Tuesday, 17 August 2021

A tribute to Mary Dent

After a lifetime's contribution to librarianship and local history research in Launceston, Mary Dent passed away on 15 July, and was honoured by family and friends at a ceremony on 19 July.

Mary Dent, 1975

She was born Sheila Mary Wilson on 25 June 1929 in Birmingham in the UK, to parents Alfred (Alf) and Laura (Phyl). When she was less than two years old the family migrated to Tasmania; her sister Margaret was born here in 1932. They lived and farmed near Smithton and North Motton, where Phyl kept a small library for local borrowers.  When the family moved to Launceston, Mary went at first to West Launceston Primary School, then to Broadland House as a boarder during the war years. 

After matriculating, with university not being an option financially, Mary began work at 17 at the Launceston Public Library in the old Mechanics’ Institute building. It was in her first year there that, remarkably, she fulfilled an ambition to learn to fly an aeroplane. The war years had been full of tales of heroes like Guy Gibson and the Dam Busters, and they renewed a popular interest in flight. Mary became one of those enthusiasts, and it took great dedication to follow it through. Her father had to lend her the money required – 10 shillings a time – and Mary had to cycle out to the Tas Aero Club at Western Junction for lessons; in fact it wasn’t until her 40s that Mary actually got her car driving licence. Eventually she passed her solo pilot’s test and flew locally; she remarked later that she followed the railway lines to avoid getting lost on the way home. She entered an Examiner competition for a scholarship for further training as did two other girls, but it was one of the many male applicants who won it.

In her first year at the library, Wal Sutherland, the Assistant Librarian, saw her promise and encouraged her to undertake training at Sydney Public Library. In 1948 it had an associated Library School, so she gained valuable experience in a large city library and training in librarianship. She later reminisced on having a wonderful time, let loose as a youngster to explore the city. Wal had come up to Sydney at one point ostensibly on library business, but was there, she felt sure, also to check up on her. At the end of the year she was awarded a Preliminary Certificate in Librarianship. She returned to work in the Reference section and was appointed Assistant Cataloguer under Thelma Masters. Because her duties involved typing up catalogue cards she was trained in touch typing in Launceston. Unfortunately the time away in Sydney broke her contact with flying, and she never went back to it, though she kept her helmet and goggles, which her grandchildren, in time, wore for dress-ups.

In 1952 she married Bruce Dent, and they bought 40 acres in Underwood. The following year they moved to Geeveston where Bruce had been appointed a Horticultural Extension Officer in the Agriculture Dept. At her departure Wal Sutherland gave her a glowing reference, praising her intelligence and character, as well as her work skills. When Bruce left his job at Geeveston they moved back north to settle on their property in Underwood, where Bruce established a nursery growing apple seedlings for Tamar Valley orchardists. They later diversified into birch seedlings and shrubs and flowers.

They had two daughters, Sarah and Penelope, and in 1960 when the children were still very young, Mary started back at the Launceston Public Library part-time at two days a week. She and the girls would take the school bus to Launceston where the girls went to a crèche in the house which is now a doctor’s surgery in Civic Square, and later to Broadland House. The family also ran a very small general store from an addition to the front of their home in Underwood, and like her mother, Mary started a small library where local residents could borrow books. She was never away from librarianship!

It was shortly after Mary returned to Launceston that Phil Leonard, who had owned a farm in Kenya, came to Tasmania. Well-read and drawn towards librarianship, though without professional qualifications, Phil became a member of staff, beginning as a relief Bookmobile driver in 1962. He studied librarianship part-time alongside his full-time duties, becoming the Reference Librarian in 1967, and on Wal Sutherland’s death in 1970, City Librarian. He was in the role when the old Mechanics’ Institute was pulled down in 1971 and library services were provided in the brand new, purpose-built Northern Regional Library. It is still in current use and now almost 50 years old.

