Friday, 28 June 2013

ADFAS Mechanics' Institute Project

The Association of Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (ADFAS) have commenced a special project to explore the roles of Mechanics' Institutes and Schools of Arts in Australia. They have invited members to explore Schools of Arts buildings and their roles in their local communities. Their stories are on the ADFAS website (

An illustrated account of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute has been contributed to the project by Maureen Mann;

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The growth of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute Library

In May 1842 the Launceston Examiner editorialised under the headline 

"Is Launceston now to support a mechanics' institution, or to wait, at the bidding of its enemies, until a race of lecturers shall arise who repudiate book-learning, and reject all knowledge unless it is derived intuitively, or drops from the clouds?"

The Institute's steering committee established a foundation collection for its library immediately, the members donating eighty volumes:

Henty, William - Smollett’s History of England (8 vol), Quarterly Review (44vol)
Fletcher, W - Nicholson’s Operative Mechanic
Button, Thomas - Tredgold on Ventilation
Stubbs, Mr - Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, The Companion to Botanical Magazine (2 vol)
Connors, Mr - Standard Library (2vol)
Sherwin, Mr - Johnson’s Dictionary (2vol), Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Dolby’s Mathematics
Breton, Mr - “17 volumes of valuable works”.

At the Institute's first annual meeting in October 1842 it was recorded that "the Library now consists of about 170 volumes."

A year later the second annual general meeting advised that "The librarian has now under his charge 495 volumes, besides 116 magazines and periodicals, and by a report he has given, it is shewn that during the last six months 1043 volumes have been circulated amongst the members, being an average of 22 on each evening of the library being open."

By 1850 the collection had increased to 1293 volumes, and the people of Launceston were given notice that "The committee have received advice of the shipment of a case of books on board the Potentate, which may be daily expected to arrive. Amongst them will be found Macaulay's History of England and Layard's Nineveh, with other works of standard merit."

Here is a snapshot of the growth of the collection;

1860 2436 volumes
1870 5100 volumes
1880 8860 volumes. A new printed catalogue was issued in this year.
1890 17480 volumes
1900 22962 volumes
1910 25663 volumes. In the previous two years 2900 volumes of fiction had been withdrawn.
1914 28254 volumes

The legacy collection from this remarkable community library includes 6347 catalogued popular fiction volumes, all published prior to 1915, an estimated 13000 non-fiction volumes yet to be catalogued, and 221 periodical titles. Details of these collections are to be found in other postings on this blog.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Present and Future

Ownership, custodianship, storage and access: integration vs. disposal

The legal position of ownership of what is referred to here as the LMI Legacy Collection is set out in the July 1944 agreement between the Launceston Public Library Board and Launceston City Corporation, the present owners (now known as the Launceston City Council). Responsibility for management of the materials, as covered under the Libraries Bill of 1943, was passed to the State Library Board.  This state of affairs was affirmed in the 1971 Regional Library Agreement between Launceston City Council and the State Library of Tasmania. In this agreement the Meston Collection and the LMI Collection were excluded from the general transfer of assets from the LCC to the State Library Board. These arrangements were reaffirmed in a working party report under the chairmanship of Sir George Cartland in 1979 and in correspondence between the LCC’s Corporate Services Manager and Minister of Education Peter Rae in November 1987.   

The custodianship of the collection once held by the Launceston Public Library Board, the body that inherited LMI material, has been with the State Library since 1945. As the body responsible for providing public library services in Launceston it has managed its working collection professionally, which has meant adding to stock, moving items from one part of its collection to another, weeding by disposing of damaged stock or placing out-of-date items still needing retention in stack, maintaining an up-to-date catalogue for items in use etc.  All these have had an impact on the LMI Legacy Collection, and their integration into or exclusion from the larger operation of the State Library has been a necessary part of that management.  However it has led to the issues of ownership and custodianship being overlaid and in one sense now inextricable.  It would appear that only the clear ownership by LCC of the LMI Legacy Collection has saved parts of it from disposal since 1945.

Storage of the large number of books and serials, much of it acquired in the heyday of the Institute in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has been a problem for the State Library, and since the transfer of the nonfiction lending collection back from the Moonah store, for Launceston Library/LINC. Pressure for space in the building that is about to be renovated has rendered this problem a pressing one. However it would be most unfortunate if that alone was a driving force in the disposal of items whose significance to local historians is undisputed, and whose significance nationally is unknown because they are uncatalogued.

Under the present arrangements for the LMI Legacy Collection, some parts are accessible, in constant use and are highly valued.  These have emerged as important at every stage of the professional operation of the libraries holding them. The parts in stack have been set aside at various stages as not fitting the immediate needs of a working collection. Some of these have subsequently been realised to be of national importance, most probably because other working libraries have disposed of similar items long ago.  Until the rest are accessible and catalogued, the remainder’s national and local value cannot be assessed.

The key to a locally-sensitive evaluation of the LMI Legacy Collection is considering it as a whole. From 1842 the LMI became the main resource for the cultural life of the town as a regional centre and later as an emerging city.  The records and relics of that time which still exist give the fullest picture we can form at this remove of that life.  Although degraded by use and long-term storage, these books and periodicals give insights of a very specific kind into what was available to residents in a part of colonial Australia, how they were acquired, how they were received, and how fashions in reading changed. From this perspective, amount of wear, card pockets, date stamps and other associations with their library origins are part of the significance of each item. For book collectors, of course, they reduce their value markedly, and it was from this perspective that the lending nonfiction has recently been assessed.

Until the parts of the collection in boxes are taken out and reviewed in terms of their contribution to the whole, there should not be any disposal of items. There are several audiences for the information generated by cataloguing those that are retained and by access to the books and serials themselves, including Northern Tasmanian local historians and researchers in the fields of the sociology of education, reading and the community and the history of ideas. Reflecting these diverse ways of viewing the LMI Collection, there are three agencies represented in Launceston which could provide for its professional management and guardianship: LINC Tasmania, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and the University of Tasmania.

If researchers and other professionals from the national, state and local networks associated with these agencies can act in partnership, it will assist greatly in maintaining the Launceston community’s cultural heritage. Support from the management of the agencies and from the Launceston community itself will be vital to achieve this collaboration. Assuming the legacy collection is retained in Launceston, that is, the parts are kept in reasonably close physical proximity, and with openness of access for these diverse professional and community groups, suitable responsibility for the parts of the materials could be:

Launceston LINC/TAHO/Local Studies Collection – The Meston Collection, photographs, newspapers and government publications;

QVMAG – The records and objects;

University of Tasmania – The periodicals, adult nonfiction and literature (including popular fiction and children’s literature).

It would take time, commitment and leadership to enable a working relationship of this kind to be established, and it is important that the process is consultative and mutually fruitful at management and research levels.  It is vital that the collection not be further dispersed, and certainly parts of it not disposed of, until the necessary time is given to consultation.