State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 7 April 1971


The Acquisitions Policy of the State Library of Victoria, 1853–1880

At a time when the State Library is seeking to define its acquisitions policy more clearly, it is of more than academic interest to study the clear principles on which the Library's early policy was based.
The period under discussion (1853–1880) is the period in which Sir Redmond Barry dominated the affairs of the Library. When he died on 23 November 1880, ‘the formative period was over, the link with the beginnings of the Library, with La Trobe and with the goldfields was no more’.1 Happily, the period also coincides with the period of the printed catalogues which were supplied by the English bookseller Guillaume between 1854 and 1859, while the Melbourne Public Library published catalogues of its reference collections in 1861 (with a supplement in 1865) and in 1880–1.2 It is convenient therefore to divide this article into two parts. The first part will deal with the acquisitions policy as expressed in the numerous addresses, prefaces, letters and reports of the Trustees (nearly all of which were written by Barry), while the second part will attempt an independent assessment of his policy by drawing upon the comments and criticisms of users of the Library as well as on modern bibliographical aids.


Redmond Barry's acquisitions policy was based on definite ideas about the functions which a free library could perform in a young colony and a certainty about which books would best contribute to these functions. As has often been noted, Barry, like most of the leading public figures of the time, thought that the colony should be a piece of Britain, transplanted. As he told Sir Henry Barkly, ‘in this remote quarter of the Queen's Dominions, the Trustees are attached to British Institutions firmly planted in the soil’.3 The Library would help to reproduce British culture and society by ‘containing the glorious deeds of Her Majesty's illustrious ancestors and the achievements of men who enabled us to achieve enlightened moderation and liberty’. Further, along with the proposed museum of art and science it ‘would be filled with the presence of those august sages who have enunciated the immutable precepts on which depend the social, moral and religious welfare of the human race’.4
It is possible to distinguish four main themes in Barry's ideas about the function of the Library. For the Library and its sister institutions would play a vital role in the cultural, moral, economic and political life of the colony.
The first theme is contained in the above quotations. The Library was not intended ‘to attract the idle and inquisitive or to entertain the frivolous’.5 Rather it was intended to stimulate ‘intellectual culture’ and to elevate the general public taste so that they might be able to appreciate ‘the pure, the beautiful and the true’.6 In the preface to the 1861 Catalogue this motivation was stated more clearly and less rhetorically. The colony would benefit from ‘the voluntary adult mental improvement’ and ‘the intellectual and moral elevation’ which would result from a ‘cultivation of the works of standard authors’.7
The second theme involves the moralistic motive which inspired the founders of the Mechanics' Institutes both in the colonies and in England. It is not so strong in Barry's writings and is rarely expressed as explicitly as Governor Hotham's reference to the Library as being a means of
drawing away from ‘other temptations’ those ‘who frequent public houses and indulge in strong drinks’.8 Rather it is more often expressed implicitly. ‘The people are not so wholly engrossed by material preoccupations as to remain insensible to such refined indulgence as the prudence of our rulers has placed within their reach’. Now they would be able to pursue ‘substantial aims, not [the] gross pleasures which enslave the senses’.9
The third theme is more frequently and more explicitly expressed. The books in the Library would help the inhabitants of the colony to exploit its ‘natural and artificial resources’ and to develop them to the fullest possible extent.10 It is significant that the progress and wealth of the colony is emphasized far more than the satisfaction which the workers could gain by learning the principles which lay behind their work. The Melbourne Public Library was to be much more than a Mechanics’ Institute: it was to be a ‘national library’.11 Thus by writing to European libraries, to literary, philosophical and scientific institutions and societies, and through the agencies of different foreign States, Barry hoped to obtain ‘a body of authentic official information emanating from the departments of the useful arts and commerce, education, crime and social and economic statistics’.12 This idea is seen even more clearly when one notes the importance placed by Barry on the obtaining of the Specifications of the Commissioners of Patents. ‘The patents would economize manual and other labour, prevent wasteful expenditure of power already employed on the great industrial operations of the country, guide aright the intellectual ability and energy now misdirected or occupied upon the painful elaboration of ideas — through ignorance of complete information on the subject of progress in mechanical and scientific improvement.’13
