A month in the State Library of New South Wales: learning not to be a Foole.

Themes: access, public, inclusion, exhibitions, research, collection creation, colonialism, space, change.

Libraries can seem like immovable institutions. Staid. Certain. fading into the background when not needed. Libraries are not universal in their representation. For some, libraries are conservative spaces that reinforce traditions. For others, a library is a space to be free of social constraints that are applied to them elsewhere. If the State Library of Victoria is defined by its centrality to the Melbourne city and its creative research output, and the National Library of Australia is defined as being the heart of Australian research libraries, then the State Library of New South Wales is perhaps best defined as an evolving institution that preserves and provides access to Australasian records.

Usually, when I undertake a project, I have limited time on-site in the research space. When I enter a library I am focused on examining particular books, records or artefacts and taking notes about pursuing future research avenues. I previously spared nothing more than a passing glance at the building I occupied during my research time. I rarely thought about what it was like to work in a library from the perspective of other generations. Yet, while examining the archive of Phyllis Mander-Jones, an archivist and former NSW librarian from the 1920s to the 1950s, I learned a lot about the State Library of New South Wales (the NSW Public Library then, SLNSW). As part of my CH Currey Fellowship project, I read letters, memos, Annual reports and notes about Mander-Jones’ involvement with collection acquisition and research. Doing so, I gained the sense of the SLNSW as an institution being a future-focused, with staff intent on creating an accessible collection for future generations. Part of this process, I came to understand from the records, was changing the SLNSW building to suit user requirements. Consequently, I began to wonder what it was like to move within this space, as a librarian and a researcher. What were the rooms like when Mander-Jones was at the Mitchell? And how much had the motivations of the SLNSW changed?

My spatial knowledge and imagining were influenced by my daily walks through various research rooms, halls and stairwells and my time with the Mander-Jones archive. At the SLNSW, I gained a sense of how libraries are constantly changing spaces. The echoes of the building works happening on the lower levels likely contributed to this increased awareness of architectural change. Yet, when I saw a disused book elevator and slides of a microfilm room from the mid-20th century, I wondered how else had the library changed in response to the needs of the people of New South Wales? My fascination with the changing structure of the historic Mitchell Building was reinforced by my reading of an unpublished play by Mander-Jones. The Librarian’s Lunacy was written by her in 1932. Throughout one act, Mander-Jones’ distinctive black-inked, cursive writing, constructs the social and physical space of the Reading Room of the Sydney Public Library of that time. This was a period when William Ifould managed the library, an indication of how ‘the customer-orientated’ library policy, procedure, and technological innovation were guided by males dominating the roles of administration. Mander-Jones set her play to these themes and in the Mitchell reading room. We are told it was a space where ‘there are several long tables, with chairs on either side, down the centre of the room. An enquiry desk, with telephone, inkwell, books etc. in front left’. Reading this material in the Special Collections space of the Mitchell I looked from the green binder of material in front of me to the left of where I was sitting. Taking in the pencils, computers, phone and desk placement I tried to imagine if Mander-Jones would have felt comfortable in this space. I watched the flow of people, the items handed over the desk, the queries answered. With her preference for new technologies and improved user access, I think yes, Mander-Jones would have known this space. What else did she do in here?

Laying the SLNSW foundations

The curation of reading collections for the people of New South Wales began in 1826. Examining the Annual Reports of the Public Library of New South Wales from the late 19th and early 20th centuries reveals how the people of this institution gradually defined its purpose, processes, policies and position as a cultural leader within an emerging network of Australian public libraries.

As librarians worked to build their book collections in the colony, the most popular room in the late nineteenth-century was the newspaper room. Over the course of 1895, 171 894 visitors took a seat in this room, to read Australasian and British newspapers. There were 253 newspapers and periodicals published at this time in the colony. That breadth of access to a variety of newspapers, in physical format, is astounding to me. Today, I live with all the possibilities of the internet but I see two newspapers at the local shops and rotate through four newspapers online to read the news. I wonder if, in the library, this room was a quiet space or if people discussed the humphs of disquiet, the grunts of agreement and the chuckles of amusement that echoed there.