After her initial library training in Sydney, Mary worked under the highly-respected Assistant Librarian, Miss Masters, in the Reference Library, and increasingly moved from cataloguing towards local history. After Miss Master’s death, Mary shared the management of the Local History area with Val Walkem, both part-time.  When the changeover to the new premises occurred they had an office on the Second Floor in a fine blackwood-panelled room with glass-fronted cabinets and a portrait of Sir Richard Dry. It is now the Phil Leonard Room. It became her domain and she was particularly proud of it, especially after her previous dark and dingy quarters in the old Mechanics’. She trained up others in local history to share her role, including Nell Joyce and Dorothy Rosemann. In the later 1970s Mary took on demanding in-service studies through the Australian Library Association and gained her full professional qualifications in 1981. 

Mary in the new Local History Room, 1971

It was in her role in the Local History section that she gave vital support and guidance to history researchers. She put a huge amount of time into maintaining a card index and cuttings files which were the basis of a reference source for many well-known historians, authors and broadcasters such as Dr Clifford Craig, Hawley Stancombe, Jack Branagan, KR von Stieglitz, Max Oldaker, Brian Plomley, Patricia and Eric Ratcliff and Dennis Hodgkinson. She also gave invaluable assistance to many visiting scholars who were drawn to Launceston Library by its rich collection of rare Australian books. Mary particularly remembered the visits of Sir John Ferguson who was compiling his standard reference work on pre-1850 publicationsBibliography of Australia.

In addition to her work in the Library Mary prepared indexes to several important Tasmanian books that until then had lacked them, most notably West's History of Tasmania, Button's Flotsam and Jetsam, and Tasmania's North East by AW Loone. These indexes have been lifesavers to many librarians over the years. She typed some of Clifford Craig’s books, earning his acknowledgment, like this one in 1982: 

I also wish to thank Mr P F Leonard, Librarian of the Northern Regional Library, Launceston, and his staff, particularly Mrs Mary Dent of the Local History Collection. In her professional capacity, she found and described many new prints. In her own time she has typed the manuscript with great care more than once. Indeed she cannot be given enough praise for all that she did in seeing this book to the press.

Mary fiercely defended the local history collection that had been established in the Mechanics’ Institute days of Alex Johnson and Joe Forward. They had a remarkable history of custodianship from 1860 to 1945; in the latter years Thelma Masters carried the banner and passed it to Mary, who valued highly the remarkable collective legacy created by the city, for the city. Phil Leonard, whose leadership was greatly respected by staff and the public, fought tooth and nail to thwart the State Library’s wish that these unique resources be located in Hobart. His tenacity prevailed with Mary acting as guardian on watch. Mary undertook the enormous task of compiling a schedule of the significant items in the Launceston Library whose ownership was to remain vested in the Launceston Corporation after the transfer of library management from the City Council to the State Library of Tasmania in 1974. It was a task which took her two years to complete in addition to her usual duties at the library.

Mary retired in 1988, after giving more than 40 years’ professional service to the Launceston Library. She settled back on the farm at Underwood until 1993, when it was sold and she and Bruce moved to Launceston. In 1994 they moved to The Manor when it was first built. She became its librarian, and continued to help researchers.  She attended the chapel there and was for many years the Secretary of the Residents’ Committee; she was also a member of Probus. She lived at The Manor for the last 27 years of her life, more than half of it after Bruce’s death in 2003.

Mary working with the FOLMI volunteers in 2015. An 'Examiner' photo

In 2013, Mary became a founding member of the Friends of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute. She played a key role in recording the surviving collection of the Institute and indexing its records, giving many hours of voluntary work to the group over the next eight years. Mary's extraordinary memory and her readiness to share her knowledge of the Institute made an invaluable contribution to the work of FOLMI. Through the group’s efforts the nationally significant collection has survived to be conserved in Launceston together with the heritage materials kept in the Local Studies Collection in Launceston Library and the Institute’s records in QVMAG.

From her many friends, colleagues, history researchers and collaborators over two generations Mary will be remembered with great affection. Always direct and clear-sighted, she was loyal to her principles and loyal to the goals of her profession. The fields in which she worked are the richer for her contribution, and Launceston the beneficiary of her dedication to librarianship and local history.

