State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 55 Autumn 1995

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The George Robertson Programme

Two years ago as part of an ongoing effort to tailor the Friends' activities to the many and diverse interests of the State Library of Victoria's readers the Committee decided to launch the George Robertson Programme. The name and the objectives deserve a little more explanation than has appeared in announcements of the various functions held in 1995 and 1996.
We started out in 1993 with the notion of a special-interest group centred on the Rare Book Collection. In universities, rooms for rare books have as their focus a series of research and teaching initiatives developed within the institution. Although many specialists and others are attracted to and need the State Library's resources in this domain, the absence until recently of an appropriate, even if temporary, storage area has made it difficult to provide the necessary framework for systematic exploitation of and support for a remarkable corpus of material.
Attracted by the example of the Rare Book School, formerly at Columbia University, and now successfully transferred to the University of Virginia, we resolved to devise something that would grow and evolve with the various stages of the State Library's redevelopment. As more parts of the refurbished building complex become available, a wider range of activities can be undertaken.
Just as the Virginia Rare Book School has national support across the United States, so too it seems important to us to integrate our efforts into an Australia-wide push for better use of and publicity for special collections. In other words co-operation with all the other groups interested in the cause is essential. The name George Robertson Programme was chosen to capitalise on this. Between them the unrelated principals of George Robertson & Company and Angus & Robertson dominated — from their respective bases in Melbourne and in Sydney — the Australian book trade for eighty years, from the early 1850s to the early 1930s. No other designation, therefore, could represent better the scope we want to cover, from printing, binding, publishing and bookselling through to collecting.
The George Robertson Programme is being run by an informal sub-committee of the Friends with Brian Hubber and Des Cowley as co-opted members. It goes without saying that an initiative of this kind depends on the generous collaboration of relevant people from the Library's professional staff. We have been fortunate too in having help from antiquarian booksellers, collectors and bibliographers in getting things under way. Although it is clear that the Friends have taken responsibility for the Programme, it is open-ended to the extent that other associations — of collectors, of booksellers, of bibliographers, of friends of libraries — can join in and even propose separate activities in Victoria or elsewhere in Australia under the conveniently ambiguous George Robertson banner. To date there has been one co-operative effort: a function for the Friends and for the Book Collectors' Society of Australia (Victorian Branch) to salute John Holroyd's eighty-fifth birthday and his outstanding contribution to the world of books in this country. John Arnold, Lurline Stuart and Wallace Kirsop gave talks on J. K. Moir, James Smith and Redmond Barry at this occasion in May 1996.
Some of the Programme's events are free and open more or less to all comers. Others, focused on the display and examination of rare material, have strict quotas and carry a
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Plates 8, 9 & 10: Facsimile of the royal decree suppressing Kerguelen's Relation of 1782 (tipped into VSL's copy of this work).

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charge. In this way it is possible both to provide a service to everyone and, in special cases, to cover expenses and raise modest sums for the Friends' own work in assisting the Library to acquire notable items. In this mix of approaches there is a parallel to the way in which the Friends have traditionally arranged their functions.
More than one activity put on for a restricted audience has had to be repeated, a sure sign of genuine community interest. Over two years there have been, in addition to the John Holroyd celebration, seminars on travel books in general and on French voyages to the South Seas, on children's books, based on the recent acquisition of the splendid Pound Collection, on works with Egyptian themes, on Australian literature and on the career of Count Francis de Castelnau (1806?-1880), explorer and naturalist, French Consul-General in Melbourne in the 1860s and 1870s and the State Library's first substantial benefactor. A rhythm of approximately one event every three months has been established, and longer forward planning can be expected in future. Indeed, as the redevelopment continues and some of us contemplate the greater leisure of retirement, it will become easier to envisage a modest Australian equivalent of the Virginia Rare Book School. When that day comes, there will be no doubt that there is still an audience, alongside recent electronic media, for the codex and for the traditional book as object. The Friends certainly see it as part of their role to assist the State Library in those of its functions that pertain to a living and lively Museum of Print Culture.
In the course of preparation for the September 1996 seminar on French voyages, a rare piece of ephemera came to light. Tipped into the State Library's copy of Relation de deux voyages dans les mers Australes et des Index, fails en 1771, 1772, 1773 el 1774, par M. de Kerguelen (Paris, Knapen et fils, 1782, 8o) was the official condemnation of this work. The document is reproduced in facsimile on the preceding page for the delight of bibliophiles and for the edification of others.
Wallace Kirsop