State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 69 Autumn 2002


Library Profile
Patsy Adam-Smith

Patsy Adam-Smith (1924-2001) was a popular and prolific author of historical and descriptive works on various aspects of Australian life. The daughter of a railwayman, she had a lifelong fascination with railways, which resulted in a number of books on the subject, the best-known probably being her much-admired autobiographical volume, Hear the Train Blow (1964). Her own war experiences as a radio operator led to several volumes on the subject of war, including The Anzacs (1978); and her diverse knowledge of the country and her feeling for the people who lived there found expression in such books as Outback Heroes (1981) and The Shearers (1982). These books and several others were written during the time (1970-1982) that she was employed at the State Library of Victoria as Manuscripts Field Officer.
Her appointment to the Library staff stemmed directly from the concerns of the Friends of the La Trobe Library, which was established in 1966. In February 1967 Geoffrey Serle prepared a paper for the Interim Committee of the Friends in which he wrote:
I take it our chief aims are to try to attract donations of cash, books, manuscripts etc. and to help in locating and negotiating with potential donors. All other aims — such as publicity, production of a bulletin, technical advice and assistance — are secondary or ways and means of helping to achieve the main purpose. (MS 9794. Friends of the La Trobe Library, Minutes and Reports, November 1966 to March 1972. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.)
A report entitled ‘The problems of acquiring manuscripts etc.’ was presented to a meeting of the Committee on 15 July 1968. In this document, which was almost certainly prepared by Serle, the proposition of employing a staff member with specific responsibility for acquiring manuscript material was first mentioned. By November that year Serle was able to report to the Committee on initial discussions that had been held with the Myer Foundation with a view to obtaining funding for the proposed position. In the event, the Myer, Ian Potter and Sunshine Foundations all contributed to funding the position for the first two years of its existence.
The advertisement for the position of Manuscripts Field Officer, which appeared late in 1969, stated that
The principal duties will be to locate privately owned manuscripts and other records relevant to Australian and especially Victorian history, and to negotiate with owners for their possible transfer to the La Trobe collections of the State Library.
In her successful application for the position Adam-Smith pointed to the seven books that she had published, and the associated work that had been necessary in locating
historical records in order to carry out her research. (Her application and other papers relating to her work as Manuscripts Field Officer are preserved at PA 00/22, Box 33, in the Patsy Adam-Smith papers, now in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.)
Adam-Smith approached the task of collecting material for the Library with the enthusiasm and energy that was one of her distinguishing characteristics. Notable collections that were brought into the Library in the early months of her appointment included items such as Fanny Barbour's ‘Jottings’, a diary for 1887-1888; family papers and letters relating to the Best family of the Great Western Winery; the 1855 diary of Henry Adeney, a Western District pastoralist; and the diaries, 1858-1888, of Dr. J.E. Bromby, the foundation headmaster at Melbourne Grammar.
In the course of a letter on 19 January 1975 to Miss Margery Ramsey, the Principal Librarian, Patsy Adam-Smith reported that between 1972 and 1975 she had travelled some 29,000 miles on behalf of the Library, and had secured some 315 collections
Announcing the appointment of Patsy Adam-Smith in the La Trobe Library Journal (no. 5, April 1970), Geoffrey Serle wrote about the general problem of the loss of critical historical records that had occurred in Victoria.
The question is how much manuscript material (family papers, diaries, correspondence) remains to be found. There are good grounds for pessimism. Over the years historians who have traced descendants of notable men have drawn blanks.
He went on to point out that of 35 Victorian Premiers, ‘scraps of papers have been deposited in libraries in only four cases'. Looking back on the development of the Manuscripts Collection since that time it is now clear that Serle was referring to gaps in the collection that would almost certainly always remain unfilled. The personal papers of those Victorian Premiers, and of many other significant people, have clearly been lost for all time. Yet for all that much of our documentary heritage has been lost, the result of the work since the creation of the Field Officer's position has been to demonstrate the extraordinary range of historical material that has survived, and which has been able to be preserved for the future in the Library. Adam-Smith brought her energy and knowledge to bear in building the collections in areas that were probably not anticipated when the position was created.
One area in which Patsy Adam-Smith made a sustained impact was in the acquisition of records relating to Australian involvement in the First and Second World Wars. In 1974 she approached her friend Dan Webb, of Melbourne's Channel Seven, and asked him to support her in attempting to attract the papers and diaries of Victorians who had served in the wars. Webb's enthusiastic support, which he emphasised during his telecast of the annual Anzac Day parade over Channels Two, Seven and Nine, led to the immediate deposit of some 48 collections, with another 32 being lent for copying. Adam Smith's campaign to attract these personal letters and diaries to the Library occurred at a most opportune time. Many soldiers who had returned from the First World War recognized that by the 1970s their lives were drawing to an end. There was no doubt an awareness that documents which were
personally treasured would not necessarily be preserved in the future, unless an appropriate repository was found for them. The benefit of this campaign was felt for some years afterwards, with a continuing stream of letters, diaries and photographs being offered to the Library. (See Patsy Adam-Smith's own account, ‘All Those Empty Pages’, La Trobe Library Journal, no. 14, October 1978.) Her success in this campaign reflected her skills as a publicist and her ability to excite the public's imagination on behalf of the Library.
From the mid-1970s Adam-Smith began to combine the work of collecting manuscripts with the taping of oral history interviews. This work was stimulated by a visit to the United States in 1975, during which she was able to investigate the practice of oral history in that country. She completed some 300 interviews of World War I veterans, as well as interviews pertaining to the shearing industry and railways, migrants to Australia and the role of women who had served with the Australian armed forces. These interviews remain core collections within the Library's Oral History collection.
Adam-Smith's personality was one of the great strengths she brought to her position, along with an extensive network of friends and acquaintances. In all her dealings with potential donors to the Library, she demonstrated the ability to charm

