Tuesday, 6 June 2017


By-law 7 (1906)
Our library is an artefact of a time when libraries were regarded as stores of books established to facilitate access to knowledge and entertainment.

As libraries become increasingly able to access digital surrogates to meet those same needs many have taken the opportunity to reduce their physical stock, repurpose their spaces, and expand their offering. Their emphasis is increasingly on the creation of social spaces, the facilitation of information literacy and the provision of aids to the navigation of electronic resources.

Retrospective digitisation projects, most famously, Google Books, have the potential to make the contents of any book available anywhere and at any time.

Taken to its logical conclusion, could this mean that reading in the future could rely on the preservation of  single copies of traditional printed books – stored somewhere as an "insurance population" – that all students, researchers, seekers of information and recreational readers could access via a digital surrogate?

Where would such an outcome leave a collection like ours – large in comparison to similar surviving collections, but tiny by global measures?

Our argument has always been that it is the totality of the collection that gives it significance and its principal research value. The LMI collection is primarily of historical significance because it comprises the larger part of the library of a major and enduring mechanics institute in an important regional city, and thus it illuminates the reading habits, information sources and interests of a colonial city, as well as its inter-colonial, British Empire and international connections over a century.
Individual items in the collection provide evidences of subject interest areas, collecting priorities and biases, reading tastes and organising principles.

Some of the research could be undertaken simply by reference to a list of the books in the collection – our series of printed catalogues or accession registers for example.

But a great deal more can only be revealed by the physical item itself. A book can sit on the shelf in a public library and never be read, or it can be heavily used. Inspection of the book can reveal marks of use and handling, evidence of rebinding, details of provenance such as previous owners' inscriptions and booksellers' labels, from which the history of that particular copy may be deduced.

Bibliographers have become increasingly interested in discovering evidence of how the reader interacted with the book and with the text.

There has been a focus on marginalia in recent years as one window to those interactions. The Book Traces project, auspiced by the University of Virginia, seeks out examples of marginalia with this plea;

Thousands of old library books bear fascinating traces of the past. Readers wrote in their books, and left pictures, letters, flowers, locks of hair, and other things between their pages. We need your help identifying them because many are in danger of being discarded as libraries go digital. Books printed between 1820 and 1923 are at particular risk.  Help us prove the value of maintaining rich print collections in our libraries.

Other examples of projects recording marginalia include Arizona State University's Book Traces Project, Annotated Books Online and ThePages Project.

Much of the focus in the study of marginalia to date has been on the privately owned book. One owner, one set of annotations, one response to the book; perhaps intended to be shared with friends, but most commonly as an aide-de-memoir or a record of argument for the reader.(1)

Marginalia in a library book is however quite a different beast. Sometimes it is intended as a signal to the library patron that they have already read the book – a date, an initial or a secret mark left in a particular place. But often it is a kind of informal review – a tick, a word or a comment for the edification of potential readers and indecisive borrowers or even a word of warning to the gullible or the delicate sensibility. And it must also be a triumph of conviction over caution, because the reader would surely know how much the librarian abhors the practice.

And so to an example in our collection noticed recently by an eagle-eyed cataloguer.

The book is Frederick Selous's Sport and Travel; east and west (1900) an account of hunting expeditions in Asia Minor and the Rocky Mountains.(2)  The book is well-worn and has been rebound locally in 1936 using portions of the original cloth pasted on heavy boards. It continued to be borrowed regularly up to 1951.

At the foot of the final page of text is a pasted label, interesting in its own right as evidence of Mudie's business model and probably of the way the book was obtained for the Launceston Mechanics' Institute collection.

Behind the label, and most carefully concealed by it, is the following handwritten gloss;

The author of this book has the reputation of killing more big game than any hunter in Africa. How does he come to write this book, full of blunders, mistakes, & bad shooting. His past experience had taught him nothing. His shooting in Asia Minor ... would have been his finish had he performed likewise in Africa among dangerous game.

Crosshatched in lighter pencil, but still behind the veil of Mudie's label, is a qualified but more positive view;

Probably more careful with the truth than average writers! Less prone to sensationalism.

There is perhaps a degree of diplomacy in the placement of the comments at the end of the work. The writer cannot be said to have prejudiced the new reader, even if he or she felt it necessary to make their opinion known. (3) Or perhaps they did not wish their obtrusion to be easily discovered by librarian? Whatever the reason a need to 'air their knowledge' on the subject was satisfied before the book was returned.

One hundred years on, examples of marginalia are a valuable tool as we research our collection. They are unmistakeable proof that our collection was read, that readers interacted with the books, and in some cases we can even capture the exact tenor of that interaction.


1. In 2016 we purchased for our research collection a copy of H. J. Jackson's "Marginalia; readers writing in books (2001)" at a sale of discarded library books for the bargain price of $2.00. Disappointingly the book appeared to have been little used, and, even more disappointingly, there was not a single annotation in it. While Professor Jackson's principal interest was in privately owned books, it was an interesting speculation on the psychology and motivations of annotators, and above all a celebration of the practice. Her examples reveal great minds, e.g. S T Coleridge, interacting with their copies of important texts.

2. In what was a quite small collection of sporting books (only 132 titles) it is interesting from a modern perspective to analyse the mix of sports represented. Cricket and golf, which dominate today's sports book market in Australia, together account for less than 10% of the total. The great interests of the day were fishing (32 titles) and hunting and shooting (38 titles).

3. Notwithstanding our reviewer's opinion, Frederick Selous was the most celebrated of big-game hunters in Southeast Africa and the inspiration for Rider Haggard's fictional Allan Quatermain, and thus for the film character Indiana Jones.

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