study what they cannot understand. What you have collected for them here will do no harm, and, unless their perceptions be woefully blunted and perverted, must do them good.
What, however, may be asked is sought by you beyond making provision for the recreation, or self-imposed instruction, be it light or grave, as caprice may affect them, of those who may frequent this hall.
Your aspirations must be seriously misapprehended if it be assumed that no higher motive be yours than that of entering into sentimental opposition with a gin-palace.
This work which you have engaged in should be acknowledged to be a philosophic recognition, and a faithful discharge of that obligation which not merely binds those who may be permitted to move for a few more short years within the direct influences of this institution, but which links the past with the present, the present with the future, and completes the chain of eternal time.
It is a trite saying, that Australia has no history.
Whether uttered in disparagement or commiseration is immaterial, for in either sense it is equally unsound. It disregards the principles which should make the history of man embrace all common to humanity, and dwarfs it to the dimensions of a parish register …
Are we to be divorced from all that connects us with the countries from which we have come? True indeed it is that in contrast with other parts of the earth the darkness of unillumined human intellect may have brooded over this fair continent for an unusually long time, still history consists not of years or centuries, of Olympiads or Lustrums, but of events. That of our connexion with this land is not without its special interest.
The history of other peoples has its eras of tedious infancy, insecure youth, wanton manhood, and helpless old age. In certain periods, when the evil passions of mankind have been predominant, history has been, — alas, too often! — stained with long accounts of desolating wars, undertaken either
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to enslave other nations, to tread out the embers of freedom, to gratify a lust for power, or to feed the appetite of bigotry, intolerance, or pride. Fortunately for us the pages of ours are as yet unsullied by such records. But when the kindlier elements of a divine nature have been in the ascendant these have produced results which are perennial, imperishable, nay, reproductive, expanding into a growth which adapts itself to all ages, to every clime, to every new association of the human family.
And uniting in a population so composite as is ours the qualities, the memories, the traditions — not of a single people, but of all which represent civilisation; formed, like that of Great Britain itself, of the sons of many soils, it may be said without presumption that we have come into the possession of our estate in the full vigor of matured manhood, with, for our guidance, all the material advantages which the ripe experience of other nations in affairs social, commercial, scientific, practical, affords; and for our inheritance, all which in religion, charity, literature, and the arts cultivates, refines, and gives dignity to man.
Have we not, then, a smile for such commiseration?
In the migrations of ancient times the household gods and the statues of heroes accompanied the adventurous wanderers. The Greek of Asia, of Africa, of Sicily, of Naples, of Marseilles bethought him with a patriotic glow of his Homer, his Aeschylus, Miltiades, Aristides, Phidias, or Zeuxis. The Roman of Gaul, of Germany, of Spain, of Britain, looked back with equal delight on his simple and hardy predecessors who had scorned the yoke of kingly tyranny, and raised to its proud preeminence the power of the commonwealth.
So in like manner our new compatriots, who enjoy with us the same freedom, engage themselves in the same toils, who are affected by the like trials, touched by the like sympathies, have brought with them the revered names of their illustrious men, now common to us all alike, to be enshrined amongst us with our Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, and the other countless men who have rendered Britain glorious.
We may now have visibly before us the noble acts of patriotism, heroism, piety, and virtue, not of the narrow area of our own Britain — fertile as it is in great names — but those which adorn the history of all lands represented amongst us. We may disown a heritage in the deeds of oppression, cruelty, and crime, which, local in their influences, may be relegated to the spots in which they were enacted, and claim a purer, holier endowment in the love of freedom, of order, and self-respect — in all that is exalted, great and good which antiquity has bequeathed to us.
And where can the testimony of these virtues be preserved more suitably than in Public Libraries, free of access to all who esteem such recollections, who desire that their minds may be refreshed and their principles confirmed by intercourse with the great examplars… . And in which the copious stores of accumulated instruction which modern ingenuity, sagacity and discernment give to the world almost daily, find an appropriate place.
Of the present, it behoves us to speak with diffidence and modesty. Voluntary immigration has, within the brief space of the third part of allotted human existence, drawn together the majority of our population to these shores, retaining still the fondest affection for the scenes and associations of our youthful days, but undepressed by the craving heart-sickness which weighs down the spirit and unnerves the energy of the exile.
We are assembled in a country rich in all to encourage and reward industry — all that can make life useful and respected — all that, under the direction of a wise and just Providence, can render man grateful, obedient, and contented …
The opportunities presented to enterprise and continuously sustained exertion have not been disregarded; of this ample proofs are given on all hands. The activity displayed in our harbors and towns, in the conduct of rural operations of every description, crowned this year with an abundance unexpected, — the opening of new branches of manufacturing industry, establish this to demonstration. But most conspicuously is it seen in your wealthy and flourishing city.
As far, then, as material progress and success are represented by our labors, we may without unseemly ostentation compare ourselves with the other hardy children which Britain, the mother of nations, cherishes in her bosom, or gives to reproduce her greatness in her out-lying possessions in the remote
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corners of the earth. How far we are redeeming the pledges imposed on us by the opportunities which prosperity creates, and fulfilling the missions which each in his sphere of duty has to fulfil, is not for me to say. Beyond secular and temporal matters, it is not my province to lead you; but what a field does the subject of education embrace? The vista through which the eye is led, from the hour of lisping infancy to that of adolescence, is broken by many an object which the solicitude of parents and relations has caused to intervene. These have each their several uses, but they are overleaped, and the scene is closed by the edifice which crowns the view. The Hall in which the people combine to lay up stores of intellectual wealth, not provided for the amusement of amateurs and dilletanti, but of which all are invited freely to partake. If it may be recorded of this generation that it provided means of education for the middle-aged and the old, as well as for the young, it will have acquitted itself of one of the most burthensome debts which it owes to posterity …
Of the future it is not given to man to speak with certainty, yet the least observant cannot fail to be struck with the necessity to prepare for changes to come. Already, not far from two millions of European descent are scattered, literally broadcast, over Australasia. When community of interest and of feeling shall have welded these separate provinces into a confederation like the “Dominion of Canada”, bolder views of internal as well as of relative and mutual duties must be taken. What has been achieved by your generous perseverance — not yet accomplished in any ancient cities in Great Britain — may impose an obligation to emulate you and imitate elsewhere around us what you have done.
Then will be acknowledged the undeniable truths, that the education of man virtually begins when he arrives at manhood; that, however well he may have been prepared by initiatory training, it is when forced to wrestle daily with his fellow men in business, in a profession, or in public affairs, that the value of that training, the weight and influence of his integrity and force of character will be tested; that to win eminence he must ever continue a patient and untiring student; and that to enable him to pursue efficiently that course in countries the circumstances affecting which must for some time be anomalous, Institutions of this kind must be multiplied.
It does not become me to detain you longer from participation in the festivities appointed for this auspicious day. The year 1868 has closed happily upon you. 1869 opens well. In the forefront of the good deeds calculated to make it memorable is the inauguration of your Free Public Library. Let me ask you to join me in hoping that in its establishment and administration you may realise the fullest measure of expected benefits and blessings, and beg that you will accept from me for yourselves my respectful good wishes.