Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Rival for the Institute

The Launceston Library Society was formed in 1845, just three years after the Mechanics' Institute first opened its doors. 

The Society's original intent was to rely on member subscriptions for the purchase of books, but in 1849  Government support was sought, and refused, as membership failed to grow.

The original bookplate of the Society from the Westminster Review, Vol 59, Jan 1853 - April 1855

By 1855 the Library's opening hours had been reduced to one hour per week.  In 1856 the members decided to "rebrand" the Society as the Launceston Public Library, and a government subsidy of one hundred pounds per annum was offered on condition that the reading room and library were opened to the public. 

The new bookplate - printed for the Society by Ashby & Co, London.

In 1861 further support was received in the form of accommodation in the Public Buildings in St John Street – directly opposite the Institute. Financial support was short-lived and was withdrawn in 1864, although an allocation of escheated funds in 1869 provided something of a reprieve. 

The President's comments on the inadequacy of the allocation were reported in the Launceston Examiner of 23 March 1872:

LAUNCESTON PUBLIC LIBRARY. ANNUAL MEETING. The annual meeting of subscribers to the Launceston Public Library, which had twice been adjourned owing to the absence of a quorum, was held on Thursday evening, the hon. James Aikenhead, Esq., M.L.C., in the chair. The attendance was very limited.
The following report was read- According to the rules of the Launceston Public Library the annual meeting should have been held  on the second Thursday in January, but for reasons which it would be difficult to defend the general  meeting of members has been postponed untill now.
The members are aware that some years ago, at the instance of the Government of the day, this Library collected by private means was thrown open to the public, daily, during certain hours, in consideration of a yearly grant of money. This, however, was soon withdrawn, and the committee consider unfairly. Although the Howells escheated property was in this town, nearly the whole of the proceeds of the sale, amounting to over £2,000, was given to the Hobart Town Public Library while only £200 was given the kindred institution at Launceston. It cannot, therefore, excite surprise that the Launceston Public Library has been seriously crippled, by which its usefulness has been greatly impaired. It is rather a matter of congratulation that it has been able to keep its doors open so long.
The Library contains between five and six thousand volumes, of which 1044 were issued during the year. In the same term 718 persons visited the library. The number of subscribers on the books is only 27, and the subscriptions for the year 25l. 5s. One indent of books has been transmitted to England during the year.
On this occasion it will be necessary that a president, treasurer, secretary, and committee of seven subscribers be elected. The financial statement showed a balance to credit of £17 14s 1d on 31st December last. The report and financial statement having been adopted, the following, officers for the ensuing year were elected - Mr J. Aikenhead, President; Mr A. M. Milligan, Treasurer;  Mr R. Green, junr., Secretary ; Executive Committee Messrs. W. S. Button, Henry Dowling, J. L. Miller, Charles Thompson, Adye Douglas, J. J. Hudson, and George Collins. A vote of thanks to the Chairman terminated the proceedings.

An Hobartian view of the Launceston Public Library, and a revealing insight to the rivalry between the cities is contained in this report from the Mercury of 30 March 1874;

Our Launceston letter
[From our correspondent]
I wandered into that unfamiliar institution known as the Launceston Public Library, this afternoon. This musty reading room, situate in a portion of the Public Buildings, and filled with antiquated literature and cobwebs, and only open at such hours as to practically exclude the general public from any participation in its benefits, has not for some time previous attracted so large an attendance as assembled today. All the savants of the North, and a great many of the ordinary public were there, bent on seeing the preserved salmon for some time exhibited in the Museum at Hobart Town, and for which the sum of £30 was paid. With thoughtful consideration the specimen has been sent by the authorities for temporary exhibition here, and is, I believe, to remain on view for some days. I do not affect to be a connoiseur, and fully confess my inability to decide as to the bona fides of his Salmonship. I must, however, acknowledge some astonishment at witnessing among some of the spectators assembled, whose knowledge I am sure on this subject can be little superior to my own, an assumption of wisdom somewhat inexplicable. Many of these gentlemen have never yet been out of Tasmania, but with ominous head shaking, expressed their conviction that this was not the real simon pure. This peculiarly is not altogether difficult to account for. The mere fact that the finny specimen has been pronounced by competent authorities at Hobart Town to be a real salmo salar, is quite sufficient reason for competent or incompetent authority at Launceston to pronounce it a salmo trutta !

