State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 25 April 1980


Manuscript: A Visit to the Library in 1859

Hermann Beckler (1828–1914) was born at Höchstädt on the Danube in Bavaria, the son of a teacher. He studied medicine at the University of Munich but was much more interested in botany, minerology, zoology and mathematics. Disenchanted with life in Bavaria after the Revolution of 1848 and attracted by the lure of distant lands, he migrated to Australia, arriving in February 1856. Efforts to establish himself as a doctor in Ipswich and later in Warwick and Tenterfield were unsuccessful and he spent much of his time furthering his knowledge of the sciences, particularly botany. In June 1859 on the invitation of Ferdinand von Mueller he came to Melboure. He made a number of plant collecting expeditions at Mueller's request and later joined the Burke and Wills Expedition as doctor and plant collector. He returned to Germany in 1862, pursued his medical studies further and settled down to practise as a doctor in the Allgäu, maintaining his interest in botany and the other sciences to the end of his life.
Beckler's visit to the Melbourne Public Library (now the State Library of Victoria) took place only three years after it was opened (11 February, 1856). He describes it in a letter to his brother Carl in Germany. At the time the Library comprised only the centre section and south wing of the Queen's Hall with the gallery, reached by stairs from the Swanston Street foyer.
Beckler's letters to his brother are preserved in the City Museum at Höchstädt. The translation has been made from a modern German transcription of the letters commissioned by the Library Council from a Munich archivist, Michael Renner.
Dear Carl,
It is ten-thirty in the evening. I have just come from the “Library”, Melbourne's “public library” and, having drunk a glass of ale and smoked a pipe of “Negrohead”, have sat down straight away to write to you about it while my first impression remains clear. Today I shall write only generalities. You know how hungry I was at home to see each new book, how eagerly I absorbed every word, every line, every illustration. For years I had nothing but a few vagabonds of books at my disposal, a Sydney paper and now and then a “London Illustrated News”. For months on end I had absolutely nothing apart from two or three times when our superintendent brought a newspaper from the nearest post office. This evening, after repeated resolutions, I finally went to the library. The “public library” is a splendid building, not yet completed, but built in a rather grand style. It is in Swanston Street, very close to where I live. I shall give you the details later. Today I did not have time and did not spend the time needed to look at such things.
Coming from the street you open a gate in the surrounding wall. After a few steps you come to a temporary wooden staircase; a few steps more, then over another wooden staircase and after a few last steps you reach the door of the building.
The library is open to the public each week day from 10 o'clock in the morning till 10 o'clock at night. Judging by the lighting on the first floor (the only floor) and its arched roof, which I had often seen from distant parts of the town, I had concluded there would be a large reading room. This was indeed the case. But let us begin downstairs.
From the main door you enter a large entrance hall, plain in style, roomy, clean and bright from the abundant gas lighting. On the walls I saw, in passing, large display cases with illustrations of natural history subjects. A policeman in the handsome Melbourne uniform paced up and down, probably on duty as he was still in the same place when I left.
From the entrance hall you come to a spacious staircase with wide stone steps covered, like the hall, with mats. A printed notice asks the visitor to take off his hat before entering the library (which is more than reasonable) and to enter his name on the list of visitors. The walls of the staircase are covered with charts, statistical tables and notices relevant to library visits. On the ledges of the wall are a few simple arrangements of Aboriginal arms and implements … An official or “guard” sits in front of the entrance door to the library. One signs one's name, takes off one's hat and goes in. And there before one is a large library. An excellent book collection is at the disposal of anyone interested, be he a learned man or the most humble worker. No book may be taken from the library. Anyone who dirties or damages a book is barred from it. Anyone who steals a book would naturally be taken to court on a charge of theft “assuming he is caught”. But otherwise one can do what one likes. Dear Carl, this is a wonderful, free, civilized land. There is no-one checking to see whether anyone is stealing a book. The best book in the library is too good for nobody. One is just asked politely by notices to return each book to the place whence one took it.
I am no architect and therefore cannot comment on the architectural style of the room. But immediately on entering it I thought of the “Odeonsaal” in Munich … Everywhere along the sides, mounted on cardboard, are plans or outlines of the room showing the location of the various departments so that one can immediately orient oneself. In sections where the growing collection of books already necessitates higher shelves, there are suitable steps or ladders. And so here too one is one's own librarian. Every visitor is trusted and allowed full access to the library. The room is pleasantly warm and splendidly lit with gas. Nowhere, in no corner, can one complain of insufficient light. On both sides of the central area are a series of alcoves completely separated from each other, with bookracks on both walls. The whole of the back wall is filled with English history, etc. Then come the divisions, numbered let us say 4. Botany, 6. Agriculture, 8. Geology and Chemistry, 10. Astronomy and Mathematics. Each figure indicates a wall, the even numbers being to the left of the central area, the odd to the right. You find what you want, and then study or read either in the side alcove (there are comfortable armchairs everywhere) or in the central section where there is a row of tables down the middle. I was naturally very happy and decided, after the requisite amount of hunting about to get my bearings, to begin with a botanical work: De Candolle's Géographie botanique raisonée.2 I did this and this evening have already mastered the 23 pages of introduction. Unfortunately (and well I know it) I have a bad memory. I am glad to say, however, that after all this time I can still read French as well as German. There are such beautiful and fine works here — the complete works of Loudon, Don, Jussieu, Nees von Esenbeck's Deutsche Flora beside many monographs, Hooker's Botanical journals, Hooker's Flora Antarctica, Flora Novae Zealand, other German, English, French and Italian Flora, Edwards’ Icones generum plantarum, Schleiden's Fundamentals (in English), Lindley's works and many more volumes of botanical periodicals.3 In short: books sufficient to educate any man.
De Candolle's Organographie, Gaertner's De seminibus et fructibus plantarum, (illegible) English Flora, Sweet's Flora australasica, Curtis Botanical Magazine, Maund's Botanical garden, etc., etc.4
I only glanced into the alcove for “Geography and Travelling” and at once saw Humboldt's work on his travels and Dr. Barth's work in five large volumes.5 The book that I intend to work through is brand new (1855). All the books are beautifully bound and have, on the front cover, an elegant gold stamp with an inscription, I think “Delectant domi — non impediunt foris — peregrinantur”.6 There are also notices to the effect that gifts of books, coins, arms, maps, hand-drawings and natural history objects will be gratefully acknowledged by the “Trustees”, that is, the guardians or those responsible.
Dear Carl, at home you scarcely know