The fourth theme expresses Barry's political and civic awareness. The Library, Gallery and Museums ‘would help to make good citizens, useful and faithful subjects of Her Majesty’,14 so that they would be able ‘to recognize the truths enforced by the history of all ages, that the greatest dangers to freedom arise from the prevalence of ignorance and vice, and that provision must be made for the cultivation and expansion of the public mind, according as it becomes charged with the exercise of political privileges’.15 In accordance with this motive the Trustees adopted rules which were as liberal as possible. Everyone over the age of fourteen was allowed free access to the building and to the books without intermediary attendants. The rules would thus help to impart the benefits of the library to the largest number of persons.16
Barry showed that he was sincere about these democratic ideas by inserting advertisements in the newspapers asking the public ‘to favor the Trustees with catalogues and lists of such works as might be required’.17 When he received no response from the public he went ahead and prepared a ‘catalogue of works of established merit’18 and sent it to the Agent-General in London, telling him to purchase the works listed through a London bookseller and to use what was remaining of £2500 to purchase works published since 1840 ‘as may be esteemed of a standard character’.19 His aim was to ‘lay a good foundation of works of solid learning, well edited, perfect and in good condition with strict regard to true economy which in this instance consists in obtaining the very best books at a reasonable cost’.20 No one since has ever set down in writing the principles to be observed in selecting specified titles in such minute detail. The best editions must be procured, that is ‘the latest, most carefully edited, collated and illustrated by notes or
otherwise, not such as recommended themselves solely by being gaudily bound’. If translations, they must be the best available, ‘not paraphrases, or abridgements or simplifications’. ‘Large octavo library copy size books were preferred to quarto or folio size or smaller sizes except where these others are the only forms available.’ Ephemeral works must be avoided; the works must be in good condition and the bookseller is to provide a catalogue with ‘the works classified under the various departments of literature with the editions, names of the editors, the place where printed, the date, size and price’. A design was enclosed for stamping on the outside cover of each book.21
As this first list of books formed the basis of the Melbourne Public Library (at the opening on 11 February 1856 there were 3,846 volumes on the shelves),22 it is worthy of closer examination.23
The list is the work of a busy man who only had time to jot down twenty headings and under each heading to indicate very roughly what authors, titles, series or periodicals should be purchased. The first major heading which occurred to Barry was Natural History and the 34 subheadings include the Transactions of the Royal Society, the British Association, the Geological Society and the Palaeontological Society. The second heading is Architecture, and in typical fashion Barry gives the names of 22 standard textbooks usually with the emphasis on the surname of the author. The heading Travels and Voyages contains 40 accounts including those of Cook, Marco Polo, Cabot, Eyre and Flinders. Speeches contains 17 subheadings including Cicero, Burke, Demosthenes and O'Connell. Essays immediately follows, and one can already observe Barry moving away from the first good intention of providing a library of scientific works, to his own interests and the books he knew best. There are 20 subheadings here including periodicals such as Quarterly, North British, Connoisseur, Idler, Mirror Adventurer, Spectator, Tatler and Rambler. The next heading, Atlases, Maps, Globes and Sciences, contains 29 subheadings including such names as Kepler, Galileo, Newton, La Place, Tycho Brahe and Davy. Following this is the heading Bibles etc. which has 35 subheadings including many translations, Josephus, the Vedda and the Koran. Under Fine Arts there are only 13 subheadings but Barry states that these may be increased later (obviously with the proposed Gallery in