Unlike today, when items can only be used for reference on-site, the Public Library of NSW did allow external loans of materials. Boxes of books were shipped to Country Libraries, including Schools of Arts, Municipal Libraries and Free Public Libraries. The intention was to supplement the material of these ‘young libraries’ (forgetting the Library was young compared to others on Country and in Europe) and to supply a fine ‘class of literature’. In 1896 the Public Library of New South Wales was intent on accurately preserving and depicting its ‘national character’ to visitors. The Annual Reports from this period indicate the character of the library was founded on British ideals and European histories. The collection’s growth relied on ‘valuable exchanges and donations from foreign [European] countries’. Reading a list of acquisitions from this time, I find myself oddly curious about Contribution to the knowledge of Termites, written by Mrs Lucy B Dudley, a translation from the original German. And Sheep v Rabbits by C. McKay Smith. This collection was intended to inform settlers about best practices to tame Indigenous Country and profit, I am sure. The result of these policies and acquisitions was a Public Library founded on colonial knowledge and Imperial education practices. Yet, in 1903, staff were sent to study the public libraries of Italy, England, and France and see, the Annual Reports state, room layout techniques to ‘embody or avoid’. Colonial architects believed ancient libraries of Europe failed to adhere to the ‘newest principles of library architecture’. How then, did the SLNSW differ from them in the usage of cultural spaces, if at all?

An exhibition of illustrated books 

The next generation of library users was not focused on the construction of space as much as using that space to display their view of Australian literature as an extension of the British Empire. Women such as Phyllis Mander-Jones worked in the SLNSW during the early period of 20th century. Born four years prior to the Federation of Australia in 1901, educated at Abbotsleigh school on the outskirts of Sydney city and then obtaining her BA at Sydney University, Mander-Jones was raised on stories of European greatness and colonial determination. Working at the State library after her university graduation, Mander-Jones also gained a sense of Australia’s uniqueness and value as a cultural product, as she served the NSW public. At this time the collection was expanding to include Australasian materials. The acquisition of materials from Australia, Aotearoa/ New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands was evident in the list of donations received. For instance, J.P. Thompsons’ Exploration in British New Guinea and Fiji handbooks are listed nearby the periodicals and agricultural reports from Aotearoa/ New Zealand. One aspect of her role was to research, locate and provide access to research collections.

One way in which the public library provided materials to the public was the creation of an exhibition. The Exhibition of Illustrated Books was the consequence of Mander-Jones and her colleague, Heather Sherrie, responding to the requests of a particular cohort of library users, the Ex Libris Society. Inspired by the London branch that was formed in 1891, the Society was established in Sydney, June 1923. This exhibition occurred on 14 October to 1 November 1935. The exhibition content included books from the 15th and 16th centuries, ‘English and Continental (European, but not English) publishers’. The intended audience was described as ‘book lovers and artists’. An audience that aligned with the Library’s intention to attend to the ‘cultural and economic welfare of the people’ of New South Wales and Australia.

The exhibition received a lot of coverage in the Sydney newspapers. While the exhibition was initially meant to be a private event for the Ex Libris Society, the collection was believed to be ‘so interesting, and many of the exhibits so rare, that it has been decided to open it for public exhibition’. It was an exhibition that interlinked Australian artistry successfully with historic works from Europe. One reviewer stated the exhibition contained ‘[d]elightful work by great illustrators of children’s books…in a setting of the earliest paintings of Australian scenes.’

Advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald we gain a sense of not just the content but the space in which the exhibition was held. The book illustrations were presented on a combination of tables and cases. Each book was presented in an effort to ‘trace the history and development of book illustration from the earliest days [of Australia’s colonisation]. There were exhibits that illustrated progressively English pictures from 1780 to 1914, as well as modern book illustration, American illustration, the modern revival of the woodcut, Australian illustration, technical processes and other forms of illustrations…The scheme of the arrangement is mainly chronological.’

The exhibition was launched by the Principal Librarian, William Ifould. His speech contained details about the history of book illustration and the most noteworthy exhibits in the collection. ‘Finest Woodcuts for Century’ was the headline in The Daily Telegraph which chose to focus on the woodcuts of the Australian artist, Lionel Lindsay. Ifould was credited as saying ‘Famous librarians in all parts of the world consider bookplates produced by Australian artists to be equal to those produced anywhere else.’ At the same time, Ifloud was reported as saying that a book printed in Venice, by Aldine Press, in 1499, ‘were so exquisitely engraved and fitted…that nothing better during the whole history of the book had yet been published.’ The tension between European works as the ultimate example as compared to Australian publications was, it seems, still being worked out when Ifould gave the opening night speech.

