State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 47 & 48 1991


The Australian Manuscript Collection

The History Of Australian documents in the Manuscript Collection of the La Trobe Library begins with La Trobe himself when he took steps to acquire the original records of Victoria's history begins with Charles Joseph La Trobe. First Superintendent of the District of Port Phillip and subsequently the first Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Victoria, La Trobe retired and returned to England in May 1854. The previous year, he had solicited from many of Victoria's pioneering settlers accounts of their arrival and early experiences, and received some sixty replies. The onset of blindness prevented him from writing a history of Victoria based on these documents, and in 1872 he sent them back to Melbourne, asking his agent, James Graham, to deposit them ‘somewhere where [they] will be accessible when the day comes, say the Public Library or other Public Archives’.1 Graham wisely chose the Melbourne Public Library, having sought the advice of two of its Trustees, Sir Redmond Barry and David McArthur. It is a tribute to La Trobe's foresight that the documents he solicited have now been published three times and are still an essential source for the writing of early Victorian history.2
A good deal earlier, Sir Redmond Barry had begun the acquisition of non-Australian documents, assembling by various means (travel, correspondence, purchase) the collections which now form his ‘Letters from persons of distinction in Europe’3 and the nucleus of what has become the Autograph Collection.4 The acquisition of Australian documents continued, however, in 1874, with the Royal Society of Victoria's gift of many of the records of the Victorian Exploring Expedition — better known as the Burke and Wills Expedition. (It is a characteristic frustration in collecting manuscripts that the last of these records did not come to the Library until the 1980s and were not fully arranged and described until 1987.)
During the remainder of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, evidence suggests that the acquisition of historical documents was desultory and passive, and was mainly of ‘foundation’ documents such as the journals and field books of Batman, Wedge and Todd.5 The late 1870s saw some particularly hard bargaining, again involving Barry, which resulted in the purchase of the Batman deeds for only £5.
In 1909 the now Royal Historical Society of Victoria was established, with two consequences of especial importance for the Library: the Society's own active development of an admirable manuscripts collection; and successful pressure from Professor Ernest Scott and others for the Library to collect and preserve the State's public records, resulting eventually in the establishment of the Archives Branch, which in 1973 became the Public Record Office of Victoria.
The Library continued to acquire private records, with several landmark happenings up to the 1930s: the establishment of the ‘Historical Collection’ in the 1920s; the State's centenary celebrations in 1934–35; and (in anticipation of the celebrations)

MS 10749 Letter to C J. La Trobe from Thomas Learmonth, 11/8/1853, in Letters from Victorian Pioneers. La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.