mind). Under Classics, Barry orders Valpy's complete edition of Latin authors and the best editions of 26 Greek authors. (In fact the Latin authors comprised 141 volumes and the Greek authors 169 volumes.24) Coins and Medals is followed by Botany which has 12 subheadings. Biography has 36 subheadings which mainly consist of politicians, diplomats, rulers and soldiers. A random selection would include such names as Boswell's Johnson, Napoleon, Coke, Hale, the Duke of Marlborough, Nelson, Petrarch, Columbus, Gustavus Adolphus, Lorenzo de Medici, Frederick the Great, Washington, Mahomet, Rienzi, William I, William II, Stephen, and Henry VII. Dictionaries etc. is really a list of 37 reference books and encyclopaedias. British Classics has 52 subheadings, Political Economy has 13 (including Malthus, Ricardo, Adam Smith, Sismondi), Metaphysics and Logic has 14, Commentaries (that is, law commentaries such as Blackstone) has 16, while under History 91 subheadings (mainly on English History) appear. There are separate headings for Chronicles (52 subheadings) and for French Works (9 subheadings). (Barry's attachment to French culture was made more manifest by his obtaining through the French consul
a gift of 100 rare volumes from Napoleon III.)25
In the first report of the Trustees to Parliament after the 1869 Act of Incorporation, Barry stated what the Library did not include.
  • ‘i) Works usually classed as works of fiction and of the imagination.
  • ii) Juvenile literature (not more than 300 volumes of these).
  • iii) Books of injurious tendency.
  • iv) Books of a purely ephemeral description and of transient value, mere literary curiosities or rarities, expensive manuscripts, those simply recommended by their sumptuous binding or illustration.’26
He then goes on to state that these strict principles favouring economy and subject matter not form, did not prohibit the buying of such specialized subjects and expensive books as Abbé Migne's Repertorium of 1300 writers in Patristic Theology and History in 326 volumes, the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum in 56 volumes, the four volumes of Audubon, the seven volumes of Gould, Silvestre's Palaeographie in 4 volumes, Denon, Lepsius’ Egypt (in 12 elephant folio volumes), Grevius’ and Granovius’ Thesaurus (82 folio volumes), Litta's Italian Families (8 folio volumes), Petz's Medieval German History in 18 folio volumes, The Times from 1807, The Galleries of Dresden, Versailles, Florence, Naples, Il Vaticano, British Museum etc.27
In this first official report of 1870–1 Barry stated other determinants which guided him in his book-selection. As we shall see in the second part of this article, Barry did not always adhere to his stated principles, or else they seem to have been stated subsequent to criticism by visitors and users of the Library. Nevertheless at present we are concerned with Barry's stated principles and so these additional determinants are worth stating, especially as they indicate that Barry had ideas about the rationalization of book-stocks which are often thought to be the result of the emergence of full-time professional librarians.
In this 1870–1 Report Barry states that in the selection of books the Trustees had been much influenced by the existence in Melbourne of three other libraries ‘with which they have been connected’ — the Melbourne University Library (Barry was Chancellor), the Parliamentary Library (founded in 1852) and the Supreme Court Library (Barry was also the main person behind this library). ‘The Parliamentary Library mainly consisted of works on constitutional history, polity, statistics and allied subjects, the University Library consisted of classics, ancient and modern science, natural philosophy, natural history and education, and the Supreme Court bought books on law, history and general jurisprudence.’ Barry stated that the Trustees, after building up a basic collection, aimed to supplement these other libraries in order to avoid the needless multiplication of copies of the same books, especially concentrating on the sciences and the practical arts. Thus in 1871, when the aggregate content of the four libraries was 111,921 volumes, there were not more than 15,000 replicas of the same authors.28
The Reports of the Trustees between 1870 and 1880 record that attention was still paid to the most ‘approved scientific and economic modes of advancing the industries and improving the social condition of the public’,29 but that ‘as the wants of readers with regard to general current literature have become better supplied, attention has been turned to the filling up of some of the gaps which exist in several of the departments’.30 Thus in 1870–1 the Library acquired books on Fine Arts in Italy, agriculture, pomology, general horticulture and cultivation of vine and wine