Later the Government decided it could no longer provide accommodation for the Library, which was moved to the Town Hall. In 1881 the books of the Library were placed into storage at the Town Hall and the Library ceased operations.

As early as 1863 the rival Launceston Mechanics Institute had unsuccessfully proposed a merger with the Library Society, but in 1888 the Society finally determined to hand over the Launceston Public Library collection, then some 2000 volumes, as well as the assets of the Society to the Institute, on condition of the provision of a  free public reading room. The Institute accepted the gift and asked Parliament to enable it to alter its title so as to include the words, "and public library," and in November, 1890, an Act of Incorporation was passed confirming the new name.

The provision of  a Reading Room was a boon to the Institute,  and was facilitated by the opening of the new Museum, and the consequent removal of the exhibits. The former Launceston Public Library books were eventually integrated with the Institute collection and many of them have survived.

The books appear for the most part to have been procured from Orger and Meryon in London which may explain why the second bookplate was sourced there. In the example shown above, the LMI accession number 8468 is overwritten on the original book plate.

Friday, 2 May 2014

President's Report 2013-14

Friends of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute Inc.
President's Report 2013-14

It is a privilege to present this report to members on the occasion of our first Annual General Meeting. I take this opportunity to place on record what has been achieved already and to lay out our plans and aspirations for the coming year.
This group was formed at a public meeting on 18 October 2013. The goals adopted by that meeting were to establish and maintain a working research Launceston Mechanics’ Institute Collection, by:
1. Locating, selecting, organising, cataloguing and preserving existing materials once the property of the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute between 1842 and 1929;
2.  Liaising with local, state and national government and professional agencies and with relevant interest groups to promote the significance of the LMI Collection;
3.  Establishing a permanent home for the LMI Collection, in particular those parts not integrated with local and state government collections;
4.  Providing broad public access to the catalogue of the LMI Collection and enabling direct access to researchers needing to use the Collection.

FOLMI currently has 49 members, and membership continues to grow as supporters are made aware of our activities.

By any measure much has been achieved in the short life of FOLMI.
The group had its ownership of a major part of the LMI Collection confirmed by a Launceston City Council resolution in November 2013, and since that time has progressively assumed management of the collection. FOLMI has:
  Secured free tenancy of a suitable space for housing the collection at the University of Tasmania for at least one year;
  Erected donated shelving in the designated room;
  Received two of the three major parts of the collection allocated to it – the non-fiction and periodicals, about 14,000 items in all since March 2014;
  Shelved these, and made excellent progress in organising and assessing the collection prior to constructing a catalogue/database;
  Begun photographing  accession records in preparation for digitisation and use in comparison with surviving materials;
  Established a web-site to promote our activities;
  Submitted an application for Commonwealth Heritage Grant funding of a Significance Assessment of the collection.

A Significance Assessment will be a critical document in shaping our future priorities, informing our planning process, and – perhaps most importantly – building support in both the local community and a wider community of interest for the preservation of the collection.
If, as we expect, the collection is assessed to be of national significance, the assessor’s statement will be used to support further grant applications, to promote the collection in discussion with researchers, state and local government agencies, and to publicise the collection generally.

Future Activities
The next year will be an opportunity to build on what has already been achieved. Priority will be given to:
  Producing an electronic version of the LMI Accession Registers.
  Starting the recording all Launceston Mechanics' Institute items still held in the State Library of Tasmania's reference and heritage collections and in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery's collections.
  Work on producing an inventory and photographic record of all surviving objects associated with the Institute.
   Investigating options for cataloguing the collection, with current preference for participation in Libraries Australia and TROVE.
   Pending the outcome of the Significance Assessment process, applying for funding to have a Conservation Needs Assessment done.
   Investigating local options for a permanent home for the collection and establishing a project plan to achieve the preferred option.

Of these, undoubtedly the most important and the most challenging for our group is the identification of a permanent home for the collection.

