Although the Free Public Library opened with only three staff and limited resources, its fortunes rapidly improved. Contemporary European periodicals brought new readers to the Library. Donations like Justice Wise’s bequest of early Australian publications inspired a focus on collecting colonial records: by 1889 the Australian Town and Country Journal noted that the Library pursued with ‘great perseverance … everything treating of Australia … pamphlets, journals, magazines and paper’.
It was the intelligence and perspicuity of this collecting which attracted into the Library’s orbit its two great Australiana benefactors, David Scott Mitchell and Sir William Dixson.
A lending branch of the Library opened in 1877 (now known as the City of Sydney Library, it was transferred to the control of the Sydney Municipal Council in 1909). A country lending service was established in 1883 to service regional NSW.
In 1895 the Free Public Library was renamed the Public Library of NSW, to reflect the ‘scope of its operations and its national character.’ A nascent profession of librarianship began to emerge, and Principal Librarians like Henry Anderson and William Ifould elevated the Library’s role in Sydney’s cultural life through their intelligent and passionate advocacy for its services and resources.
The opening of the Mitchell Library in 1910 significantly added to the prestige and international importance of the Library, and contributed to an understanding of the relevance of libraries to contemporary Australian life. Indeed, this was the foundation upon which the Free Library Movement of the 1930s was built. Without the inspiration of the Public Library of NSW it is difficult to see how the Library Act 1939 – which led to the growth of the public library network throughout NSW – could have been so successfully realised.
Richard Neville is the Mitchell Librarian and Director, Education & Scholarship.
This article first appeared in SL magazine, Spring 2019.