The Pride of Prahran, a History of the Prahran Library, 1860-2010 by Stella M Barber is a lovely book, and it’s not just of interest to booklovers in Stonnington. As it tells us in the Preface, the Prahran Library service was one of the first libraries not only in Victoria, but also in Australia …
One of the first images in the book is this charming photo from the Children’s Library in 1944. To me, the sight of these children, noses deep in the books they’re about to borrow, embodies the spirit of any great library. The detail isn’t obvious from the scanned version, but in the book you can see that these little kids aren’t looking at the pictures, because there aren’t any: they’re reading.
However, they wouldn’t have been allowed in the building back in its early days. From its inauguration in 1860 the library had operated out of the Prahran Town Hall; it was in 1877 that plans were drawn up to build a new Post Office, Police Quarters and Public Library – though there was some dismay about the library’s proximity to the disreputables at the Watch House. The Library was quite particular about who was welcome as the 1877 facsimile of the Regulations makes clear. Children under the age of 12 were not admitted. Visitors had to sign the Visitors Book. Any visitor who wrote upon, or marked, or folded down a leaf, defaced, mutilated or otherwise injured a book was banished. Visitors were not allowed to talk, or keep their hats on, partake of any food or fruit (is fruit not food??) or of course, to spit. These and any other irregularities meant prompt (and presumably eternal) exclusion of the offender, and any person who mutilated or took a book from the library was liable to prosecution (and there was a £2 reward for any dobbers).
This is a history commissioned for 150th anniversary of the library and there are some wonderful snippets from the past. I hadn’t realised that in the beginning, it was not a lending library: until 1913 books had to be read on site and there were turnstiles to ensure that nobody nicked out with a book to finish it at home. Another quirk was that all the books were re-bound, in tasteful black with gold lettering on the spine. The name of one of its first librarians may ring a bell with readers of Australian classics: he was Mr Aeneas Gunn, and yes, it was Jeannie Taylor a.k.a. Mrs Aeneas Gunn, author of We of the Never-Never who lured him away from the library to the Outback when they fell in love.
I was surprised to learn that the Prahran Library opened on Sundays as far back as 1903, because Sunday hours are comparatively recent at my own local library – and what a boon they are for working women when there’s a book on reserve that must be collected. A system for reserving books was introduced at Prahran back in 1917, and they were similarly prompt to introduce the Dewey Cataloguing System and the Browne Borrower Card system as well. The children’s library opened in 1918, open to children aged between 8 and 15 who were resident within the municipality. There was a strong educational emphasis, which not only meant that the library stock consisted of ‘improving books’ but also that borrowers could only borrow two books if one of them were non-fiction. (This type of rule was still in place in all the libraries that I belonged to as a child.) But Rule 19 would have made my life a misery, because it clearly stated that only one member of a family could be a borrower at any one time. As children, my sisters and I would not have been able to enjoy our Saturday excursions to the library with my father, lugging back all the books we could carry so that we had something to read during the obligatory ‘rest’ between 12:00 and 2:00pm. (In Africa, my mother subscribed to the view that only ‘mad dogs’ went out in the midday sun).
The social value of the library in a working class suburb was obvious from the start. Story hour was extremely popular and the press reported that
the only discernible difference between adult and juvenile [borrowers] was that occasionally a boy would come in with hands too grimy to touch books properly, and he was asked (very nicely, so as not to wound susceptibilities) whether he would not go and wash his hands before approaching the shelves. It is said that no girl ever has to be asked to perform this fundamental duty of the booklover. Prahran library showed a good nucleus for what ought to become a very fine library for children … it was very largely because so many children had to play in the streets that they drifted into crime… wonder was that there was so little crime around the young, considering the lack of facilities for them … Mr Micken, librarian said they owed a deep debt to Miss Joske and her sisters for the inauguration of the children’s library, the poorer boys and girls benefitted most by the books. (p. 41)
During the Depression, the library could be a path out of poverty and despair:
… a man came to me and asked if we had books dealing with the processing and manufacture of raw rubber. He was at his wits end. Economic conditions up till then had been dead against him. He wanted to learn of something which would help him to start out for himself, even in a small way. The book was found, day after day, there he was, taking notes, planning what he would do with this new knowledge. Not long ago that same man extended an invitation to visit a large factory. The man, the book, the knowledge and the opportunity combined have built up a flourishing business. (p. 54)
It’s fascinating to read about eminent visitors to the library such as authors Mary grant Bruce and Alan Marshall, and of the first intimations of serious change in public reading habits as the television era dawned. There’s a droll anecdote about the foundation stone of the new Toorak branch library being built on top of a covert stash of marijuana, and of course the history covers the introduction of facilities and resources we now take for granted: microfiche, audio books, a computerised system and so on. It’s also interesting to note the gradual feminization of the management roles at the library.
Innovation hasn’t stopped. This year the inaugural Stonnington Literary Festival was held. Called [untitled] it offered a variety of panel sessions, one of which was chaired by me. Which is how I came to be given as a gift this fascinating book!
Author: Stella M Barber
Title: The Pride of Prahran : a History of the Prahran Library, 1860-2010
Publisher: City of Stonnington, 2010
Source: Gift of the City of Stonnington.
Availability: I think it was a limited print run and is now not available anywhere.