Photographer unknown. Patsy in her office, State Library of Victoria, n.d. but 1970s. PA 00/22 Box 26. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, SLV.

and enthuse Australians from all walks of life and backgrounds. The varied experiences of her own life stood her in good stead, and she was as comfortable visiting a large pastoral property as the modest home of an ex-railway worker. Her cheerful letters of thanks and acknowledgement (preserved on many of the provenance files held in the Manuscripts Collection) reveal the warm relations that she developed with so many Library supporters. These sorts of interpersonal skills are a key requirement for success in attracting public support and donations to a Library collection.
For all Adam-Smith's skill in dealing with potential donors to the Library, there were occasions when charm alone was insufficient to save the day. Inevitably the work of those who seek to acquire material on behalf of a collecting institution brings them into strange and difficult situations. A hand-written file note dating from January 1976 describes one such visit to a donor, and provides a reminder of the continuing diplomacy that was an essential part of Adam-Smith's work when she was in the field.
P A-S returned to Mrs. [Donor] the material loaned. Mrs. [Donor] agitated as P A-S came to door ‘where is the great armful of books you took away?’ When I explained that this scrapbook (including Georgiana McCrae letters etc) was all I took away she said ‘But I had to carry it for you to the car because you said ‘its too much, I'll never carry it you'll have to help me’'. (Mrs. [Donor] is a frail elderly lady). I told her I could not recall the incident. She said, ‘I had a cupboard full of leather bound books you took'. I told her she had shown such to me but did not give them to me. ‘That cupboard was full’ she pointed. She then opened the cupboard door and it was full…
(Field Officer's Correspondence Files, 1973-1978. Note for File, 27 January 1976. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.)
The period of the 1970s marked the most rapid growth of the Manuscripts Collection since the Library had first acquired archival material in the nineteenth century. (See John Thompson, ‘The Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria: Its Growth, Development and Future Prospects’, La Trobe Library Journal, no. 21, April 1978.) It would be unfair to her colleagues in the Library at that time to attribute that success to Adam-Smith alone. However, it is clear that she played a key role in the growth of the collection. Present and future generations of historians and researchers owe her continuing recognition for those achievements.
Adam-Smith left the Library in October 1982, retiring as a result of ill health. The position to which she had been appointed is believed to have been the first such in an Australian library or archive. The value of the work which she had undertaken over the preceding 12 years has been recognized, with the position of Field Officer (now known as the Field Historian) continuing to be part of the Library's establishment to the current day. A number of distinguished historians have subsequently been appointed to the position, including Tom Griffiths and the late Patsy Hardy.
Jock Murphy