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2001-06, 330, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library Of Australia. First Hundred Years 1901-2001.’ (Edited by Peter Cochrane): and ‘Celebrating 100 Years Of The Mitchell Library.’

Canberra, National Library of Australia, 2001. xiii, 283pp. ISBN 0 642 10730 0. $A59.95.

Sydney, Focus Publishing, 2001. 175pp. ISBN 187 535 966. $A59.95.

Two commemorative volumes from the National Library of Australia (NLA hereafter) and the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW hereafter) provide fascinating approaches to the recording and marketing of the history of a library. Both books are sumptuously produced. The NLA volume has 270 black and white and colour illustrations while the SLNSW volume has numerous full page colour and black and white illustrations.

The core of the library activities discussed are collections. As in other major national libraries much is owed to the vision, foresight and collecting zeal of individuals. In the case of the National Library the names of Sir John Ferguson, E.A. Petherick and Rex Nan Kivell stand out. The NLA commemorates it centenary through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library of Australia, which was established in 1901 to serve the newly formed Federal Parliament of Australia. (See the excellent web site re the history of the Library at www.nla.gov.au/history). The Library moved with the Federal Parliament to Canberra from Melbourne in 1927. The National Library Act was passed in 1960 and in 1968 the NLA occupied its present imposing Parthenon like building.

The history of the NLA is primarily depicted through a series of fourteen essays with a particular focus on its collecting activities in the period 1940-70. The NLA’s impressive collections of Australiana were strengthened by judicious overseas purchasing and a major microfilming program in European archives. The essayists signal a “golden age” of the NLA in the time of Kenneth Binns and Sir Harold White but are curiously reticent to broach the collecting and governance of the last thirty years of the century under the Director-Generalships of Alan Fleming, George Chandler, Harrison Bryan and Warren Horton.

One can only speculate as to this missed opportunity. As the NLA enters the twenty-first century it, like many other national libraries, is seeking to reassess its role in the provision of services to the nation. Some criticism of its refocussing of collecting priorities in the 1990’s is counterbalanced by its pioneering activities in electronic archiving and cooperative Australian digitisation programs. The latter will ensure that it faces the electronic challenges in collecting and preserving Australiana as well as it did for traditional collecting in the first part of the twentieth century.

The SLNSW is Australia’s oldest library, having its origins in the establishment of the Australian Subscription Library in 1826. The Mitchell Library will not, in fact, celebrate its centenary until 2010 so in one sense the volume is anticipatory. The Mitchell Library, which is part of the SLNSW, opened in 1910 following a major bequest commemorating the name of David Scott Mitchell, whose collection constitutes the core of the special collections.

The SLNSW takes a broader “slice of history” approach to its history than the NLA volume. Its history is structured via ten chapters on collections ranging from cartography to cricket. Each chapter is written by a library curator and focuses on a particular event or character in Australian history such as Matthew Flinders and George Bass to represent discovery narratives and Miles Franklin to represent literature.

The SLNSW volume resembles, at least in format, a glossy annual report with many pages having minimal text and substantial illustrative content. It stands in direct contrast to the more scholarly ethos of the NLA volume. Names of sponsors for example are included in the chapter headings and credits but unfortunately no one seemed to want to sponsor an index! From one perspective the SLNSW reflects a new readership, new markets and new sources of funding which public institutions have to find in the twenty-first century, whereas the NLA’s viewpoint is essentially retrospective. Two libraries – two different approaches, but together essential purchases for interested libraries and readers.

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