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.)