State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 72 Spring 2003


Lindsay Bernard Hall, 1859–1935, artist. E. La Touche Armstrong [ca. 1925] Oil on canvas H36548. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Library Profile
Edmund La Touche Armstrong

THE RECORD of Edmund La Touche Armstrong, the fifth Chief Librarian of the Public Library of Victoria, is unlikely to be surpassed in the future. Appointed at the age of 32, he held the position for 29 years, twice as long as anyone else has ever done. The last Chief Librarian to live on the premises and the last to wear a bell-topper to work, he began working in the library in 1881, retiring at the age of 60, some 44 years later. His career in the library began the year after Sir Redmond Barry's death and he is arguably the second great figure after Barry in the first half of the library's one hundred-and-fifty year history.
Armstrong was born on 12 August 1864 at Geelong, the sixth of ten children of John Simpson Armstrong, barrister, crown prosecutor and sometime acting Judge of the County Court, and Alice, née O'Dell. After completing his secondary education at Scotch College, Armstrong, aged seventeen, joined the Melbourne Public Library at a salary of £50. A decade later he was classified as an assistant earning £300, and by 1895 was principal assistant in the reference library. Whilst at the library he studied law part-time at the University of Melbourne, gaining his LLB in 1893 and his Master of Arts in 1899.
He was considering reading for the bar when, following the sudden death of the Chief Librarian M. Dowden in February 1896, he was appointed Acting Chief Librarian. Dowden had only been appointed three months previously in succession to T. F. Bride, who had been Chief Librarian from 1881—1895. Bride, who had resigned to become Curator of Estates of Deceased Persons, then tried to get his old position back at a higher salary. The Trustees would not agree to this, and after six months Armstrong was confirmed as Chief Librarian and Secretary to the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria.
When he retired in April 1925, the Trustees presented him with a gold lever watch and a wallet of notes, recording the following motion in their minutes:
During his official career, Mr Armstrong had devoted himself unsparingly to fulfilling his duties and has contributed in a great degree to the success and popularity of the institution. By his strong sense of duty, combined with his unfailing tact, he has won the esteem of all the members of the staff and the governing bodies. The smooth working of all branches of the library was due to his capable management.
Described by colleague Leigh Scott as a man of ‘[d]istinguished appearance…tall & straight…with dark curly hair’ who ‘always bore himself with dignity’, Armstrong is today mainly remembered as the originator of the Domed Reading Room. He did, however, much more for the library. He was responsible for introducing the Dewey decimal system of classification, firstly in the Lending Library in 1899 and then in the Reference Library over 1910–15. He revived and expanded the travelling libraries and began the country lending service in 1920. Like Barry, he opposed separation of
the four cultural institutions, supporting the British Museum model of a display of knowledge, creation and achievement in the one complex
Armstrong also had a commitment to librarianship as a profession and was arguably the first professional librarian to head the State Library. He was Honorary Secretary of the Library Association of Australasia during its short existence from 1896–1902 and editor of its six-number journal, the Library Record of Australasia. In addition, he compiled two chronological histories of the library, museums and gallery, published in 1905 and 1931 respectively.
His relations with staff were mixed. All found him somewhat aloof. He got on reasonably well with R. D. Boys, who succeeded him as Chief Librarian, but not with the somewhat abrasive A. W. Brazier, his one-time second-in-command. The reminiscences of Armstrong and his contemporaries E. Morris Miller and Leigh Scott, held by the State Library, reveal much about the library and its leading personalities in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Miller, later Librarian and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania, writes in some detail on a major staff upheaval in the library in 1909–10 over the decision to reclassify the collection to the Dewey decimal system. Armstrong and his senior assistant, Boys, were in favour of Dewy, Brazier was against. Without consulting Brazier, who had responsibility for the cataloguing section, Armstrong formally proposed to the Trustees that the collection be reclassified, obtained their support, and then instructed Brazier to implement the Trustee's recommendation. According to Miller,
On receipt of Armstrong's written instruction. …Brazier drafted a reply, based on the fact that he had been denied the official courtesy due to an officer in his position. Brazier was adept at invective, and his first draft was caustic to a degree… I severely blue-pencilled it. He gave way on most points but refused to cut out or modify a sentence strongly condemning Armstrong for his official slight of Brazier's standing.
Armstrong referred Brazier's letter to both the Trustees and the Under Secretary for disciplinary action. After a formal inquiry, Brazier was demoted, becoming responsible for the Lending Library. Boys became Sub-Librarian and second-in command. As a result, Miller says, Brazier and Armstrong had no further contact. In his memoir Armstrong said of Brazier that:
He had many of the qualifications for a good librarian, but perhaps modelled himself too much on Marcus Clarke, and found it difficult to place his library duties before his personal inclinations. But…he was a man of considerable abilities.
On Marcus Clarke, Armstrong wrote in his official library history:
The visible records of ten years’ work in the library are some badly kept minute books and a worse than badly kept catalogue of bibliographic works that were his special charge. Neither…Clarke's temperament nor training rendered him suitable for the real work of a librarian.
Leigh Scott, later Librarian at the University of Melbourne, worked closely with Armstrong over 1919–1920 and, although he found him very considerate, he was critical of his superior's leadership:
…he was not, in my opinion, a good man for the staff as a whole. Actually in his position as Chief Librarian and Secretary, the library was not his main concern. He was not in the public eye and did not nothing to publicize the library, his conception of it being that it was a storehouse of knowledge not a disseminator.
This is too strong a criticism. Armstrong's papers and articles written for the Library Association of Australasia reveal a librarian with a sense of the importance of libraries and the profession of those that staff them. He was a firm believer that libraries ‘should be what they have been proudly called, the universities of the people’ and that ‘[t]he two great functions of a national library are, firstly, to collect as far as possible everything in the field of literature that is worth preserving; and, secondly, to make such collection as serviceable as possible to the whole community.’ He emphasized that’…in an Australian [National] library, a special effort should be made to obtain everything relating to the history of the country, or in any way connected with the country’. He was a great advocate of the need for trained librarians, writing that ‘[e]very library in Australia is suffering, and will suffer for years to come, through the mistakes that have been made in appointing untrained librarians, however able’. He was also a believer in the principle of free access and opposed to censorship, stating that ‘[e]very reputable citizen has an equal right to the use of these books’ and that ‘…in an ideal library we must have works of monumental folly as well as works of monumental wisdom’. Rather than censorship, it was more a question of controlled access: ‘Champagne is good, but champagne is not for children’.
Armstrong's support for a domed reading room was clearly stated in a paper he gave on ‘The Model Library’ in 1900:
…so far as I can ascertain, no radical improvement has been made on Panizzi's idea, as carried out to some extent at the British Museum. He planned a great circular reading room, and provided for surplus volumes and future additions in store rooms within easy access. No greater tribute has been paid to the excellence of this idea than the fact that the newly-erected Library of Congress at Washington has been built on very similar lines. I think, therefore, we may accept this system as a basis for our model library.
It was this ‘model library’ Armstrong had in mind when he recommended to the Trustees in 1905 that the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the library should be commemorated by ‘the erection of an entirely new Reading Room on modern lines’. His commitment was confirmed when he visited both the British Museum and the Library of Congress while on leave in 1908.
Armstrong died of coronary vascular disease at his home in East Malvern on 15 October 1946 and was privately cremated at Springvale. A bachelor and a club man, he was a member of the Yorick Club, the Metropolitan Golf Club, and also of the
Royal Empire Society At the time of his death, he was the longest standing member of the Wallaby Club, a Melbourne gentlemen's walking group which he joined in 1900. His portrait painted by Bernard Hall at the time of his retirement and reproduced opposite, has the sitter facing the artist with greying curly hair and dressed in a suit with a wing collar. There is no sign of the bell-topper. Its era, like that of Armstrong was over by 1925. But Armstrong's domed reading room continues to be a Melbourne icon.
John Arnold