Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2018

2018 Rare Book Week #2

Today I had a rare opportunity to visit the Parliamentary library in Spring Street.  This Rare Book Week event was titled ‘A Gentleman’s Library’ because of course, when the library was set up along with the Victorian Legislative Council way back in 1851, that’s what it was: there were no women MPs.  In fact it wasn’t even representative democracy.  Victoria had just separated from New South Wales on July 1st and the library was established to serve the needs of just 30 MPs.  It wasn’t until 1856 that the Legislative Council became remotely representative and even then women did not have the franchise and neither did Indigenous people who had to wait a very long time for this most fundamental of human rights…

We were given a brief history of how the library came to be stocked.  It was rather shambolic really: there was a vague idea that the new colony should have ambitions worthy of the Gold Rush money that was flooding into its coffers.  So lists of books were compiled and sent to booksellers in England even though there wasn’t actually a room to put the books into.  In fact there wasn’t a parliament either: it wasn’t built till 1856 and the library, such as it was, was then an afterthought, housed in a wooden annexe.  Many books remained in crates.  Then as now the press grumbled about funding for parliament’s library for reasons that were obvious.  The parliamentary library had about the same amount of funding as the newly established public library (now the State Library of Victoria), the difference being that the public library could, yes,  be accessed by the public.  The parliamentary library then, as now, is reserved for parliamentarians,  then only about 100 men.  More about this issue later…

The acquisitions policy was haphazard, to say the least.  It consisted of word-of-mouth and colonial office recommendations.  Sometimes they acquired libraries from colonists returning to Britain.  Sometimes they just asked English booksellers to send them ‘noteworthy’ books and received all kinds of odd things in response.  The criticism included accusations that the books might not even be read – could these early MPs even read? they asked – and books on the arts and sciences were barely read at all.  Alfred Deakin (our 2nd prime minister) got a mention as being a great reader, making his way through about 100 books a year…

The oldest book in the collection is Palladus from 1538.  It was originally written in the 3rd or 4th century AD, and it’s a treatise on farming which was popular in the Middle Ages in England.  Quite why anyone thought this might be any use for agriculture in Australia is a mystery to me: Governor Arthur Phillip knew half a century before in the 18th century that Australian soils and climate were completely different to English conditions.  It is also a mystery to me why it remains in the Parliamentary library to this day.  It is stored under protected i.e. climate controlled conditions and nobody’s allowed to read it without jumping through all kinds of hoops, so it can’t possibly be any use to anyone, and particularly not the politicians for whom this library exists.  It might conceivably be of use to scholars, but they don’t have any means of knowing that a copy is in this library, because the catalogue isn’t digitised, and, like all the other books in the collection, the book isn’t digitised on Trove either.  (Some titles have already been digitised by other holdings, but IMO that doesn’t excuse not digitising the ones that aren’t).  I think that if this book has any value then the place for it is in the National Library of Australia or the State Library of Victoria, where there are procedures for making it accessible if someone wants to study it for some reason… However it comes as no surprise to me that a survey of library holdings in 1957 decided that it had no particular merit – but they’ve held onto it anyway.  Whatever for??  Why not sell it to some English library and use the money for something of more relevance to us?

A young member of the library staff called Michael raised a chuckle when he featured a treatise about husbandry from 1733 by Jethro Tull.  If you Google Jethro Tull you can immediately see why he didn’t know that Jethro Tull was a real person rather than a rock band.  Those of us of a certain age had learned about Jethro Tull at school: he was an agricultural pioneer who perfected a mechanised seed drill and revolutionised 18th century agriculture in Britain.  But nobody learns about the agricultural revolution today so of course Michael had never heard of him and was surprised to see how many of us had.  Nevertheless we were still interested to hear that these books about agriculture (however misguided in the case of Palladus) were indicative of the colonial project to develop a new culture of science and self-sufficiency.  The Mechanics Institutes were part of this strategic attempt to develop that culture in Victoria.  (And interestingly, the Athaneum, our oldest library, was originally a Mechanics Institute.  Who knew?)

It was Michael who alerted the audience to the issue of public access.  Public libraries are a public good, but the parliamentary library is not available to the public, and even staff can’t use it during sitting weeks.  The Parliamentary Library is a place of exclusion.  Which makes me wonder, should it still exist, when politicians can access anything they need from the State Library, from a comprehensive network of municipal libraries, from university collections and a treasure trove of books available on line, not to mention being able to buy books just like the rest of us from their own well-lined pockets?

Sarah Edwards is also a member of the library staff but not a librarian – and she is primarily interested in the aesthetics of the collection. It was easy to see how much she loved and cared for very special books like John Gould’s Birds of Australia.