This photograph of the reading-room was probably taken before 1860. The photographer, B. Johnstone, visited the Library in later years and annotated the photograph as follows:—
Sir Redmond Barry, one of the Judges of the Colony of Victoria, and Chairman of the Trustees of the Public Library, asked me if I thought I could take a photograph of the Interior, and I said I would try. The day was fixed, and Sir Redmond, the Attorney-General, the Mayor of Melbourne, and one or two more, were present. The Chief Librarian (at the far end of the table) and his assistants and some workmen were placed at the table, and told that they must sit perfectly still for six minutes. The gentlemen accompanied me to the “dark room”, a cellar in which I had put my things, and there, on my knees, for there was no table, to the astonished delight of my distinguished audience, I developed the negative. Remember, I was a young man, only just beginning in Photography, and with a Judge, an Attorney-General, and a Mayor looking on — well, it was trying! My light was a naked candle —

making as well as choice editions of the Bible.31 In 1879 attention was paid to Bibles, county histories, numismatics and Shakespeariana (the Library already had 917 volumes of Shakespeariana).32 The 1880 Report records that the Trustees concentrated on collections of foreign books, philology and classics.33 The persistence of the Trustees in filling gaps is evidenced by the way in which they obtained a copy of the Proceedings of the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburgh in 125 volumes. An Amsterdam bookseller named Miller searched for six years before he was able to procure them.34 The 1877 and 1878 Reports show the increasing use of the exchange of publications with such institutions as the Smithsonian Institute of Washington and the Institute of Public Instruction in France, and the Government of Belgium. Exchanges with the Lord Provost of Glasgow of books relating to water supply and navigation of the River Clyde were considered especially valuable because of the works being undertaken in the Port of Melbourne.35
When Barry died in 1880 the Trustees continued his policies, although it may be significant that in 1881 it was agreed to make all ordinary purchases in Melbourne. In addition more attention was paid to the newspaper collection, and the Trustees began to use specialists to acquire such works as the Scandinavian classics, Italian works (Signor Gagliardi, LL.D., of the University of Pisa prepared a list) and French works. (Mr. Bouton, late secretary to the Minister of Public Instruction in France sent a list of French works which he deemed ‘most desirable for the library’.)36
The dominance of one man in the affairs of the Library was finished. From this time one hears more of the Librarians than the Trustees. By 1881 the collection was already one of the great collections of the world. In 1878 Barry had boasted that ‘it may therefore be affirmed without unseemly exultation that the library with its 100,000 volumes now daily open for unrestricted use to a quarter of a million readers in the year, may deservedly take rank amongst those which in other countries justly assert their claim to high renown’.37 Sixteen years before, W. R. H. Jessop in his Sketches in Australia had said, ‘… your library is a boast, in which a vain people could not go too far. The museum and the library have nothing to equal them in the southern hemisphere’.38
Ever since those days of ‘not unseemly exultation’, people have wondered what happened. Why did the State Library not fulfil its early promise?
This question is a complex one. It surely involves such factors as the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, the two World Wars, the emergence of the Commonwealth Government as the main controller of Victoria's wealth, the growth and development of Municipal, University and now College of Advanced Education libraries (all drawing funds away from the State Library), the declining interest of our public leaders in the Arts except as a status symbol, and finally the change in interest of the wealthy away from literature to the visual arts. Yet in spite of the relevance of all these factors the basic fault lay in these early years. The basis was too wide. The Librarians and Trustees of the twentieth century have found it impossible to keep building on all parts of the collections. Unfortunately it is only in recent years that this fact has been fully recognized and steps taken to move away from the past.
The following concluding quotation indicates Barry's impossible dream. ‘In procuring books from Europe not obtainable in this country, regard has been had to the principle which has prevailed since
the establishment of the Institution, that the primary duty is to acquire all the works necessary for theoretical and practical instruction in the leading departments of Literature, Science and Art, and that when funds are available from time to time, additions may be made to such as have befallen somewhat into arrears, so as to preserve as nearly as possible the balance in all.’39
In the next issue of this Journal I will leave Barry and his many words and attempt an examination of the same period 1853–1880 from the point of view of visitors to the Library, users of the Library, and as far as possible a critical view from the present.
David McVilly.


