Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week

I’ve had a lovely day today, the first of many adventures with Rare Books Week for 2017.  (I hope.  I have signed up for a whole lot of events, but I did that before I mushed my shoulder so it remains to be seen whether I will have the stamina to go to all of them.)

I started off at the Boyd Community Hub with a session called Johnson and Boswell, Holmes and Watson.  The presenter was John Byrne who is president of the Johnson society and who proved his credentials by (a) donning his Oxford cap and scarf and (b) then producing a deerstalker hat à la Sherlock Holmes.  He told us that his professional interest is Samuel Johnson and Boswell who wrote his biography,  but that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are for fun…

Byrne reminded us that there are plenty of famous couples in the world of literature and also in popular culture, everyone from The Lone Ranger and Tonto to Crusoe and his Man Friday.  He said there is a scholarly connection between the two sets of couples even though Holmes and Watson are entirely fictional and came into being 100 years after Johnson and Boswell.  But he mainly regaled the audience with all sorts of funny anecdotes about his amazing collection of Sherlockian ephemera and books.  My favourite was the one about how Holmes’s address in Baker St is actually the premises of a bank, but people write to Sherlock Holmes at that address with real problems that they think this fictional character can solve, and believe it or not, the bank employs a staff member to deal with this voluminous correspondence!  (Only in Britain, eh?  I can’t imagine any of our penny-pinching banks doing something like that).

It was at this session that I met an artist called Alissa Duke, who is attending Rare Book Week sessions and drawing them.  She has a small Moleskine artist’s book and a bag full of pencils, and she does stunning sketches that are full of life and very appealing to anyone who is bookish.  The first thing I did when I got home was to have a look at her stuff online and I’ve ordered some of her gorgeous bookish cards.  If you are a very special friend of mine you might one day receive one of these greeting cards…

©Alissa Duke


From this session I went to The Magic of the Arts at the State Library.  There were three speakers:

Dominique Dunstan (Arts Manager at the SLV) had the audience rapt from her very first slide: Durer’s Field Hare from 1502, which is in a rare book from the very early days of the SLV’s collection.  The library was established in the heady days when Victoria was awash with money from the Gold Rush, and the President of the Trustees, Sir Redmond Barry was ambitious for its collection.  He wanted the best, and with the money he had at his disposal and a knack for approaching philanthropic donors, he started what has become our SLV Art Book Collection.  The AAA (Australian Artists File) comprises 30,000 files (books, magazines, journals and ephemera) and some items are unique.

Magic props in the SLV WG Alma Collection

The collection also includes zines, photography, sheet music, and most magical of all, the WG Alma Conjuring Collection.  WG Alma was an Australian magician who also manufactured the props used for performances.  He left his collection as a bequest to the library in 1993, and it is a major resource for contemporary magicians.  Almost all of it has been digitised, but at left you can see some of the models Alma made to show how tricks worked.  This realia is now very fragile and rare so it’s not on open accession, and anyway the library doesn’t want to spoil the magician’s craft by letting any old person look at these things so they have procedures in place so that the conjuror’s secrets are not revealed!

The second speaker was Associate Professor Alison Inglis and she talked about the Fine Arts Library and the Pamphlets collection.  Before we had our very own splendid National Gallery of Victoria (which I have bragged about before because it is the best in the country thanks to the Felton Bequest) the plan was to have an art history museum as part of the library.  The Acquisitions Program (again, well-endowed with Gold Rush money) soon meant that there were stunning books on art and architecture, as well as art works themselves, and the art works had their own catalogues which were produced to educate the public (an influx of gold rush immigrants who were thought to be rather rough and ready on account of being get-rich-quick hopefuls and Not of The Right Sort.)  So there are monographs, art journals, catalogues and books… and the slide show made me ache to do a fine arts degree so that I could fossick about amid these treasures.