the acquisition of the Gipps-La Trobe letters and other La Trobe papers.6 However, the greatest stimulus, both within the Library and in the wider community, to the development of the manuscripts collection and other special collections must have been the decision in 1951 to establish a ‘La Trobe Library’ which would be ‘at once to honour the pioneers [and] to bring together the Library's very considerable collection of Australian material in manuscript and print’.7
Around this time Margaret Kiddle, who might be regarded as the Library's first manuscripts field officer, located and enabled the acquisition of copies and originals of many important records both in Victoria and in the British Isles during the research for her book Men of Yesterday.8
In 1956 the first Manuscripts Librarian, Clarice Kemp, was appointed, presiding over a collection amounting to about 120 boxes, or about eleven linear metres.9 (The collection is now about 200 times larger.) Most importantly, the opening of the La Trobe Library in 1965 provided an invaluable lever for the first La Trobe Librarian (initially the Deputy La Trobe Librarian, for the principal Librarian was nominally also the La Trobe Librarian), Patricia Reynolds, to adopt a very active role in the acquisition of manuscripts.
‘…Relatively few staff have been able to remain for a sufficient period to develop a deep knowledge of the collection.’
Active collecting was also facilitated by the Friends of the La Trobe Library, which was established in 1966. In 1969 the Friends successfully sought funding for the appointment of a manuscripts field officer, an appointment originally to be for one year, then two, and which is now a permanent member of the Library's establishment. In 1990 the position was re-named Field Historian.
The final, almost incidental, elements in this brief chronology are the already-mentioned establishment of the P.R.O in 1973 and its removal in 1977 from the Library's premises to its own repository at Laverton (with a search room and headquarters in the city centre and a regional repository at Ballarat).
The remainder of this article is concerned with the past few years of the collection, its present state and its future prospects.
After many relatively stable years the State Library, and especially the La Trobe Library, experienced major and unsettling changes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Older staff with many years of service and experience were retiring and younger staff were moving on to other jobs within, and outside, the State Library. In late 1977, when I began working in the Manuscripts Collection, John Thompson had been Manuscripts Librarian for six years, Patricia Reynolds, La Trobe Librarian for thirteen years and Ken Horn, State Librarian for fourteen; by the time I was appointed Manuscripts Librarian in mid-1982, all three positions had seen several acting or permanent incumbents. The years since then have again been relatively stable, at least in the more senior positions, though in the Manuscripts Collection relatively few staff have been able to remain for sufficiently long to develop a deep knowledge of its operations and holdings.
The Collection continues to grow, by about 200 acquisitions a year (or nearly one each working day). In recent years they have ranged from the minute (a quarterly railway pass of the 1880s, measuring a few centimetres square) to the overwhelmingly large (5,000–odd job files of the architects Stephenson and Turner, for example). The size of the Collection is difficult to measure, partly because there are increasing backlogs of unprocessed material; an informed guess would suggest that it amounts to a little less than 3,000 linear metres, or the equivalent of about 16,500 of the standard archive boxes now used for storage.
It is, of course, a characteristic of the Manuscripts Collection that it contains much that is not standard — microforms, maps and plans, objects (including a school blazer, a school cap, medals, botanical specimens and a bust of the poet Hugh McCrae), sound, film and video recordings, company seals, and documents written on surfaces as unexpected as gum-leaves and a fragment of wooden aircraft fuselage.
Several factors influence the rate and direction of the Collection's development. Perhaps the most important (certainly in setting directions and quality, though not necessarily in terms of sheer volume of
acquisition) is the work of the field officer. It has been vital to the development of the Collection that several individuals with widely different interests have successively occupied the position: Patsy Adam Smith, who built on Margaret Kiddle's earlier work with records of pastoral properties and also laid the foundation of the strong holdings of servicemen's and women's papers (among much else); Patsy Hardy, with interests more to do with politics and urban social history; Tom Griffiths, who developed the acquisition of material from non-Anglo-Saxon communities, worked with amateur sporting bodies and, especially, developed important links with historical and other societies in country areas; Jenny Keating, who built on the work which had begun in the 1970s of collecting records of welfare and social action bodies; and Dermot McCaul, who worked briefly but invaluably on the records of theatrical and musical groups.
State Library-wide policies can also be important. Although it was not, perhaps, a fully-formed concept at the time, the Library's intention to become a ‘Centre for the Book’ was surely useful in enabling the purchase in the later 1980s of the records of the booksellers Kenneth Hince, Edward Lyon and A. H. Spencer, the printer George Anderson and most recently, of the most important Stephen Murray-Smith/Overland archive. Similarly, the completion of a study into the feasibility of establishing an ‘Architectural Archive’ will add impetus to the development of the already rich collections of architectural records.10 Earlier in the 1980s the employment for eighteen months of a ‘Living Biography Project Officer’, though not intended directly as a means of collection-building, brought some useful material to the Library.
External policies and initiatives have been useful, too: notably Richard Broome's efforts in 1982–3 to collect reminiscences of post-war immigrants to help in his writing of Arriving (one of the volumes of the sesquicentenary history of Victoria); and (although it was not conceived as a collecting exercise) the work of the Australian Bicentenary Historic Records Search in 1988, with which the Library was closely involved, resulted in some interesting and fruitful acquisitions and contacts.
A range of activities add relatively small, but often extremely valuable, amounts of material to the Collection. They include purchases from dealers, auction houses and private vendors; copying records of which the originals remain in private hands; and participating in microfilming projects such as the Australian Joint Copying Project and the Pacific Manuscripts Project.
Two most important means of acquisition remain — chance and misfortune. The greatest number of acquisitions result from members of the public (individual and corporate) offering material which, though occasionally minor, is always of interest and often of the highest significance. The continuation of offers such as these is largely dependent on both staff and Friends helping to maintain a good and strong public image for the Library. Secondly, misfortune and death: archivists and manuscript librarians have to be readers of death notices and chasers of personal and corporate coffins (speaking metaphorically, of course). To take some corporate, rather than personal, examples, it was quick staff work upon the announcements of the deaths of the Australian Performing Group and the Democratic Labor Party (Victorian Branch) which secured their respective records for the Library, and ‘moving house’ which obliged the National Book Council, the Graziers’ Association of Victoria and Bryant
The Library's Selection Policy obliges the Manuscripts Collection to “‘record and reflect the full range of human endeavour [in Victoria], from the earliest times until the present day,’11 and describes those areas in which the Collection has particular strength. It is inevitable that, partly for reasons outlined above, directions and emphasis in collecting will change, temporarily or permanently. Indeed, this is vital if the Collection is to continue to be strong and useful.
Directions and emphasis in the way in which manuscripts are treated also change, partly as a result of internal constraints and partly from external demands.
The principles of arrangement and description are now well-established and are compatible with the introduction of MARC:AMC-based cataloguing.12 Regrettably, there must now be far more ‘quick and dirty’ processing of records if backlogs are not to become unmanageable. Conversely, the detailed calendaring of documents is now almost a
thing of the past, except to the extent that work of this sort can be, and is being, done by volunteers. (For over a decade the Collection has been fortunate in having a dedicated and skilled team of volunteers who are able to perform tasks which staff do not have the time to do.)
The development of the Collection depends not only on its physical growth but also on the constant scrutiny and re-interpretation of its contents. Perhaps the most striking example in recent times was the new emphasis on records relating to women and the realization that much relevant material was effectively hidden in the Collection. Both staff and outside efforts have led to a new accessibility of this material.13 More recently, the efforts of, among others, Shona Dewar14 and Ian Nicholson15 have helped in creating a new awareness of the riches of the Collection.
There are other factors, both internal and external, which will influence the directions the Manuscripts Collection takes. Internally, policy developments, staff interests, and the eternal constraints of staff, money and staff are the most obvious.
Externally, there are many factors, including the combination of increasing prices (and awareness of the monetary value) of manuscripts and archives16; competition (and co-operation) between private collectors (and it must not be forgotten that many private collectors are, in the shorter or longer term, very generous benefactors of public institutions); the interest which private organisations have in developing their own in-house archives (to name only a few, in recent years assistance has been given to Scotch College, the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, the Victorian Council of Churches and George Adams (Tattersalls) in developing their own archives); and the Library's involvement, which has developed in recent years, in the archival community, as a member of both the Australian Society of Archivists and the Australian Council of Archives and as a provider of information and expertise on matters to do with archives and manuscripts.
This article has not, perhaps, come fully to grips with the question ‘What is the Australian Manuscripts Collection?’ The emphasis on acquisition would suggest, perhaps rightly, that it is a repository (and one of prime importance) of the original documentary heritage of Victoria. It is, however, more than that. It is also the staff who, coming and going over the years, make their mark (for good or ill) on the growth of the Collection and the way in which its contents are described. There is great pride and pleasure to be had from the thought that one is building a collection on foundations laid by figures as illustrious as Sir Redmond Barry and Augustus Tulk.
People other than the staff likewise have a claim on the Collection: on the one hand, the donors, collectors, dealers and others who have a stake in building its resources; and, on the other, the vast array of people from Victoria and from all over the world — students, teachers, historians, biographers, anthropologists, genealogists and many more — who use and interpret the Collection. Without them, now and for generations to come, no amount of collection-building has any point whatever.


