State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 21 April 1978


The Australian Manuscripts Collection in the State Library of Victoria: Its Growth, Development and Future Prospects.1

The Australian Manuscripts Collection housed in the La Trobe Library wing of the State Library of Victoria comprises the private papers of men and women who have contributed in various ways to the development of the history of the State of Victoria from the earliest years of settlement until the present day. In addition to documenting the lives of many individual Victorians, not all of them prominent and successful, the collection includes institutional records of various kinds: churches; societies; professional associations; station properties; political parties; and business firms. It is necessary to distinguish these records from the official archives of the State of Victoria which are maintained quite separately by the Public Record Office which is housed in premises recently occupied at Laverton outside Melbourne.
To the layman the distinction between official archives and non-official or private archives is almost meaningless. Even the best informed people refer to the location of all records in “the Archives” and it comes as something of a surprise to learn that in Victoria, as in a number of other places in Australia and overseas, there is more or less common agreement that official records fall into one quite distinct category while private records or manuscripts fall into another.2
Unlike the case of material held in the Public Record Office or similar institutions, there is no way of predicting the contents of a collection of manuscripts, though eventually most collections come to have some identifiable character with strengths in particular fields such as pastoral history or the history of business houses, ecclesiastical history or the history of theatre. Manuscripts collections — and the one in the La Trobe Library is no exception — usually grow in a piecemeal way, built up slowly and painstakingly as individual collections become available. Governments have no power to legislate over private records and it is entirely a matter for individual choice whether papers will eventually be placed in a public repository or not. Libraries are in a real sense dependent on the good will of the public and of their interest (usually not particularly highly developed or aware) in seeing that some kind of documentary record, whether it be in pictorial or manuscript form, is preserved for the interest of present and future generations. Libraries which do maintain such collections are usually willing to purchase material, though the greater part of any collection is more typically built up by generous donations from individuals or families or institutions with a keen sense of the past. Such people or institutions may also be persuaded to appreciate the central role libraries are able to play in providing a secure home for fragile materials which may otherwise be scattered or lost for ever.
The State Library of Victoria began its collection of manuscript materials in 1874 when the Royal Society of Victoria passed into its custody the extensive records of the Burke and Wills Expedition which had taken place under the Society's sponsorship in 1860–1861. Arguably one of the great sets of papers to have been preserved in Australia — great in the sense that they reflect on one of the epic events in our national history and which is known, if only by name, by most Australians — these records provided a cornerstone around which the rest of the collection has grown and developed. But, it must be stressed, this growth was slow and lacking in consistency and direction. Items, rather than collections of papers, were acquired piece by piece — occasional presentations of material documenting noteworthy landmarks in the colony's short history: the lovely example of eighteenth century calligraphy represented by Matthew Flinders’ ‘Narrative of an expedition to Furneauxs Islands on the coast of New South Wales … March 1798; the deeds prepared by John Batman and the Port Phillip Association with the aboriginals of Melbourne and Geelong, recording the
preposterous settlements whereby on paper, if not in legal fact, thousands of acres of land were passed into white hands in exchange for paltry trinkets, mirrors, axes and blankets; and John Batman's Journal which records his famous line about finding a place for a village — the site of the future City of Melbourne. All of these were choice items but acquired it would seem, more for their antiquarian interest than for their long-term research value.
These remarks are not intended to be severely critical of the approach to collecting material of this kind. Certainly, hindsight might suggest to us that attempts should have been made to secure in a more systematic way collections of papers of men and women who had played an interesting role in the development of the young colony. The object seems in fact to have been to show off important single items in a museum environment rather than to provide a basis for serious research. Indeed, in 1914 the Trustees accepted the recommendation of the then Chief Librarian that a Victorian Historical Museum should be established for exhibiting portraits of governors, early colonists and others of note in the establishment and history of the State and also for the exhibition of prints, manuscripts and other objects ‘… illustrative of the history and progress of Victoria’.3 In some respects, this step was an enlightened one and it did allow the Library to lay the firm foundation of the extensive collection both of original papers and historical pictures—etchings, lithographs, drawings, paintings and photographs which it owns today.
For some reason though, the formation of a collection of manuscripts did not make any major progress. In reviewing the record of the Library as a collector in this field, it is hard to avoid comparison with both the Mitchell Library and what is now the National Library of Australia in Canberra, formerly the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library. For many years, the Mitchell Library has had a national reputation and has collected widely, not only material relating to New South Wales but to other Australian States. And in spite of the spirited collecting activities over many years, by the National Library in Canberra particularly during the long librarianship of H. L. White, the Mitchell Library was able until quite recent times to see itself as the single most important research collection in the country and to be identified in this way by Australians generally. The disadvantages suffered by the National Library during the long years of its cramped, inadequate housing in Canberra seem to have been more than made up for, since the opening of its new building provided a splendid focus for the development of its collections on a grand scale. The National Library now, quite rightly, enjoys a preeminence which has enabled it to attract many important collections and to aim for the development of a research collection of manuscripts and pictures reflecting the history of the nation as a whole.
