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Libraries in Australia

A library is part of every Australian's experience. Whether it is the school library, the local municipal library, a visit to an imposing State Library reading room, or a forage around the shelves of the bookmobile, a library is where we go to 'find out'.

The First Fleet not only brought convicts, soldiers, plants and animals from Britain to the new colony of New South Wales, it also brought New South Wales' first printing press and first books.

The books were not those of a public library, but the small collections of individuals, or the books of learning required in the establishment of a new colony - the law books, the religious books, the books of science and navigation. But as Peter Biskup points out in his book Libraries in Australia, the most important thing brought to Australia in the First Fleet which impacted on the development of libraries was the 'idea' of libraries.

The first, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to establish a public library in the new colony of New South Wales was an appeal to the British public by the Reverend Samuel Marsden, begun in 1809, for books and money for a library of 'carefully selected books ... suited to the poor settlers employed in agriculture, the soldiers and the convicts'.

In 1821 a catalogue of the libraries held by private citizens in the colony was compiled, and from these private collections a number of libraries began to emerge. The 1820s saw the setting up of subscription libraries, and by the 1830s the introduction of schools of arts, mechanics' institutes, and literary institutes had added to the number of libraries available to the people of the colony.

It is hard to imagine where we would be without libraries and without organised information. Libraries are at the centre of our shared knowledge.
Brian Johns (previous Managing Director, Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

School of Arts movement

There was a worldwide response to the 'School of Arts' movement which began in Britain in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first School of Arts opened in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1821, with others in Glasgow and London in 1823. In Australia, the term Mechanics' Institutes was popular, but could also be known as Schools of Art and Literary Institutes. These schools or institutes were places where those mainly working class men could go and hear lectures of use to them in their practical work, access a library of books, and so improve themselves. The first of these in Australia was the Van Diemen's Land Mechanics' Institute, Hobart which opened in 1827. Others followed in Melbourne and other Australian cities and towns. By 1900 Australia supported 1000 Mechanics' Institutes with memberships of between 100 and 200 people. Most of these Institutes had less than 1000 books.
(Source: The Gympie School of Arts and Library - 90 Years of Service 1905 - 1995 by Rae Webb, Brisbane, 1995)

It is critically important that librarians - modern custodians of knowledge - take the time to think about issues of equity, access and representation, and who and what is represented in physical collections and online.
Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue, Australian Library Week Oration 1998

Mechanics' Institutes

Mechanics' Institutes were very often supported by the colonial governments - usually by land grants and cash assistance. Mechanics' Institutes were particularly popular in country areas where their role often went far beyond their 'library' function to a general focus for the community's cultural activities. Because of this important role and because of the support of the colonial governments, Mechanics' Institute buildings were frequently quite imposing and they form an important part of Australia's built heritage. The Tenterfield School of Arts was the venue in which Henry Parke made his famous speech, which is seen as the first step to the Federation of Australia. You can see photos of some Mechanics' Institutes in the links below.

Libraries are no longer simply repositories of information and resources, they are becoming gateways to information from all over the world.
Senator Richard Alston (previous Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts)

Free municipal libraries began to appear in Australia in the 1850s as did central public libraries - which largely went on to become the State Libraries. Parliamentary libraries were established to support the work of state parliaments, and a Commonwealth Parliamentary Library was set up in Melbourne to support the new Commonwealth Parliament in 1901.

In 1923 the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library became the Commonwealth National Library, the precursor to the National Library of Australia. The National Library of Australia became a separate entity under it's own Act of Parliament in 1960.

Libraries are a vital source of information in any society.
Kim Beazley (previous Leader of the Opposition)

Libraries today

Libraries today are much more than repositories for books. New technologies like CD-ROM and the Internet mean libraries are now also gateways to the online world, and librarians the finders of knowledge in electronic space as well as in the stacks. The Net also makes our library heritage - the vast collection of books, manuscripts, photos, ephemera - more accessible to more Australians.

Major initiatives like the Australian Libraries Gateway ensure the accessibility of these vast resources.

Major databases such as those at the Mortlock Library of South Australiana, the State Library of Victoria and the State Library of Tasmania bring our heritage into our present and ensure it will be part of our future.

(Editor's note: many thanks to Peter Biskup for his book 'Libraries in Australia' which was the source of much of the information in this short article.)

Useful links

Finding libraries

National, state and territory libraries

General book and library references

Resources of special note at Australia's national and state libraries

Talking about and managing libraries

Mechanics' Institutes and Schools of Arts

Libraries of the world

Last updated: 11th August 2011