Quoted in the preface to C. E. Sayers (ed.), Letters from Victorian Pioneers Heinemann, Melbourne, 1969, which provides a fuller account of the letters.


See, for example, Joanna Monie, Victorian History and Politics La Trobe University Library, Bundoora, 1982; Richard Broome, The Victorians: Arriving Fairfax, Syme and Weldon, Sydney, 1984; and Marie Hansen Fels, The La Trobe Library Collection of the Papers of Assistant Protector William Thomas, in La Trobe Library Journal, Vol.11, No.43 (Autumn 1989), pp.13–15.


MS 6333, La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Chris Elmore, Autograph Manuscripts in the State Library of Victoria, La Trobe Library Journal, Vol.6, No.22 October, 1978, pp.39–44.


See the introduction to P. L. Brown (ed.), The Todd Journal 1835 Geelong Historical Society, Geelong, 1989.


See the Introduction to A. G. L. Shaw (ed.), Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence 1839–1846 Melbourne, M.U.P., 1989.


C. A. McCallum, The Public Library of Victoria 1856–1956, the Library, Melbourne, 1956), p.9.


In 1988 the extensive records of the Millear family of Edgarley, near Ararat, were presented to the Library. In the lid of one of the trunks which housed them were notes meticulously recording the items borrowed, and returned, by Miss Kiddle to assist her research in the early 1950s.


John Thompson, The Australian Manuscripts Collection in the State Library of Victoria: its growth, development and future prospects, La Trobe Library Journal, Vol.6, No.21 April 1978, pp.8–14. This invaluable article provides much more detail of matters only outlined here. The estimate of 120 boxes must exclude major bodies of records such as those of McCulloch and Co., which were then held in Archives and are now within the Australian Manuscripts Collection.


Robyn Waymouth, A Feasibility Study for the Establishment of an Architectural Archive in Victoria, State Library of Victoria, 1989 p.iv, recommends “That an architectural archive be established within the State Library of Victoria, presumably as a discrete collection of the La Trobe Library”.


State Library of Victoria, Selection Policy Library Council of Victoria, Melbourne,1986).


MA chine-Readable Cataloguing: Archives and Manuscripts Control, which will enable manuscripts to be incorporated in the State Library's computer data-base.


Through, for example, Kay Daniels’ Women in Australia: an Annotated Guide to Records AGPS, Canberra, 1977 and the special Women's Issue of the La Trobe Library Journal Vol.4, No. 15, April, 1975.


Shona Dewar, Having a Lively Time: Australians at Gallipoli in 1915, a catalogue of material held in the Australian Manuscripts Collection … Council of the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 1990, describes and analyses eighty-three manuscript collections which relate to Gallipoli.


Ian Nicholson, The Log of Logs Roebuck, Canberra, 1990, includes references, from many Australian manuscript collections and archives, to more than 60,000 logs, diaries and letters describing voyages to Australia and New Zealand from 1788 to 1988.


Tony Marshall, The market in manuscripts, paper presented to the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Australian Society of Archivists, Hobart, June 1989.