Both these libraries were fortunate in their beginnings — the Mitchell in particular which based its collections on the original private library of books, manuscripts and pictures built up over a life-time by David Scott Mitchell. And on his death in 1907, when the collection eventually passed to the people of New South Wales, the library acquired a generous capital sum (£70,000) as an extension of Mitchell's gift to enable it to purchase material to augment and develop the collections. The origins of the National Library's strength in original material go back to the gift to the Commonwealth in 1911 of the collection of books, pamphlets, maps and pictures which had been built up over many years by the Melbourne bookseller and private collector E. A. Petherick.
There is some indication that the library in Melbourne for a number of years forfeited any claim it might have had to be considered as the natural repository for records relating to the history of Victoria. It appears to have made no attempt to solicit material in the same enterprising and systematic way as the young Victorian Historical Society (later the Royal Historical Society of Victoria), which in fact owed its foundation to the fact that individuals were concerned that
no attempts were being made to collect documentary evidence about the development and settlement of Victoria. In March 1909 W. J. Hughston wrote to the Argus newspaper pointing out the urgent necessity of a systematic attempt to preserve a record of the reminiscences of the surviving pioneers of the State, whose memories were the sole repository of Victoria's early history.4 The society came into existence in May 1909 when the work of organisation was taken in hand and a constitution framed in which the objects of the Society were extended to include the collection and preservation of historical records of all kinds whether in the form of oral tradition or written documents. As early as the following September, the Society was able to announce the formation of a nucleus of what it described as a Victorian historical archive. The Society was interested in the following categories:
Reminiscences of old colonists, either written by themselves or dictated to in terviewers, particularly with reference to the origin of place names and the growth of settlement.
Old letters, diaries, memoranda, commercial and legal papers and other documents containing historical information.
Old drawings, prints and photographs of persons or places including portraits of deceased pioneers with biographical in formation. Amateur photographers were invited to send to the Society photographs of existing landmarks, old buildings and other objects of historical interest.5
A distinguished council was brought together to carry out these objectives. Members included Professor Harrison Moore, J. A. Panton who was himself a noted old colonist, E. A. Petherick, Ernest Scott who became well-known as Professor of History in the University of Melbourne, and Professor W. Baldwin Spencer. Sadly, no member of the staff of what was then known as the Melbourne Public Library was represented on this council and there appears to have been no suggestion that anyone considered the Library had any role to play either in encouraging the collection of records or in providing a permanent home for material of this kind. And yet it was in this very area that the Library had much to offer — it had staff and storage facilities and a responsibility to extend a service to the public. The Historical Society really had none of these things though it did have enthusiasm and it very quickly mounted a publicity campaign to secure its main objectives. After its first two years in existence, it congratulated itself on the important work which had been done in drawing attention to the nature and value of historical material. At the same time, it noted that its librarian was already much hampered by the custody of an ever-increasing collection of historical material and the lack of proper facilities for its preservation.6 This is a problem which none of the amateur societies which have been set up in Australia have really been able to cope with adequately to date, though there are indications that some good regional centres may soon be established to provide facilities for the preservation and organisation of collections of local records.
More analytical work needs to be done on the Library's approach to the acquisition of manuscript materials throughout the period until the 1950's. Much of importance was acquired and a wide selection of items from the collection was brought together for display in the Victorian Historical Exhibition mounted by the Library in 1934 to celebrate Melbourne's centenary. In addition to material selected from the Library's own holdings, this exhibition included manuscripts and pictures loaned by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library (now the National Library) and a number of private individuals, some of whom subsequently presented their material to the Library.
At this time, it must be remembered that much of the concern in the Library was for the preservation of official records, the records of government departments in Victoria, and from the 1920's on the institution began to receive large consignments of official files pending the eventual establishment of a Records Office.7 These files were
extensive and in their bulk would certainly have overshadowed the existing collection of manuscripts. The two collections however were kept together with the exception of important single items which were kept in a safe or in cupboards in or adjacent to the Principal Librarian's room. The question of priorities aside, it appears to have been the instinct of the Trustees to accept material presented by gift but to have reservations about the expenditure of funds. There is evidence in the Trustees’ Minute Books that a number of items were rejected, apparently on the grounds of cost, though in relation to this point, it must be kept in mind that the Library was coming to a period when financially and in other ways it was not attracting the same measure of support from governments as it had done in its first sixty or so years.