The last speaker was a droll fellow called Dermot McCaul who talked about the popular music collection.  Now I admit to being Not Very Interested in the SLV’s exhibitions of popular culture stuff, (because I lived through it but mostly ignored it) but I take McCaul’s point.  He’s a classical music lover like I am, but he says that when it’s the end of an era, and the end of a millennium too, it is appropriate for a museum or library to look back and see if its collection reflects its past era. The 2oth century  was an era of revolutions in the arts – commercial art, graphic arts, comic books and so on, and even though I am so not interested in any of that, I can see that a museum or a library ought to collect it.  And the SLV did, and thank heavens they did, because penny-pinching at the ABC (necessary because of mean federal government budget cuts) meant that they were offloading their 3LO archival stuff and if the SLV hadn’t rescued it, it might have been lost.  The 3LO sound library in what’s now called redundant formats (i.e. 78s, vinyl  etc.) not only includes all sorts of music but also the dates of when it was played on air, so it’s an archive of an era. Does it matter?  Not to me, but yes it does to most people.  So I am pleased that my library is collecting this and other stuff that apparently the NSW library sniffed at.

It made me realise that apart from all the other million-and-one reasons why I am glad I live in Melbourne is that here we have a culture of valuing things like this.  In Melbourne we don’t have moronic shock jocks and half-wit politicians who sneer at the arts and create a following who sabotage funding for artistic and historic pursuits.  (Yeah, ok, we have the Sun-Herald, and yes, we did move the Yellow Peril because of public scorn, but we’ve been ashamed of ourselves ever since and it won’t happen again.)

Hopefully I will get to all the other events I’ve booked in for, but Indigenous Literature Week starts tomorrow so I’ll be focussing on that.  But if you’re interested, have a look at the  Rare Books Week program and try to get to some of the events if you can.


  1. The Alissa Duke stuff is magic. Would lovee to draw like that. Enjoyed the comments re government vrs public re ABC. The Sherlock info fun too. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks:) I agree, I wish I could draw … to be able to sit and capture the atmosphere in a room the way she does would be just wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Many thanks for this Lisa. What you write about the significance of collecting the sounds and artifacts as well as the printed works (including comic books and pamphlets and a host of digital items) really needs to be said. We need reminding why libraries are important and why they should be funded.


    • Hi Ros, I thought of you as I drove nearby along the Beach Rd (avoiding the road works on St Kilda Rd). I hope this week is turning out better for you than last week.


  3. The best events are on Sunday before I get to Melb., particularly the Lost Environment one. I might see what I can fit in later in the week, but my first priority is the NGV van Gogh.


    • I’m going to Lost Environments tomorrow, I’ve read one of Gary Presland’s books so I’m expecting it to be good.
      I’ll try to take good notes…


  4. I didn’t even know about this event! :-(


    • I don’t think it gets enough publicity… there are some events after work, if you can still get a place…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll have a look at the program and see if I can squeeze something in.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Let me know if you get in to any of these and maybe we could meet up!
          Monday: Literature for Everyman 3.30pm – 4.30pm, Judy Horacek Exhibition and then (with The Spouse) Silk Maps 6.00pm to 7.00pm
          Wednesday: Art on the Page 12.00pm to 1.00pm, Plotting the Island 1.00-3.00pm and Contemporary Book Design 6.00pm – 7.00pm
          Thursday: Hidden Treasures 11.00-12.00
          Friday: Percy Grainger: 3.00pm – 4.00pm

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I hope that shoulder gets better soon. Mind you it’s your own fault for taking to the pitch in the Lions test matches……


    • *chuckle* I think that actually I did it knitting: sitting too long in one position…


      • Dangerous activity that. Maybe you’ll be safer with a crochet needle


  6. […] there at all the sessions I went to,  recording events in her unique style.  In case you missed my previous post here is an example of what she does, from the Boswell and Johnson session on […]


  7. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  8. […] 2017 Rare Books Week […]


  9. […] artist Alissa Duke sketching proceedings again.  (To see a sample, see my previous post about this here). Alissa makes beautiful handmade cards featuring books and library designs.  Visit her website or […]


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