Contributed by Friends of the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute

A version of this tribute was published in The Examiner, 17 August, 2021, p10.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Seeking a Fugitive (2)

 Way back in 2015 we published an appeal, now renewed, on this blog.

Our collection of the Printed Catalogues of the Institute is complete with one very important exception. We have access to copies of all but the very first catalogue. It appeared in late 1849 and does not seem to be held in any Australian library, nor to be listed by Ferguson.

There is however clear evidence that it existed.

Firstly, an announcement in the Launceston Examiner on 21 April 1849 that a "catalogue will shortly be printed".

Then the Institute’s Annual Report for 1849, dated 24 Oct (but no doubt prepared some time before the presentation date) says the catalogue is “at the printers”.

Then in the Launceston Examiner on 19 Jan 1850, there is an announcement that "Catalogues of the library are now printed, and may be obtained from the librarian, during the hours the library is open - price one shilling."

According to the accounts of the LMI for 1849-50, two hundred and fifty copies of the catalogue were printed and sales of catalogues to Oct 1850 had realised income of £3/5/- (i.e. 65 copies had been sold.)

The Annual Report for 1849 gave the total size of the collection as 1182 volumes, and the "fugitive" catalogue would be an invaluable guide to the principles upon which the early collection was organised. It would also provide some clue as the order in which early volumes were acquired for the collection. The Abstract below was prepared in 1850 to chart the growth of the early collection.

Because a second catalogue appeared in 1858, the original had relatively brief currency and no doubt most copies were discarded at that time. It can only be hoped that one may have survived somewhere.

So, if any reader of this post knows of the location of an original (or even a copy) of the 1849 Catalogue we would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Subscription Libraries of Launceston by Kelli Schultz


Launceston gained its very first library in 1825.   It was located in Cameron Street in the home of John Fawkner, who placed advertisements in the local papers in June of that year to let the community know he had opened it.  This followed a European trend of subscription libraries that dated back to the first known one in 1725 that was opened by Scottish poet Allan Ramsay. Fawkner’s was the first of many such libraries.

Subscription libraries, also known as circulation libraries charged a fee for loaning books.  Some had an annual fee and some charged both.  Fawkner’s library continued until 1831 when it was moved to the home of Mr Gooch in Charles Street.

There were 11 known libraries to advertise regularly in the local papers.  It seems it must have been thought to be a good money maker at the time.   Hill’s library in St John Street opened in 1835, moving to Brisbane Street the following year then disappearing the year after that. Mr Riva’s circulating library boasted over 400 books in 1848 with a fee of 2 guineas a year. You could also borrow as a non subscriber for 3 shillings per item, the standard borrowing fee.  Again this was a short endeavour and his contents were being advertised to sell by 1852.

Others opening during the late 1800s were Tegg, Blake, Thomas Birch, Fitzgerald Bros, Hopwood & James, Rich, Bastin and more famously Mayhead.  Many of these were attached to stationary sellers or private homes.  Many continued under new names when sold, Hopwood & James became Hood & Co in 1895 after trading for five years, eventually closing in 1899.

Not all subscriptions were profit driven.  Community groups also opened libraries.  The Holy Trinity Church committee met in 1829 to vote on starting a library and later in 1888 the Convent Schools were fund raising for a library.  In 1909 the Northern Law Society library had a membership of 61 people. In 1925 the Launceston Hospital put a call out for a library for its patients.

Subscription libraries continued through to the mid 1950s.  Birchall’s, one of our well known institutions had a subscription library for many decades and actually had to close their doors in 1903 for a month due to the small pox epidemic and in 1919 the health officer allowed all circulating libraries to re-open with a maximum of three customers at a time after the Influenza epidemic. 

The Launceston Mechanics’ Institute remains our most famous subscription library and the precursor to our modern library.  In 1935 memberships were dwindling and complaints were being received that a subscription was still required when Hobart library was free. A decade later subscription was wiped and the Launceston Public Library was declared free of charge and would remain so to this day.

(This article first appeared in The Examiner on 5 July 2020 as one of the Launceston Historical Society's 'Our History' Series.)