From the 1950's on there developed a new interest in the collection of private records — largely it would seem as a result of the feelings of optimism which developed after it seemed certain that a new wing to house the Australiana Collections would be constructed on a site in La Trobe Street adjoining the main library buildings. In 1951, the foundation stone for what was to become the La Trobe Library was laid but, regrettably, building operations were delayed for many years and the fenced-off site stood in forlorn testimony to the disappointed hopes of those who had cherished the dream of a specialist library concerned with Australian literature and history. There is no doubt though that the promise of the new building gave a real incentive to collection-building. Two major initiatives stand out: the support given, in her search for records for the historian, by the late Margaret Kiddle who is justly remembered for Men of Yesterday, her fine history of the Western District; and the acquisition by the Library of the splendid collection of books and literary manuscripts of the Melbourne book collector, the late J. K. Moir.
In the early 1950's, while Margaret Kiddle was researching her history, she decided to try to make contact with descendants in the United Kingdom of families who had migrated to Victoria and settled on the land in what became well-known as the Western District. In 1952 Margaret Kiddle spent a year in the United Kingdom. Before she went abroad, she wrote letters to selected newspapers announcing her visit and her immediate research interest concerning the settlement of the Western District. She also mentioned that she wanted to learn of the existence of private papers which ‘… may illuminate the history of the settlement of the colony of Victoria more generally’8, and that, to this end, she had the support of the Public Library of Victoria in seeking permission to photograph any journals and letters which might be forthcoming. Beyond this, Margaret Kiddle expressed the hope that many original items would actually find their permanent home in the Library's Collection. She noted the plan to build a library of Australiana and hoped that ‘… its foundation might well provide the occasion for the presentation to it of papers which may be important for local Australian history but perhaps of merely curious interest outside Australia’.9
The Library authorities made the now modest sum of £50 available to Margaret Kiddle to cover the cost of filming records but, in the event, only a small portion of this money was used as the Commonwealth National Library made available its photographic equipment in London to enable the preparation of microfilm copies for distribution to the Mitchell Library, the National Library and the Public Library of Victoria.
Margaret Kiddle was able to visit over thirty families and to acquire the originals or copies of twenty-eight collections or items. All of the original material which she brought back to Australia found its way into the collections of the Public Library and, as a direct result of her interest and enthusiasm, a number of the collections of records she located here in Victoria eventually also passed into the custody of the Library. As recently as a year ago one each of the station journals and letter books she used for Men of Yesterday were received by the La Trobe Library as the product of a bequest decided
upon during the early period of Margaret Kiddle's search in Victoria for original records.
In 1956 the Library appointed its first Manuscripts Librarian (though not yet a full-time position) and at last a start could be made in bringing the scattered holdings together to form a separate collection. Recalling her first experiences working with the manuscripts collections, Clarice Kemp has told me that material was held in no more than 121 or so boxes and that manuscripts were held in as many as thirteen separate locations around the main Library building. The collection however was small enough to allow her to sit down and work her way systematically through each item, reading and becoming familiar with everything in the collection.
By this time, the collection was beginning to develop particular strengths and identifiable characteristics. It was surprisingly strong in material reflecting the origins of settlement in Victoria in general and in Melbourne itself in particular. Records of the pioneer experience were becoming important, particularly such items as diaries written on ships coming to Australia and letters written home to England recounting experiences in settling into life in a new country. The gold era came to be well-represented and the Library developed a major strength for the period of pastoral settlement, expansion and consolidation through such collections as the papers and records of the Henty family, the Learmonths, the Mackinnons and Niel Black.
The period following the opening of the La Trobe Library wing in 1965 is the most significant as far as the growth of a research collection of original source material is concerned. Not only was a large area of the new building set aside to house the existing collection, but facilities were available to provide for its future growth. The Library's opening coincided with a renewed interest in Australian history, an interest which was reflected in the establishment at tertiary level of courses devoted to Australian literature and history, in an upsurge in the growth of local historical societies, in a sharp increase in the monetary value of Australian manuscripts, pictures and books, and in a greatly increased publishing output extending over the whole range from the most popular accounts and interpretations through to highly researched academic studies. All this was part of a new awareness of ourselves as Australians. Just how new may be measured perhaps by the fact that it was not until the 1970's that the Australian National University saw fit to create the first chair of Australian History, though it should be remembered that for several years before this the Australian content in history courses offered in several universities had been increasing steadily.
