State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 47 & 48 1991



In 1991 the Friends of the State Library of Victoria celebrated its 25th anniversary. It may be of interest to reflect on its beginnings and its achievements. Some mention will be made of significant items in the Library's holdings as well as important works which the Friends have donated, or have persuaded others to present to it.
On 16 November 1966 an inaugural meeting was held in the Manuscripts room of the La Trobe Library, to discuss the formation of a Friends group to support it. More than fifty people attended and many apologies and goodwill messages were received. It was a thoroughly representative gathering of scholars, librarians and readers. Professor A.G.L. Shaw, who had convened the meeting, explained that Dr Geoffrey Serle had called a gathering at Monash University on 5 August 1965, when the newly appointed La Trobe Librarian, Miss Patricia Reynolds, had outlined the Library's situation and its current needs. Dr Serle had circulated a memorandum wherein he considered that the principal aims of a support group were: to attract donations of cash, books and manuscripts, and to help to locate and negotiate with potential donors of significant material. Secondary aims were publicity, production of a bulletin and technical advice. Geoff Serle was to serve as the first Secretary, first Editor and later as President and Vice-President. His action in 1965 had sparked off the November 1966 meeting.
At the November meeting, Professor A. W. Martin had moved ‘that an association, under the name of the Friends of the La Trobe Library be formed’. This was seconded by Dr Wallace Kirsop, and the motion was carried unanimously. The office-bearers were then elected. Professors Shaw and Martin being unable to assume the office of President, Mr Tristan Buesst was elected unopposed. He had served as President of the National Gallery Society and was Vice-President of the National Trust. He later gave the Library some significant historical paintings and 200 volumes of early Australian navigators and explorers in various foreign tongues. These were choicely bound by Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London. He left a handsome bequest to the Library Council. Mrs Margaret Carnegie became Vice-President, Dr Geoffrey Serle Honorary Secretary and Dr Ian Turner briefly served as Treasurer. The Committee comprised: Mrs E. W. Tipping, Professor A. W. Martin, the Hon. Sam Merrifield, M.L.C., and Messrs Weston Bate, Ivo Hammet and Clive Turnbull. After discussion, Sir Arthur Dean moved and Mr R. Serle seconded the adoption of the draft constitution. This was carried, subject to a minor amendment by Dr Stephen Murray-Smith. At the first Annual General Meeting on 3 April 1967, it was revealed that 40 members had joined, while $400 had been donated. Mr Sam Wood was elected Treasurer, an office that he was to fill with distinction for 22 years.
There had been an earlier supportive group. This was the Public Library Society of Victoria, founded in 1951 by Percival Serle, Geoffrey's father. It consisted of the leading book collectors and was a somewhat exclusive body. It helped to acquire several works and mounted an exhibition of its members’ rare books. One member, J. K. Moir, proved to be an outstanding friend to the Library. He gave it his own unique Australiana collection. The Friends committee still meets in the room holding his library.
Percival Serle, in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in June 1924, had outlined the difficulties facing Australian scholars on subjects like Samuel Johnson and Christopher Smart. He appealed for early English editions to be donated to Australian libraries. Serle had privately printed a limited edition of Smart's A Song to David, in 1923. The letter drew an immediate response from the scholar R. W. Chapman, who was Secretary of the Oxford University Press. For £10, he offered to select some useful eighteenth-century books for the Melbourne Library. As the Library could not supply the money, Serle and a Mend, J. M. Kerr, who had earlier worked in the Library, remitted this amount themselves. In due course forty-two volumes were received from Chapman. Other libraries also benefited from Serle's initiative. The Library Trustees eventually recognised Percival Serle's great
support over the years by appointing him its Honorary Bibliographer. He later gave it a splendid collection of Australian poetry he had used in compiling both his Bibliography (1925) and Anthology (1927) of Australasian verse.