Once again, I can’t understand why this exquisite book is kept here in a library where hardly anyone can see it…

Also of interest were the pictures on display in the library.  There was, predictably, Anzackery galore – including a poster featuring Edith Cavell whose murder by Germany was used as enlistment propaganda in WW1.  (The library staff had never heard of her yet had never bothered to Google her name even though they had been asked about her before).   But there was also a certificate of commemoration for the centenary of Federation and a Federal Parliament Members Roll from 1901.  And a bust of St Thomas More (!) which I unfortunately didn’t photograph…

The current policy for acquisitions is to focus on Victorian and Australian politics, local history and Australian biography, but the library still acquires rare books to fill gaps in their collection.  I’m not going to mount a facile argument that this money would be better spent on new tram lines and better roads or even funding for school libraries to have teacher-librarians, but I do think the parliament should undertake a serious review of the purpose and policies of the parliamentary library, because it seems to me that some aspects of it are at odds with the egalitarian philosophy of our democracy…

(And I’m not the only one who thought so.  I heard mutterings about this from other people too.)

While they’re at it, they might review their over-zealous security procedures.  I’ve flown all over the world including making my way through 4 sets of security just to get to and from Norfolk Island, but never before have I had to unpack my entire handbag to reveal a suspicious item such as … a Ventolin asthma puffer.

PS It was great to see artist Alissa Duke sketching proceedings again.  You can see the sketch she did at her blog and to see a sample from 2017, see my previous post about this here). Alissa makes beautiful handmade cards featuring books and library designs.  Visit her website or her Etsy page to order these lovely cards for the booklovers in your life.  You can also buy them at Readings at the State Library.



  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. I also attended this talk Lisa and particularly enjoyed the atmospheric library and seeing the illustrations in Gould’s book. But agree with your views re public accessibility.
    Michael’s talk reminded me that my pioneer G G Grandfather and his fellow settlers had little faith in the centrist governments of the 1870s and 1880s and would have been pleased if the Members of Parliament at the time knew more and read about agriculture. However the 1538 Palladus wouldn’t havehelped them!
    Yes security was OTT. I have never had someone put their hand in and check out all the paraphanalia in my handbag! Certainly not very streamlined.


    • Hello Mary, we should have debriefed over a coffee afterwards!
      Well, Palladus was a classic example of British booksellers not having the faintest idea what might be of any use to us – and that gives us an insight into their views about what a ‘gentleman’s library’ might contain’. Perhaps they didn’t have a concept of what a parliamentary library might contain, who knows?
      Anyway, I hope that some of these treasures might eventually make their way to the SLV or a university rare books collection. I went to a talk last year at the Baillieu and saw some of their rare books, that would be a good place to send some of them because they have a really good conservation and repair facility there…


  3. I think if that to the extent the library is a collection belonging only to members of parliament, rather than a resource which serves their work, it should be abolished. Libraries everywhere are being squeezed and would love the money being wasted here.


    • I think that there would be many who agree with you. It definitely had a place in the beginning when books in the colony were not readily available, but now? Obviously there should be a library for Hansard and for law books, but the rest of it? I’m not sure.
      Having said that, my latest Foreign Affairs Journal has arrived (it’s about our relationship with Indonesia) and I’d like to think that if that were left lying about under their noses, at least some of them would pick it up and read it …


  4. What a fascinating post to read as a librarian, Lisa! Some very good questions around access and purpose of collections. Good on you for stating your concerns directly.


    • Thanks, Nathan. I really would like them to review it.


  5. I attended this event at the Parliamentary Library and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think opening up the library to the public and speaking frankly and fearlessly about the collection is to be applauded. Clearly you don’t think much of the institution, but your denigration of the staff was not necessary and in poor taste.

    What you neglect to include in this piece is that thousands of books have been gifted to institutions, like the State Library of Victoria, Museum of Victoria and Deakin University since the 1990s and the remaining collection is a small, historic remnant. I also heard a staff member say that Parliament was trying to make the collection more accessible both via a new online catalogue system and new public spaces in the building. You have overlooked a lot of what was said to sensationalize and make cheap points on your blog.

    Like me, you were a guest in the library last week. I hope the staff who organized this event and who invited you in don’t read your nasty comments about them. If they do, I hope they don’t invite you back!



    • Hello Audrey, I’m sorry you feel like that.
      I don’t think I denigrated the staff: the speaker poked fun at himself about Jethro Tull, and it was he who raised the issue of access and called it a place of exclusion. (I recorded that in my extensive notes). My only other comment about the staff was about the fact that despite having been asked about the Cavell poster, they had not researched it to find out. As a former librarian myself, I stand by my criticism: it is part of the job to know about a collection, and if a question raised can’t be answered on the day, then that should be redressed.



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