One of the products of this renewed interest in Australia's past was the value which came to be placed on the preservation of original records, particularly in universities which were anxious to fulfil their important function to promote original research. From the late 1950's onwards a number of Australian universities began to develop archival collections, usually concentrating on a particular subject area. Thus, in the University of Melbourne under the leadership of the archivist Frank Strahan and with the support of academic staff in the Departments of History and Economic History, there developed a major collection of the original records of many Victorian business firms. In Canberra, the Australian National University developed a substantial holding of records with an emphasis on trade union history. Similar expansion began to take place in the public domain, though without quite the flair or energy of some of the University collectors who perhaps operated with a greater freedom. Against this it must be remembered that during the early 1960's the State Library of Victoria was only at the beginning of a major phase of redevelopment which is still in progress — it had passed through a depressing and spiritless era which, for a variety of reasons, had seen the steady erosion of staff morale and a serious decline in the quality of its services. A Government Committee of Enquiry, a new Act, the establishment of the Library Council of Victoria and the appointment
of a State Librarian, the drawing up of a Master Plan for library services in Victoria, the opening of the La Trobe Library and, in quite recent times, a considerably expanded staff all of these were to be factors contributing to a more dynamic approach by the State Library of Victoria in serving the research and information needs of the people of Victoria in a variety of ways.
In the case of the La Trobe Library, at least two other factors should be noted: the interest by senior academic staff in Melbourne's (then) two universities in the development of a collection of original source material capable of sustaining and supporting research studies in Australian literature and history; and the interest of a community of friends who were prepared to lend material aid and influence to foster the growth of the Library's collections.
The Friends of the La Trobe Library was founded in 1966 with the aims of publicising the Library, attracting financial support, helping to fill gaps in the book collection and encouraging the donation of manuscripts and other material. With regard to the last objective, the Friends have sought to locate diaries, letters and other family or institutional papers which have survived and to acquire such material for the Library or to arrange to have it photocopied by negotiation with owners.
A number of significant gifts notwithstanding, the most important single contribution of the Friends was the sponsorship it gave in 1969 to the appointment of a Manuscripts Field Officer for the Library. At the instigation of the Friends, the Myer, Ian Potter and Sunshine Foundations made financial provision for a one-year appointment by the Library Council of Victoria of a field officer who would have responsibility for locating family papers, diaries and correspondence in private hands, institutional records and other material of importance to Victorian and Australian history and to endeavour to acquire or photocopy such material for the Library. Through their generosity, the Library was fortunate to acquire the services of the writer Patsy Adam-Smith who in the course of a colourful and energetic career had travelled extensively around Australia collecting source material for a number of popular books on social history, Australian railways, maritime history and folklore. After a highly successful first year in which the field officer established many contacts around the State and acquired or copied almost fifty collections of papers, the appointment was extended for a second year and because of its continued success the position of Field Officer was finally added to the Library's permanent establishment.
Patsy Adam-Smith continues to hold the job. The eight years of her term coincide with the period of the most significant growth, development and diversification of the collection which is now in the hands of a professional staff of four librarians, together with additional librarians working in the collection for one or two days each week and with the support of two library technicians. The existing strengths have been built on so that there are now particularly strong collections of records reflecting the history of landed settlement in Victoria, not only in the Western District but in north-eastern Victoria and in Gippsland. The collection now includes records reflecting the cultural history of the state: the papers of Dorian Le Gallienne, of Sir Bernard Heinze and of the Lindsay family; the records of the Victorian Artists’ Society; and a large collection of records of the theatrical entrepreneur George Coppin. Institutional records of various kinds are also held including those of the Congregational Union of Victoria, the Society of Friends, the Jewish Board of Deputies and of the Australian Labor Party (Victorian Branch).
These most recent years have seen the competition for materials become intense, with various repositories often vying to obtain collections. The attitude is sometimes expressed that this competition is no bad thing and that it is quite good enough that material is being preserved. Against this it needs to be said that if collection building itself is to mean anything — the building on established strength and the bringing together
of subject or area collections — then it is a matter for regret if records of particular interest to Victoria pass out of the State. It is unsatisfactory too if collections proliferate and small repositories are unable to provide either the staff or the facilities to offer accommodation and access to the research worker, not to mention the high standard of care and attention to detail which the curatorship of records demands.
In the past, there has been criticism either implied or direct that the State Library has missed opportunities and allowed records to be lost. As this paper suggests, particular circumstances have influenced the pattern of growth of the collection. Certainly there have been disappointments and frustrations and there are gaps in the collection which may never be adequately filled. But the Australian Manuscripts Collection is now well-established and far better able than at any point in the past to discharge its responsibility to Victorians by preserving and making available the documentary records which form a part of the heritage of all of us. In turn, it may be said that Victorians have a responsibility to see that collections of this kind are augmented, nurtured and enriched and that an adequate measure of support is extended to allow the Library to discharge its responsibilities as effectively as possible.
John Thompson