The Library as Beckler knew it. The plan of the Library from The Catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library for 1861.

what civilization is. You are accustomed to it, you have never seen anything else, you know no better. Actually, here too I sometimes need a stimulus as strong as that induced by the first visit to a large library, to consider momentarily the contrast between culture and the natural state … Twenty years ago, perhaps only fifteen, natives may have camped on this very spot, close to what was then the small township of Melbourne, roasted their opossums in hot ashes, smoked their pipes and danced their corroboree. Today there stands a stately building, sponsored by just a few people, erected through the co-operation of many citizens and botanists, which opens its doors free of charge to everyone, offering intellectual nourishment.
Here you can quench your thirst for knowledge; learn what is necessary or useful in your life or position; raise your thoughts above the low, common path of daily life by reading sublime prose or poetry; fill in a useful, sober evening-hour instead of spending the last penny on the poisoning and consuming attraction of drink. (Nota Bene: That is none of my business. I refer only to the drunken element of the local population.) To the credit of the public, let it be said that from 7–10 o'clock every seat was taken and I saw many people from humble walks of life who, you could see, had “dressed” for the library, only shortly before and with great haste … The library is also open to ladies, and the well-known English gallantry toward the “ladies” (that is, all females, be they aristocrats, non-aristocrats, dressmakers, milliners, etc., etc.) has here too made over to them an area which allows the thirst for knowledge and the poetic or aesthetic desires of every woman to be satisfied, undisturbed.
I finished the introduction to De Candolle's Geography of plants and was dipping into other works when — suddenly — some of the gas-lights went out, and then more. Everyone got up and left. It was 10 o'clock and a time of rest for the librarian, policeman, guard, gas-lights, books and public.
August 4.
Tonight, after I had had enough of De Candolle's “Geography of plants”, I spent a short time looking at the travel books. Oh, Carl, what a treasury of books, accounts of the most celebrated recent and older travels. Books on every corner of the world. There is a lifetime's reading in this travel literature alone. I see books, can actually handle them and look at the maps and pictures inside: books, for which at the Munich Library I presented call-slips week after week in vain: I was never able to get them. And here they are. I take them out (only out of the rack, not out of the library), read them, make extracts, use them repeatedly and need appease no one. In effect the books are mine, are everyone's; this is a public library in a free colony of the free British Empire, not in the rigid, tradition-bound order of the Kingdom of Bavaria. But I do not wish to complain of Bavaria. There are far worse places in the world than my poor little fatherland.
I have leafed through several volumes of Dr. Barth's “Africa” (the large English edition). Before my enraptured eyes passed the names and works of Cook, Forster, Anson, D'Orbigny7 and dozens more. I am really very happy but have small bouts of feeling inadequate when I see the many books of which I will be in a position to master not a third, not a tenth, just a few volumes. I do not know yet what I shall read here. Provisionally I am forcing myself to read “the Geography of Plants” — at least the principal chapters, for I have found the Frenchman to be very wordy. He begins everything “ab ovo”. And, heavens above, I need to study mathematical geography again, some geology and a little bit of everything. I do not know how I shall accomplish that. Botany must and will remain my chief concern, however, as “jokes aside”, I am thinking of devoting myself to it entirely. As a doctor I cannot hope for a chance to travel, and after yesterday when I was told by Dr. Koch, a German vet who has recently come from India, that there are no opportunities in India, I can do no better than give it up completely. This resolve is reinforced by the fact that, besides ample opportunities for travel, I also have adequate financial prospects and I hope anew that we may yet
undertake a worthwhile trip together. Where to? Heaven knows.
From the library I went straight to a cafe (the Parisien) and refreshed myself with a cup of coffee and a pipe of “Cavendish”. I no longer smoke any cigars. Even the cheapest are expensive enough, and I can no longer enjoy light smoking. Negrohead and Cavendish are all that I can smoke, and the stronger they are the better I like them.
Margery Ramsay
Walter Struve


