State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 88 December 2011


Copy of The Catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library for 1861 in elaborate presentation binding given to E. Latrobe Bateman by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library.

John Arnold
The Library Publicises its Collection: the first catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library

The Catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library for 1861 was an elaborate publication, reflecting the prosperity of Melbourne at the time. It was also a bold statement by a young library saying: here I am, I'm important, have a look at what I have got.
Over 600 pages in length, the Catalogue was printed by Clarson, Shallard & Co., local printers based in Bourke Street. Many copies were opulently bound in full leather for presentation with details of the recipient embossed in gold on the front cover.
The text on each page is surrounded by a double border and a botanical drawing accompanies the beginning of all the letters of the alphabet. These were drawn by E La Trobe Bateman, (the recipient of the presentation copy reproduced opposite) and engraved by Samuel Calvert.
The Catalogue opens with a short history of the Melbourne Public Library. This includes the following somewhat flowery statement of its pioneering advocacy (continued through to the present day) of having a free library service:
Many circumstances . . . suggested to the Trustees that it would be advisable to adopt a greater freedom of ingress and liberality of access to the books than is usual elsewhere . . . All arbitrary restrictions on free reference to the books were removed, as well as those restraints which in some libraries operate only as impediments to the students . . . Attention to the ordinary courtesies of life was all that was suggested, and it was hoped that by reposing in the visitors an honorable confidence a taste for study might be awakened in some and encouraged in all . . .
This is followed by regulations for the conduct of readers. These tell us that in 1861 the library was open every day except Sunday from 10.00am to 10.00pm and could be used by anyone over the age of fourteen. In the first year of opening – 1856 – 23, 769 visitors used the library that was then only open to 5.00pm. The following year, with opening hours extended to 9.00pm, the number of visitors rose to over 42,000. With the opening of the first floor Queen's Reading Room (later the Queen's Hall) and opening hours extended to 10.00pm, attendance was over 127,000 in 1859. In the first 10 months of 1861 it had jumped to over 161,000. And another (probably many of the same) 26,000 visited the new Museum of Art. This is an extraordinary number when one considers that Melbourne's population in 1861 was 129,000. It represents the equivalent of more than one visit a year by every Melburnian.
In addition to these and other statistics, the preliminary pages include a bequest form for either items for collections or a donation of funds. The later reads:
I Give and Bequeath unto the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library, for the time being, the sum of ---- Thousand Pounds, to be paid to them within twelve months after my decease and to be by them, with all convenient speed, invested in Government Securities of Victoria.
Benefactors could stipulate that the interest accrued from such investments should be used for the purchase of items for the collection for a course of lectures.
The first section of the actual catalogue is an alphabetical list of donors with details of the books they donated. The two biggest donors were Charles Jospeh La Trobe and, surprisingly, Napeleon III, Emperor of France. La Trobe being a major donor was understandable given that he was the first Governor of the colony of Victoria and co-founder of the Library. What is interesting is the fact that his cofounder Redmond Barry, is not listed amongst the donors.
The main part of the catalogue, running to some 573 pages, is an alphabetical list of holdings, It is arranged primarily by author including some specific corporate authors such as 'Victoria', 'New South Wales' and 'New Zealand' and generic ones such as 'Societies and Clubs'. There are also listings by format. These include 'Pamphlets' and 'Serials'
This main section is followed by a separate listing of 'Globes, Charts, Maps and Surveys'. Then there is a catalogue of the books available for loan to the free public libraries operating within a tenmile radius of Melbourne. Finally, the catalogue concludes with a thirty-five page subject index.
When it opened its doors in 1856 the Melbourne Public Library held only 3,846 volumes. By the time of the publication of its first catalogue in 1861, the total had risen to 32,000 volumes. Its book stock had grown at a faster rate than Victoria's burgeoning population. And it continued to grow. A 394 page supplementary catalogue was issued in 1865. In 1880 a revised catalogue of two bulky volumes of the now Public Library of Victoria was produced. It may have superseded the 1861 catalogue and the supplement, but the first catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library was a wonderful statement by a young but confident institution.

'Synposis of the Public Library' showing the layout and arrangement of the collection, The Catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library for 1861, p. xvii.