On Geoff Serle's initiative, the La Trobe Library Journal was established in April 1968, with himself as editor. The first two numbers contained lists of source material relating to Victorian history for the period 1850–1900. It could well be revised to include the many significant books and theses that have been produced in the intervening years. The Journal publishes important contributions on unique material within the Library's collections. An important feature is the listing of manuscripts and visual items acquired by the Library. Special issues, each on a particular theme, have been published, generally under a guest editor. Editors who followed Serle were John Thompson, Paul Macpherson and Tony Marshall, each from the Manuscripts Collection, followed by Dr Mimi Colligan. The Friends are greatly indebted to them for their valued input.
From its opening day in 1856, the Library has been active in acquiring material relating to Australia and the Pacific, as well as other works. In that year it purchased a set of John Gould's Birds of Australia for £140. Many other choice and significant works have been acquired by purchase or donation. The Government grant to the institution has never been sufficient, and hence the need to look to friends (with a capital or small ‘f’) for assistance, if it is to hold its place as the major library in Victoria and one of Australia's great repositories.
Since 1869 the Library, under the Copyright Act, has been entitled to receive a copy of every book, pamphlet and newspaper published in Victoria. Its collection of Australian newspapers is the greatest in the world.
The first printing in what is now Victoria, took place under a gum tree on the beach at the present-day township of Sorrento. Daily from 16 October 1803 to 27 January 1804, where Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins had his camp, two convicts printed his General Orders and Routine Orders. The La Trobe Library does not possess these Victorian incunables, but would be thrilled to hear from anyone who may have them. They are a vital part of Victoria's heritage.
The State Library is one of the few institutions to collect ephemera. It commenced when F. J. Riley and Sam Merrifield gave their personal collections, both of which contained important political and social material. They consisted of circulars, brochures, notices and other fugitive matter of much interest to historians. Collection boxes for such items are strategically placed within the Library.
In the Journal for October 1969, the editor Geoff Serle, expressed great disappointment at the way in which the Library had been treated in the current State Budget. The staff shortage, he protested, made little more than a holding position possible. In October 1971 our same editor was able to report much better news: ‘It is most pleasant to be able to record that the State Library has been provided with 27 new positions, (18 librarians and nine attendants)’. The Friends wrote to the Chief Secretary, congratulating him for his ‘grand gesture of support’. Serle also deplored the loss in early days when the families of public figures such as James Service, Berry, Stawell, O'Shanassy, McCulloch, Shiels, Irvine, Peacock and Watt destroyed their forebears’ papers.
In 1969, the Friends, through the generosity of the Sidney Myer, Ian Potter and Sunshine Foundations, arranged for the funding of a Manuscripts Field Officer to be attached to the La Trobe Library for one, and possibly two, years. Patsy Adam-Smith was the first incumbent, assuming duties in January 1970. Her task was to locate family papers, diaries and correspondence held privately, as well as institutional records of importance to Victorian and Australian history, and to endeavour to acquire or photocopy this material. So successful was she that the Government made it a permanent staff position. Patsy Hardy and Tom Griffiths who followed her, each made a significant contribution to the La Trobe holdings. The position was later broadened to embrace the entire Library.
In 1971 the Friends received a grant from the William Angliss Charitable Fund. This was in response to a plea for much-needed equipment to establish a Conservation laboratory. Philanthropic trusts, via the Friends, have generously assisted the Library. So too, have countless individuals, with their gifts of material or funds. The Library regularly holds a
Christmas Party to recognise their great generosity. Dating from die 1850s, the Historical Picture Collection has been developed until it currently holds more than 600,000 items; it is the oldest visual collection in Australia. There are oil paintings, watercolours, etchings, photographs, black and white drawings, cartoons, statues and postcards. Since 1965 it has been a separate department of the La Trobe Library. Shar Jones and her successor, Christine Downer, have greatly promoted the holdings in recent years. It is now developing a collection depicting twentieth-century life in pictures, but earlier periods are not being forgotten. In 1869 the Trustees commissioned S. T. Gill to execute forty watercolour drawings of life on the goldfields. These are in an album with a hand-painted title page.
With the assistance of the Ian Potter Foundation and a contribution from their own funds, the Friends in 1967 made their first gift to the Historical Picture Collection. It was a portrait in oils of William Buckley the Wild White Man, unsigned and undated. Research by Mrs Marjorie Tipping showed the artist to be Ludwig Becker. When a major collection of nineteenth-century illustrated Australian newspapers came up for auction, it was felt that the price would be beyond the Library's resources. It was then arranged for the State Library and the Baillieu Library to go fifty-fifty and if successful, divide the collection. Each found $20,000 and they secured the bound volumes for Victoria. The libraries are in reasonable proximity to each other. A generous donation from the Ross Trust enabled the newspapers to be photocopied.
The Journal for April 1978 contained a significant contribution by the editor, John Thompson, the then Manuscripts Librarian. It dealt with the growth, development and future prospects of the Australian Manuscripts Collection in the Library. From small beginnings in the 1870s it slowly developed. In 1956 Miss Clarice Kemp became the first librarian, a part-time position. It was later made a full-time post and progress was rapid. Many important collections of papers were acquired and today it is a major research centre. Substantial growth has continued under Miss Kemp's successors, John Thompson, Paul Macpherson and Tony Marshall. The Friends’ Papers are now in the collection. John Thompson concluded his article by stating:
The Australian Manuscripts Collection is now well-established and far better able than at any point in the past to discharge its responsibility to Victorians by preserving and making available the documentary records which form a part of the heritage of all of us. In turn, it may be said that Victorians have a responsibility to see that collections of this kind are augmented, nurtured and enriched and that an adequate measure of support is extended to allow the Library to discharge its responsibilities as effectively as possible.
A prominent Melbourne collector, Dr John Chapman, in 1988 obtained a manuscript work of major importance to Victorian history. It comprised a series of petitions from the various goldfields, addressed to Governor La Trobe and pleading for a reduced licence fee, the right to vote and to own land, and better law and order. They were sent to Melbourne and on being put together, the petition was presented to La Trobe. Although the miners’ demands were not met, the document is most important. Dr Chapman gave it to the Library. Found on a rubbish tip in good condition, it is thirteen metres long and contains approximately 6,000 signatures.
Professor Alan Shaw, when President in 1981, sent a circular letter to members, appealing for funds to enable the early Victorian directories to be put on microfiche. They could then be read or purchased at the Library, where the volumes on the shelves were suffering from incessant use. The sum of $610 was needed to process the Bailliere directories. The Friends’ funds were low, as it was the end of their financial year. Within three weeks the Appeal had brought in $ 1,110. This was used to market successfully the Bailliere directories on microfiche, to be followed by the Wise directories. The Sands and Kenny, Sands and McDougall and early Port Phillip directories which then followed on microfiche were also in demand. Thus a run of Victorian directories covering the important colonial period from 1839 to 1900 was made available to a wide readership. Profits generated from this venture were ploughed back into other useful projects. On one occasion the Friends provided bridging finance
to enable important genealogical material to be put on microfiche.
There has been a marked increase in membership in recent years, due to John Arnold's recruiting drive. Membership is no w 450. In 1984 the Friends of the La Trobe Library decided to work for the complete institution and changed their name to Friends of the State Library of Victoria. Five years later, for legal reasons, they added the word ‘Incorporated’ to their title. In one year alone — 1986 — the Friends raised $40,000 for the Library. In 1951, before it was established, the foundation stone of the La Trobe Library was laid by the Premier of the day. Years later, the Chairman of the Library Council, the late Sir Irving Benson commented on ‘this poor, lonely foundation stone, looking for a building’.
It was not until 1965 when a building was added to the stone that the La Trobe Library came into being. Much has been done, but much remains to be done. Serious shortages in the collections, staff and equipment must be filled. The building plan must go ahead.
The Friends’ work could not have been accomplished without the loyal support of the State Library staff. This applies especially to the successive La Trobe Librarians, Patricia Reynolds, Kathleen Young and Dianne Reilly.