Further information on Beckler's life will be found in “Hermann Beckler”, by Joseph Heider, in “Lebensbilder aus dem bayerischen Schwaben, vol. 3, pages 419–444. Munich, Hueber, 1954.


Alphonse de Candolle: Geographie botanique, 2 vols., Parish, 1855. This and the other books and writers mentioned by Beckler have been identified where possible from The Catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library for 1861.


John Claudius Loudon; George Don; Adrien de Jussieu; Theodor Friedrich Ludwig Nees ab Esenbeck: Genera plantarum florae germanicae, 5 vols. Bonn, 1935–45; Sir William Jackson Hooker: Botanical miscellany, 3 vols. London, 1830–33, Journal of botany, 4 vols. London, 1834, London journal of botany, 6 vols. London, 1842–47 and Journal of botany, and Kew Garden miscellany, 9 vols. London, 1849–57;
Joseph Dalton Hooker: Botany of the Antarctic voyage of H.M.S. “Erebus” and “Terror” in 1839–43. Flora Antarctica, Botany of Fuegia, etc., 2 vols. London, 1847 and Flora Novae-Zelandiae: botany of New Zealand. 2 vols. London, 1855;
Sydenham Edwards: Botanical register of exotic plants cultivated in Great Britain. First series, 13 vols. 1815–28. Continuation by Dr. Lindley. 20 vols. 1828–47; Matthew James Schleiden: Principles of scientific botany, trans, by Edwin Lankester. London, 1849; John Lindley.


Auguste Pyramus de Candolle: Vegetable organography, trans. by Boughton Kingdon. 2 vols. London, 1839; Johephus Gaertner: De fructibus et seminibus plantarum. 3 vols. Stuttgart, 1788–1805; Robert Sweet: Flora Australasica. London, 1827–28; William Curtis: The botanical magazine. London, 1787-; Benjamin Maund: The botanic garden. 17 vols. London, 1825–52.


Alexander von Humboldt; Works trans. by H. M. Williams. 13 vols. London, 1814–29; Henry Barth: Travels and discoveries in North and Central Africa, in the years 1849–55. 5 vols. London, 1857–58.


“[Books] are a delight at home and no hindrance abroad” Marcus Tullius Cicero: Pro Archia poeta VII 16- VIII. 18.


George Anson: Voyage around the world. London, 1776; Alcide D'Orbigny: Voyage dans l'Amerique Meridionale. 9 vols. Paris, 1835–47.

Please note: Some endnote links are inactive as they were missing from the text in the original printed edition.