1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Libraries and Archives

Libraries and archives are the memory banks of any society that depends on written records. In 2002 there were 79 public libraries (operating 238 branches), 21 universities and TAFE colleges (many with multiple branches), more than 300 other 'training providers', and 2326 primary and secondary schools in Victoria, the majority located in Greater Melbourne. In addition there are innumerable 'special' libraries - in government, law, business, professional associations, hospitals, charitable and religious organisations. In 2004 there were 91 'archives' in Victoria; besides the major public institutions, these included BHP, the ANZ and National Australia banks, Anglican, Catholic and Uniting churches, Melbourne Cricket Club, the Australian Gay and Lesbian Archives, the Victoria Police Historical Unit, and diverse schools, hospitals, and community groups.

Postgraduate professional qualifications for librarians and archivists are a recent development, most dating from the 1960s or 1970s; archives qualifications achieved a distinct identity in the 1980s. In a typical library between one-third and one-half of the staff are employed as professional librarians; the rest are para-professionals ('library technicians'), clerical and other support staff. In school libraries, librarians without teaching qualifications are employed as 'school support officers'; although many have higher-level librarianship qualifications than do teacher-librarians, they have lower pay and status. With the development of electronic databases, and the emergence of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s, the library profession has shifted its emphasis from acquiring collections of books to providing access to information.

Prior to the gold rush, Melbourne was served by Mechanics Institutes and commercial lending libraries. The Melbourne Mechanics Institute (now the Melbourne Athenaeum) was established in November 1839; this was followed by the Prahran Mechanics Institute (1854). During the next two decades mechanics institutes proliferated in Melbourne suburbs hosting public lectures and sporting activities as well as libraries. Commercial libraries - operated by booksellers - offered recreational reading.

The State Library of Victoria opened in 1856 and was the first free (in the sense of not requiring a subscription) public library in Melbourne. Municipal libraries began to appear during the 1860s, some like Prahran (1861) in competition with an existing Mechanics Institute, others such as East Collingwood (1867) in collaboration with an 'institute' committee. Subscription-based institutes, however, remained the norm until the establishment of the Free Library Service Board in 1946. During the 1990s the Kennett Government's program of Compulsory Competitive Tendering resulted in the closure of many public library branches, a trend reversed in 2003 with the opening of a new public lending library in Flinders Street to serve city residents.

University libraries were insignificant until the expansion of higher education after World War II. Despite being established more than a century later, the library at Monash University is of similar size to that of the University of Melbourne. Both hold approximately 3 million volumes, including substantial rare book collections, and employ approximately 250 staff.

School libraries are much smaller: a dozen staff and a collection in the tens of thousands is regarded as large. Many State primary schools do not employ a librarian at all. Special libraries also vary enormously: in 2001 the Victorian Parliamentary Library employed 23 staff, 16 in a professional capacity; in many private companies 'looking after the library' is one of the tasks assigned to general clerical staff.

Although all organisations, and individuals for that matter, keep records of their activities, archives have been slow to emerge as distinct, formal entities. From 1893 government records were deposited, unsystematically, with the State Library; an Archives Section was established in the library in 1955; the Public Record Office was not established until 1973. The University of Melbourne Archives was established in 1960, out of the University's Central Records Office, and stands alongside the State Library as a major repository of historical and literary manuscripts, pictures and 'documentary' artefacts. The National Archives also maintains a Victorian branch. The Royal Historical Society (RHSV) is another significant manuscript collection.

The growth of local history societies in the 1960s and 1970s was followed by a boom in the market for literary manuscripts, and an increase in the number and diversity of organisations making a conscious distinction between the present-needs focus of 'records management' and the longer perspective of archives.

Ian Morrison