Collections Management as Borrowing-record Stand-in in the Australian Subscription Library

By Brittani Ivan, PhD Candidate at Western Sydney University

Free Public Library, Corner of Bent and Macquarie Streets, Sydney. 1877. New South Wales Government Printing Office, SPF/193. From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales. This image shows the library after the time period discussed in this blog; the Australian Subscription Library began in rented premises in Pitt Street, and was then to be found for a few years in George Street, then Bridge Street, followed by Macquarie Street and then Macquarie Place. In 1845 it moved into the building pictured here, on the corner of Bent and Macquarie Streets.

My work is something of a departure from this website’s usual fare, as my primary area of study is an Australian, rather than a Scottish Library: The Australian Subscription Library of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Founded in 1826, the Australian Subscription Library was first self-proclaimed ‘public library’ in Australia and offers a fascinating glimpse into the development of New South Wales from penal settlement to self-governing colony during the years of the library’s existence (1826-1869).

However, for this blog post I want to direct your attention to that part of the Library’s lifespan which overlaps with the Scottish Books and Borrowers Project: 1826-1830. However, while I have managed to generate a nearly 1200 person strong list of potential borrowers from the institution’s membership lists, meeting minutes, and the odd newspaper article, the closest primary source document I have to a traditional borrowing record is the occasional note in the minutes of a lost or damaged book fine being levied, adding up to 88 total instances over a forty-three period, with only one occurring before the end of the period covered by the Scottish Books and Borrowers project.[1] As two overdue periodicals makes for a rather limited dataset, I have come at the question of what members were reading obliquely.

While many others in my position analyse the contents of the catalogues of a library, often with the caveat that the presence of a book in a collection does not mean it was read by anyone, merely that someone at some point thought it ought to be there, whether it serve as a status symbol, an educational text, or a personal favourite, there are a number of digitized primary resources which allow me to narrow down my field of inquiry from the whole of the catalogue to a specific subset of books which can conclusively be said to have been wanted and requested by the Committee or members of the library.

While in later years the Library’s committee meeting minutes merely report how much money was either sent abroad to their bookseller in London or spent locally at auctions or booksellers, in the first secretaries painstakingly copied lists of titles requested from the London bookseller into the minutes of the meeting at which they were discussed and decided upon.[2] Even better, a catalogue for 1829[3] not only exists but has been digitized by the State Library of New South Wales, the modern incarnation of the Australian Subscription Library, which has allowed me to cross-reference the lists contained in the minutes against the actual holdings. This cross-referencing has generated a list thirty-six titles, out of the 363 titles in the 1829 catalogue, which had been requested from the London bookseller in 1826;[4] and a smaller list of fifteen titles which were requested but do not appear to have entered the collection by 1829.

‘Catalogue with rules and regulations (1829) of the Australian Subscription Library.’ At a general meeting of subscribers of the Australian Subscription Library and Reading Room: held at the Sydney Hotel on the 26th of February 1826, J. Mackaness Esq in the Chair, the following gentlemen were nominated the original members of the Institution … R. Mansfield, 1829. Held in Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

This cross-referencing method for approaching analysis of the collections of the Australian Subscription Library allows me to definitively state that the members of the Australian Subscription Library wanted these thirty-six works; these, at least, were not simply filler supplied by their London bookseller or donations bestowed (perhaps unwanted) upon the institution.

The majority (23) of the thirty-six works are voyages or histories; three are focused on the Americas, four on Asia and the Pacific, and nine of the twenty travelogues are entirely focused on or in large part deal with expeditions to Australia. Two of these nine are written accounts of James Cook’s expeditions to Australia; two are accounts of the First Fleet[5]; and three were the published diaries of former governors of the colony of New South Wales. The number and subject of travelogues which were wanted by the borrowers of the Australian Subscription Library tallies with the trends Alex Deans noted here: in the borrowing records of the collections of Scottish libraries of the Romantic period: readers of the long eighteenth century appear to have had an appetite for the travel genre, especially when it was related to the landscapes they themselves inhabited, regardless of the continent they resided on!

The catalogue and booklist do not, however, merely show an affinity for local travel. Among the other requested books are a scientific guide to the distilling of alcohol, a forestry guide by Evelyn, a Carpenter’s Guide, a technological dictionary, and a Shipmaster’s Assistant, all eminently practical texts for settlers six-months sea-journey away from home comforts. There is also an Annual Biography and Obituary for 1825-1826, which would have kept the men of the Australian Subscription Library up to date on the shifting social scene back in Great Britain, and a French Grammar, which would have come in useful translating the French travelogues of La Perouse and D’Entrecasteux. The early library also held a copy of John Ramsay McCulloch’s Principles of Political Economy (1825), suggesting the collections were supplementing the work of government as well as providing entertainment for the men wealthy and well-connected enough to gain membership. The relative scarcity of practical books in comparison to the travelogues, however, does suggest that the primary purpose of the library in 1829 wasn’t the dissemination of useful knowledge, but the provision of entertainment materials to fill the members’ idle hours.

