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The dumpster. It’s the call librarians dread. The tip-off that a valuable collection has been trashed. A concerned neighbour or eagle-eyed historian spots books or documents. Boxes of stuff are rescued. The library is alerted.
But libraries can’t collect everything. Patient explanations are made. Collection policies are invoked. Is the material significant? Disappointment spreads. Priceless material has been rejected. Complaints are made. Who said the librarian has an easy life?
I’m making this up, of course. I’m not a librarian, and in many cases this scenario has a positive outcome. Priceless material is saved every week. We are all the beneficiaries and indeed the protectors of the state’s cultural collections.
Robert Hallams’ 35 mm colour photographic slides are one example of a happy ending. And as curator of the Library’s exhibition Planting Dreams: Shaping Australian Gardens, I’m in the fortunate position of helping to breathe new life into this largely forgotten collection.
In many ways, Hallams’ photographs help us understand the main aims of the exhibition: to examine how and why we create gardens and to trace the sources of our garden-making ideas.
Gardening is a passion for many Australians. It gives pleasure, sustenance and dignity to daily lives. It cuts across cultural, social and national boundaries like few other activities.
But it also helps define those boundaries. Gardens touch on spiritual values and cultural traditions. Landscapes tell of deep attachment to place and country, the comfort of seasonal delights, the mystery of beauty.
With its broad collection of rare books, photographs, manuscripts and ephemera, the Library is almost uniquely placed to tell these stories. I’ve been using these resources since I was a student in the 1970s and I’m always astonished at the breadth of works held here.
But I had not come across the Hallams collection until recently. Since its rescue from the proverbial dumpster in 1993, it has sat undisturbed in basement storage. During my research for the exhibition, I spent a privileged hour flicking through the slides, alive to the potential of the quirky and the obscure.
Comprising over 1800 colour transparencies from the 1960s and 70s, this collection evokes all the innocence and charm of an old-fashioned slide night. And perhaps even a touch of the boredom, as Uncle Neville reaches for the third or fourth carousel of slides. Here is the car park at Ryde shopping centre, there the flowerbeds at Parramatta psychiatric hospital and, coming up, a faux Georgian display house at Faulconbridge. Hardly the stuff of dreams, you might think.