State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 58 Spring 1996



It is a commonplace observation that the State Library of Victoria began with Redmond Barry's acquisition in 1856 of all the references cited in Gibbon's Decline and fall of the Roman Empire. This idea of the library as a repository of received knowledge and taste finds expression in the remarkable collection of English and continental European books and periodicals, as well as in the imitative architecture of the Library.
Less well known is the scope of the Australian collection. From the beginning the Library took local newspapers. In 1869 it acquired colonial publications by copyright deposit legislation. In 1872 Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe sent back the “Letters from Victorian pioneers” written in response to his request in 1853, and these were published by the Library in 1898. In 1874 came the records of that high Victorian enterprize, the Burke and Wills Expedition, just 13 years after it ended in disaster though — as we learn here — in that short interval some items were lost.
Certainly the Library took a circumscribed view of Australian history and fell behind the Public Library of New South Wales, which opened its Mitchell Library as a special collection of Australiana in 1910 to comply with the terms of David Scott Mitchell, who had bequeathed his incomparable collection of rarities. Still, the laying of the foundation stone of our own La Trobe Library in 1951 recognized the special importance of the Australian collection.
Today the significance of this collection is even greater. Modern information technology is fast breaking down library boundaries, allowing users to acquire their information from distant providers. The State Library is but one of many points in a networked information system and by no means the strongest or best resourced. But in the La Trobe Library it possesses a unique resource: the largest and richest collection of books, serials, manuscripts and pictures of Victoria.
Such collections do not translate easily into the calculus of information management. While the newspapers and electoral rolls are regularly ransacked by genealogists, other special collections appear as what one executive in my own place of learning refers to as a “low turnstile operation.” You might work in the manuscript room all day with perhaps a handful of fellow-researchers. Yet such research yields publications that spread the contents of the La Trobe Library to thousands of readers, enriching our understanding of our common heritage.
Specialist collections require specialist custodians. The scholarly librarians with an informed appreciation of research needs and a shared respect for scholarship are worth their weight in gold. Witness the articles in this special issue of the La Trobe Library journal that report on new acquisitions on the Port Phillip Association and Charles La Trobe, the explication of the navigational records of the Burke and Wills Expedition, the description of illustrated diaries and the biographical essay on Kate Baker. With Ros Pesman's appraisal of women's travel diaries and two bibliographical lists, these testify to the richness of the collection and the diligence of its custodians.
Stuart Macintyre
Ernest Scott Professor of History
University of Melbourne