A glowing review of Mander-Jones and Sherrie’s exhibition was written by Kathleen Monypenny for The Sydney Morning Herald. Under the misguiding, and infantilising, headline of ‘PICTURE BOOKS: History Through the Centuries’ we gain a very good sense of what appeared in the cases and on the tables. The exhibition was not all originals, with much space given to ‘facsimiles of famous manuscripts and early printed volumes’. The English-speaking focus was supported by the inclusion of copies of an American edition (1935) of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The engravings of Willliam Blake enrapture Monypenny and she concluded her evaluation of the event by summarising a somewhat transformative experience. She wrote of ‘gazing awhile at these books, old and new, we are, caught up into something greater than ourselves. Haste and greed and hatred are forgotten here among the things of the spirit and the mind. For it is in the greater realm of ideas, of beauty, that the true brotherhood of nations can be found’.  

News of the exhibition appeared in newspapers until the end of the year. By December, the long-term impact of the exhibition was being discussed by some in Sydney. There is some unexpected enjoyment in this later article. The value of such an exhibition was considered to be found in the evidence of Australia as a country that was learning how to produce its own publications. Such an exhibition was also an important means of demonstrating the State Library’s growing collection and the artistic potential of the nation, merging artistry of type and illustration. But I enjoyed this article for the mention of the Ship of Fools. The reviewer states, ‘What could be more suitably amusing than the spirited comic woodcuts of The Ship of Fooles of Sebastian Brandt a satire printed at Basie in 1497, of which a copy was on display in the Mitchell collection?’ I wonder, after reading Mander-Jones’ play, if it was a joke between Mander-Jones and Sherrie, that the first fool to appear in this book is a reader; someone too foolish to open a book themselves to gain knowledge.

I learn a lot about the space of the Mitchell from the archive of the archivist, Mander-Jones. The space of the Mitchell has been used in various ways to create a sense of Australasian identity and cultural understanding. It is also a space where silence is not encouraged. I see there is a notable silence in newspaper articles about the research undertaken to create this exhibition and the librarians who made it possible. Yet the archive of Mander-Jones contains an annotated catalogue claiming her and Sherrie’s work. In the 1935-1936 Annual Report we see no mentions of Ifould as the driver of this exhibition, but credit is given to Mander-Jones and Sherrie, ‘who were responsible for the selection and arrangement of the exhibits’. It is, then, a fool indeed that enters a library and keeps the doorways to knowledge, books and archives, closed.

Deborah Lee-Talbot

CH Currey Fellow, State Library New South Wales, 2023

Further Reading

Note: ‘From the Library of’ is the English translation of Ex Libris, a popular phrase added to bookplates. The association of the organisation with Mander-Jones to the exhibition, with linocut prints, and the public presence of the Duke and Duchess of York during their 1927 visit to Australia.  The Ex Libris Society, as it was, concluded with the death of Lane Mullins’ and World War II. 


Australian Ex Libris Society https://www.bookplatesociety.org.au/index.php/bookplate-societies accessed 15 March 2023

Barker, G, ‘Origins of the State Library of New South Wales’, State Library New South Wales, accessed 9 March 2022, https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/origins-state-library-new-south-wales-1826-1869 

BOOK ILLUSTRATION. (1935, October 15). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 10. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17215860

BOOK ILLUSTRATION. (1935, December 14). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 16. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17223153 

Brant, S. (2012). The ship of fools. Translation into rhyming couplets with introduction and commentary by Edwin H. Zeydel, retrieved from https://hdl-handle-net.ezproxy-f.deakin.edu.au/2027/heb05979.0001.001.

“FINEST WOODCUTS FOR CENTURY” The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1931 – 1954) 15 October 1935: 4. Web. 15 Mar 2023 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article246588671>.

“OLD VOLUMES” The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954) 14 October 1935: 11 (LATE FINAL EXTRA). Web. 15 Mar 2023 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article231183833&gt;.

Public Library of New South Wales Reports 1896-1968 Q027.525

The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde (The Ship of Fools), Barclay, Alexander, 1509, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20179/20179-h/20179-h.htm 

State Library of New South Wales, History of the Library, State Library of New South Wales, accessed 9 March 2022, https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/about-library/history-library 


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