State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 3 April 1969


The Friends and Collectors

Late in 1968 there was some public brouhaha over the Dame Mabel Brookes sale of Australiana including her copy of the Batman Deed (which was eventually not sold as bids did not reach the reserve price). Some highly erratic reporting by newspapers and television channels made it appear that the Friends might have been involved in criticism of Dame Mabel, and denials had subsequently to be issued. Since the Library holds a copy of the Deed it was not interested in purchase of another, and the committee of the Friends properly regarded the controversy over the sale of a privately-owned document as none of the Society's business.
The reporting of the controversy and subsequent rumour unfortunately misled a few people about the Friends’ attitude. Moreover, extraordinary rumours have apparently since gained some small currency that under a State Archives Act which is being planned the possibility of confiscation or control of privately-owned manuscript material is being considered. On request, the committee of the Friends thought it wise to state the Society's policy, however obvious, on the private ownership of personal papers or company or institutional papers (as distinct from government archives):
‘The Friends recognise and have never questioned the right of owners to sell private manuscript material.’ The statement of policy continues: ‘Their policy is, however, to encourage owners to donate or bequeath unique material, or allow first offer of purchase, to the La Trobe Library. In cases where owners are unwilling to donate, bequeath or sell to the Library, the Friends seek permission to photo-copy in order that preservation of the contents of the documents is guaranteed, and scholars have ready access to them.’
There is, and need be, no clash of interests between the Friends and collectors. Most of the committee of the Friends and many of the members are themselves collectors of Australiana. If they hold manuscript items, they have usually arranged either for photo-copying by the Library or for ultimate transfer to the Library. It is difficult to judge how much manuscript material, whose where-abouts is not widely known, is held by private collectors, but the quantity is probably not very great. We have cause for the deepest gratitude to the great collectors of the past, like Mitchell, Dixson and Moir, without whom the public collections would now be much thinner. In this day and age the role of private collectors is more limited now that the great public libraries, like the Mitchell and La Trobe, exist and it has become widely accepted that they are the main proper repositories for material of historical significance. It might be argued, nevertheless, that a role for the private collector
remains as long as the State neglects its duty to staff these libraries adequately and provide officers with time to concentrate on seeking out and acquiring manuscript material.
The chief danger for the future is that, as values of manuscript material increase, more collectors will enter the field as investors, without regard for public needs, while the Libraries are priced out of the market. Is it utopian to anticipate that the traditional values of collectors will ensure a climate of opinion which will guarantee that the great majority of collectors allow their material to be photo-copied by the libraries? It is commonly held that copying by libraries probably does not diminish the value of manuscripts, and may increase values when used and made known as important by historians.
There is, of course, not the faintest possibility of state interference with the private ownership of private records. No-one has suggested this, unless to anticipate the future need for some check on manuscript material being sold overseas, a suggestion which at this point of time does not appear very urgent.
The question of ‘stray’ Government archives in private hands is not the concern of the La Trobe Library or the Friends, but of the State Archives. Nevertheless, a few words might be said here, as there has been some fluttering among collectors. It is certainly scandalous that official letter-books of the Port Phillip period should be owned privately and that so many other records have not reached State Archives. Stern moralists hold that collectors who own such material are simply receivers of stolen property. The matter is not so simple. The legal situation is obscure; there is no Archives Act in Victoria. Until recent years many governmental archives, especially local government or branch-office material, were thrown out or allowed to rot or were given away indiscriminately by junior officers. Certainly some ‘collectors’ have unscrupulously ‘souvenired’ or bullied ignorant officers into giving them material in full knowledge of its potential market-value. But many other collectors have bought material on the open market in ignorance of any possible illegitimacy. In many cases there is a long chain of private ownership. The most reputable booksellers regard such dealing as legitimate. Many a cabinet-minister has not bothered to return official material to custody.
In these circumstances, it is most unlikely that any retrospective clauses will be found in any Archives Act which is drawn up, and the Friends would not wish to see any. A policy of ‘forgive and forget’ is probably the only practicable one. But might it not be possible again for a general agreement to emerge that photocopying by the State Archives be arranged for material now in private hands?
Perhaps the most difficult problem of all is that of private papers held by legal firms as part of the estates of deceased persons. We may comment in a future issue.