In conclusion I acknowledge the contributions of our committee members, our hard-working volunteers, and the support of all members, in what has been achieved to date.
I also take this opportunity to record my thanks to our partners in this venture for their co-operation and assistance. We are most grateful to the University of Tasmania for allocating a very suitable room for our activities, and in particular thank the Newnham Campus Librarian, Wendy Hoyle, for championing our cause and for her practical assistance at every stage of our taking up occupancy.
I also thank the management and staff of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston LINC and the State Library of Tasmania, for their assistance and support.
We are also indebted to the members of Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria Inc. for their unstinting generosity and guidance and their enthusiastic support.
Finally I thank the Alderman of the City of Launceston for entrusting this most important collection to our care.

Peter Richardson, 
2 May 2014

Thursday, 1 May 2014


Prue and Mike McCausland

We visited Ballarat to learn about the BMI collection of books and periodicals and to draw if possible on its members’ experience of preserving and managing them. One member of the Library Committee, Rex Bridges, took us on a tour for about an hour and a half on the 25 March 2014. It was just what we’d hoped in terms of appreciating the challenge that FOLMI is taking on, and its potential rewards. Rex has had a central role in the cataloguing and maintenance of the BMI heritage collection, and was a most welcoming and enthusiastic guide with a thorough knowledge of their collection.

The BMI has both an extensive heritage and a working collection (a subscription library of current titles, similar to a public library). Membership covers both lending rights and research access. Both are housed in the fine 1859 building at 117 Sturt St, Ballarat, recently restored at a cost of over $5m. and reopened in 2013. It has a number of beautifully furnished rooms over five floors, a number of which are leased or available for rent for functions.

The Heritage Collection has its own large room, about 20m by 14m, which has an upper balcony/mezzanine floor. The books and serials are mostly stored on shelves, with the really valuable items kept in locked, glass-fronted cabinets. Most of their newspapers have specialist shelving in the basement. The basement is a warren of storage and working areas as large as the library space above.  Both sections are linked to an effective air-conditioning system. 

Mike with Rex Bridges at the Ballaarat MI

Following are some of the bits of information we picked up about the collection and how members of BMI manage it:

A large number of volunteers, drawing on library and archivist skills and direction, took about 3 years to draw up a database for what had survived of the collection from its early days of donations and purchases since 1859.  They used FileMaker, a program also used for the working library collection operated by BMI (with its own full-time librarian).  Since that time some six or more volunteers come in once a week to work at computers to enter and edit entries.  There is a dedicated workroom for this, in addition to the reading room/computer facilities in the Heritage Library itself.

The Heritage Collection has about 18,000 volumes, with a further 1800 bound volumes of newspapers. Over 100 of the books are pre-1800, over 6,000 are pre-1900 (with about 1,200 before 1859). Works by Australian authors are separated from the main collection. Since 1980 when the numbering system began, each item is numbered sequentially (in pencil inside the front cover) and as it is added to the database it has its Dewey number recorded. Dewey numbers are used to order the books on the shelves.  FileMaker has a variety of ways of listing and accessing information about titles.

FileMaker also produces catalogue slips which are placed inside the front cover of each item, solving the problem of sticking labels on the spine. More recently a barcode has been placed on the fly leaf as well.

The books vary in condition, with some in a fragile state as would be expected for a working collection existing for over 150 years. Some are tied by library ribbon tape to keep parts together, and the most vulnerable are placed in archival plastic bags. The collection includes volumes from about 20 other local mechanics’ institutes, as well as donations from the earliest years.

Funding comes from a variety of sources: state government grants, the Williamson and Potter Foundations, strong continuing support from local government, membership fees, the leasing of parts of the BMI building and hire of facilities (including a magnificent period-styled dining or function room, once a ballroom).

The Heritage Library is used by researchers, especially those associated with the University of Ballarat. Most of the general researchers use the newspaper collection, though as their contents are not indexed, family historians are not particularly encouraged.

It was inspiring to see how much had been accomplished by the BMI volunteers, and how an important part of Ballarat’s, in fact Australia’s, heritage had been preserved through their labour and dedication. They have created a valuable national resource. Rex generously passed on to FOLMI a copy of their databases for books and newspapers.

We believe FOLMI should maintain ties with BMI as fully as possible, share with them what we discover about the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute, and use their experience and advice in further planning our project.  The collections, though remarkably similar in their founders’ conception, are different in character as well as in specific holdings. We will need to make decisions based on our situation, of course, but it is reassuring to know another group has achieved what we hope to do, and have done it so well.