What isn’t present in a library can sometimes be just as revealing as what is. Of the fifteen requested titles from October 1826 which do not appear in the Catalogue of 1829, there are seven travelogues/histories, two books on navigation and geography, a guide to language acquisition, McCulloch’s Essays on Metal and Paper Currency, and four books identified only by an author’s last name. While the subjects of the travelogues and histories align with the materials the Library did end up possessing (as shown in the 1829 catalogue) (that is, there are no locations specified in the missing books which are not covered by held travelogues by alternate authors), it is interesting to note that one of excluded books was William Charles Wentworth’s Statistical, Historical, and Political Description of New South Wales (1819).

While the cause of the absence of a requested book may simply be the inability of the bookseller to obtain it,[6] the fact that Wentworth’s book in particular is missing shines a light on the fraught political and social climate of the Australian Subscription Library and the wider colony of New South Wales in the late 1820’s. After all, Wentworth’s book had the honour of being the first book written by a native-born[7] Australian to be published and disseminated throughout the Empire, and had been through two reprintings by 1826; the absence of such a seminal work in the first public library in Australia suggests a focus, not on the creation of a new cultural identity, but the preservation and replication of the imperial homeland abroad through the medium of access to written texts. This reading is strengthened by the inclusion of the accounts of former Governors Arthur Phillip (1788-1792), John Hunter (1795-1800), and William Bligh (1806-1808), along with John White’s account of the First Fleet, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (1790), all of which present a British, upper-class perspective on the settlement of New South Wales.

Of course, the fact that Wentworth’s book had been requested from the London bookseller in 1826 does suggest that at one point his perspective and version of Australian History was in fact wanted in the library; why, then, was it missing by the publication of the first catalogue in 1829?

William Charles Wentworth, c. 1861. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

One fascinating answer presents itself in the history of Wentworth’s identity and his relationship with the governing elite of the colony and the Library. William Charles Wentworth was the son of a convict mother and a father who, while never convicted, had been tried four times for highway robbery before relocating from England to Australia. Upon learning of his heritage in 1819, shortly after the publication of his book, Wentworth turned his considerable energies to advancing the cause of ‘emancipists’ or former convicts, in colonial society.[8] By 1827 his relationship with the elite sect who ran both the colony and the Australian Subscription Library had been strained to the breaking point by his repeated lawsuits; Scotsman Alexander McLeay, president of the Australian Subscription Library and Colonial Secretary, referred to Wentworth as ‘an infamous blackguard […] worthy of his birth being the son of an Irish highwayman by a convict whore’.[9] Although Wentworth was himself one of the earliest members of the Australian Subscription Library, with his name appearing on the first membership list of 26 February 1826, within a couple of years his pro-Emancipist, pro-self-governing colony politics made him a danger to the colonial establishment. Perhaps, then, the absence of his book in particular is a pointed refutation of him and his attempts to enable movement into the highest echelons of respectability for emancipists and their descendants. Rather than an accident of fate, the exclusion of Wentworth’s book may be a political commentary about what sort of educated elite the library was meant to foster; men of impeccable breeding and British birth, not Australia-born, convict-born bastards.

While this part of my project is still in its infancy, it seems that cross-referencing meeting minute wishlists against existing catalogues may offer a targeted approach to the question of what borrowers may have been interested in in the absence of any borrowing records; and a glimpse of how collections management strategies relate to the overarching political and social world within which a library operates.

[1] Two volumes of the Asiatic Journal and Oriental Herald, taken out by a Mr. Hayes, were reported as overdue on 19 August 1829. Australian Subscription Library. Item 02: Australian Subscription Library minutes and proceedings, 1826-1833. A 1625/vol. 1 Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

[2] Australian Subscription Library. Item 02: Australian Subscription Library minutes and proceedings, 1826-1833. A 1625/vol. 1 Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

[3] Australian Subscription Library. “Catalogue with rules and regulations (1829) of the Australian Subscription Library.” At a general meeting of subscribers of the Australian Subscription Library and Reading Room: held at the Sydney Hotel on the 26th of February 1826, J. Mackaness Esq in the Chair, the following gentlemen were nominated the original members of the Institution … R. Mansfield, 1829. Held in Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

[4] Mr. Barnard’s slowness in sending materials was the subject of multiple meetings, and the reason for his ultimate firing.

[5] The term ‘The First Fleet’ refers to the voyage undertaken by the first eleven ships of convicts, naval officers, and colonial administrators shipped from Great Britain to Australia in 1788 to establish a penal colony.

[6] Though the fact that at least two other requested books were later purchased on Australian soil by the Committee when they were not delivered suggests there might be other reasons for the absence; after all, Wentworth’s book was of considerably more immediate use and personal importance than Marsden’s History of Sumatra (1784) or La Perouse’s Voyages (1797).

[7] ‘Native-born’ is a commonly used Australian historical term which denotes someone born on Australian soil, regardless of their cultural heritage, rather than a person with aboriginal ancestry.

[8] Persse, Michael. ‘Wentworth, William Charles (1790–1872).’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

[9] Currey, C. H. Sir Francis Forbes, Angus & Robertson, 1969, p. 74.