The Australian Library and Literary Institute, 1853–1869
The ownership of land and new building also brought on the decision to make a major change to its management structure. On 7 October 1853, the library passed an Act of Incorporation and renamed itself the ‘Australian Library and Literary Institute’, in effect making it a public company with 1000 shares set at 25 pounds each. According to long-term member George Miller, this was done to imitate similar institutions in England and create a body of shareholders,
who would, in fact, be the holders of the property, and thus become interested in its welfare and advancement.
On 4 March 1854, Dr. Mitchell chaired a special meeting of the proprietors and shareholders where it was proposed to proceed as soon as possible with the completion of the building and to extend the supply of,
modern works and the most popular periodicals.
But the Library’s Treasurer also sounded a warning. These good times depended wholly on the money acquired from share sales and new subscribers. This proved to be sound advice, for over the next ten years the precarious financial position of a Library no longer supported by Government would become more apparent. This was particularly obvious when it came to its numerous expenses. The new Library was still incomplete; new books were required to draw in subscribers; a librarian’s wage had to be paid; there were accrued debts and fuel costs; and the building required ongoing maintenance.
Three years later these issues had become a harsh reality for the Library as their income was reliant on the 114 shares that had been sold and the 300 or so subscriptions taken up at £3 per anum each. The serious nature of the situation was made clear at a special meeting held on 2 October, 1857 where they discussed a proposal to sell the books and landed property belonging to the institution to move to other more suitable premises. This had been put forward at a previous meeting in August but as there were only a few members present John Fairfax’s moved the amendment to October reasoning for this radical move should not be made when only 16 proprietors were present and,
more especially when it was considered that a portion of the money with which the library had been erected had been obtained as a grant from Government, while the remaining portion had been raised by the subscriptions of members.
The Secretary E. Daintrey went on to state that,
there was no disposition on the part of the public to take shares, and he could not, under these circumstances, see any other alternative open but that of disposing of the library and ground… unless they could devise some means for increasing their revenue, they would be obliged to stop.
The dire nature of the situation was amplified by the Treasurer’s report which gave the last balance as being just £173. Their annual revenue was around £500 and the cost of management, £345, fuel £50, interest upon their debt £50, leaving just £55 pounds for book purchases.
Others at the meeting were more optimistic about the Library’s future. The M. P. Charles Cowper disagreed and felt that the public would take up more shares, and even suggested selling some of the books which he declared were “utterly useless” [luckily for future researchers this did not come to pass]. T. W. Cape argued that lowering the share price to 15 pound would allow more people to buy them. Captain Moriarty thought that reduction in the price of the subscriptions to around one or two pounds would help, particularly given their main competitor, the Mechanics’ School of Arts, offered more competitive rates. After numerous arguments for and against the meeting finally decided not to sell the Institution but agreed to look into other means by which the library could raise more capital.
Three days later in a letter to the editor of the Empire, a correspondent calling themselves Nerva issued a stern warning about the decision,
the day of reckoning is at hand, and like all institutions formed by the would-be aristocracy to be supported solely for themselves, they may linger for a time and in their passage display their incapacity for keeping pace with the times, become a byword and reproach, sink gradually into insignificance, and lastly be reckoned only among the missing.
Four months later, at the Library’s Annual General Meeting a report on raising capital was tabled before the 15 members present. Sadly ,they made it clear they were not able to find any savings in expenditure, could see no advantages in reducing annual subscriptions, and that without finishing the Hall they could not lease out any part of the building. In fact rather than saving money the report suggested taking out a loan of over £2000 to finish the Hall.
In the discussions that followed, Dr. Lang made his feelings about the current state of affairs clear,
in the process of time the institution was diverted from the purposes for which it had been originally founded - a feeling of exclusivity was entertained by the shareholders, who proceeded to the length of blackballing two or three respectable citizens … and from that time, the institution was looked upon by the public with distrust … the only way to get the institution out of its present difficulties was to popularise it by reducing the amount of the subscription, and making the public aware that the old character of exclusiveness has been done away with.
In the end the meeting passed an amendment to allow more time to consider the report and think about the option of reducing the cost of subscriptions. In March the shareholders met again to consider the report. This time those present determined to follow through on the recommendation to take out a loan of £2,200 to upgrade the building and not lower the fees.
A year later, 31 January 1859, the renovations were nearing completion, and discussions were still being had about what uses could be made of the building once these were complete. The costs had been substantially less, only £1,300 leaving decisions to be made by the dozen or so present as to how to spend the remainder of the loan. As it turned out this subject was deferred until after the election of the new office-bearers.
This deferment of a decision seems to have continued and by December 1865, another report was tabled before the committee. This one recommended an Amendment Act be applied for to Parliament to see the property of the institution be represented at a capital of 2000 shares of £5 pounds each and that opening hours to the public be extended. This it was suggested would place the Institution in,
a much better place than it has ever before held in public estimation.
After some deliberation about the way the existing shares should be divided up, and the resignation of Professor John Smith, the meeting deferred any decision and was adjourned. A month later, with the Library bank balance now at £39 16 shillings and 11 pence, the recommendation was adopted and the Bill was brought before the Legislature. In addition a new librarian, Mr. H. D. Hawley, was appointed.