McCallum, C. A., ‘History of the Public Library of Victoria’, Australian Library Journal, Oct. 1959, pp. 188–196.


There was also a Catalogue of Donations published in 1872 as well as other catalogues containing the lending collections and periodicals received.


Address of the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library Presented to His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly K.C.B. Governor in Chief of the Colony of Victoria on the opening of the Queen's Reading Room on Tuesday May 24th 1859 … with the reply of His Excellency the Governor, p. 3. (Contained in a valuable bound volume in the State Library titled Victoria. Public Library. Report of Trustees etc., call number sf O27.4M48R.)


Ibid, p. 3.


Ibid, p. 1.


Address of the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library. Presented to His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly K.C.B. Governor in Chief of the Colony of Victoria on the opening of the Museum of Art on Friday May 24th 1861, p. 2 (in bound volume cited above).


Catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library for 1861 (Melbourne, The Trustees, 1861), p. v.


Argus, 4 July 1854, p. 6.


1861 Address of the Trustees, op. cit., p. 2.


Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria. 1870–71 (Melbourne, 1871), p. 14.


Melbourne Public Library, Letter-books, 1853–1860, p. 2, Letter dated 3 Dec. 1853.


Report of the Trustees Presented to His Excellency Major-General Macarthur, Acting Governor-General and Governor in Chief of the Colony of Victoria and its dependencies on the occasion of the opening of the Library, 11 Feb. 1856 (in bound volume cited above).


Correspondence Between the Public Library-Trustees and the Government Respecting Additional Accommodation, ordered to be printed by the Legislative Assembly 7 May 1861 (in bound volume cited above). See also Report of Trustees etc. 1870–71, p. 38; also Report of Trustees etc. 1877, p. 7.


1861 Address of the Trustees, op. cit., p. 2.


Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria. 1870–71.


Report of the Trustees Accompanying Estimates for the service of the Year 1859 (in bound volume cited above).


Report of the Trustees [to] Major-General Macarthur … 11 Feb. 1856, op. cit., p. 1.


Melbourne Public Library. Letter-books, 1853–1860. Report of the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library, 30 Nov. 1854.


Ibid. Letter to Agent-General dated 5 Dec. 1853.


Ibid, letter to Sir William à Beckett and others, 17 Jan. 1854.


Ibid, letter to Agent-General, 5 Dec. 1853.


Address of Trustees … on the opening of the Queen's Reading Room on Tuesday May 24th 1859, op cit., p. 1.


The list is in the letter to the Agent-General dated 5 Dec. 1853, op. cit.


Catalogue of the Public Library of Melbourne 1854. (Prepared by William Guillaume.)


Minutes of the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library, 13 Dec. 1858, p. 30.


Report of the Trustees … 1870–71, op. cit., p. 14.


Ibid, p. 15.


Ibid, p. 14.


Ibid, p. 5.


Report of the Trustees … 1874–5, p. 4.


Report of the Trustees … 1871, p. 5.


Report of the Trustees … 1879, pp. 5-6.


Report of the Trustees … 1880, p. 6.


Report of the Trustees … 1874–5, p. 4.


Report of the Trustees … 1879, p. 5.


Report of the Trustees … 1881, p. 10.


Report of the Trustees … 1878, p. 5.


Jessop, W. R. H., Flindersland and Sturtland (London, 1862), pp. 205-6 (reference from P. Garrett, Esq.).


Report of the Trustees … 1879, p. 5.