This paper was prepared originally as an address to the Friends of the Monash University Library in October 1977.


This view is now being challenged by the Australian Archives in Canberra, particularly following the Report on the Development of the National Archives, September 1973, by Dr. W. Kaye Lamb, former Dominion Archivist in Canada. Dr. Lamb endorsed the view held by the Australian Archives that the institution should be free to solicit and acquire the papers of men and women who had played a significant role in public life in Australia. It had previously been generally assumed that such papers if they were to be preserved in a public collection, would normally find a permanent home in the National Library of Australia.


Edmund La Touche Armstrong and Robert Douglass Boys, The Book of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria 1906–1931 Melbourne, Trustees of the Public Library … 1932 pp. 25–26.


Argus, 20 March 1909, p.5.


Education Gazette and Teachers’ Aid, 20 September 1909, p. 291.


The Historical Society of Victoria, Report and Financial Statement of Council for the year ending 30th June, 1912. Melbourne, Walker, May and Co. 1912.


Armstrong and Boys, op. cit., p.60 and p.64.


Margaret Kiddle to City Editor, The Times, London, 29 November 1951. Typescript copy appended to M. Kiddle's report to the Trustees of the Public Library of Victoria entitled ‘Hunting for Australian Historical Records in England February-November 1952’, p.22. Australian Manuscripts Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria.