The Management of Libraries in Ballarat between 1851-1900

Article excerpt

The Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library and then Ballarat East Free Library, on Victoria's major goldfield, enjoyed remarkable progress in the 1860-70s but this growth phase was immediately followed by an even longer period of decline and eventual stagnation. The stagnation was largely brought about by the changing attitudes of the men who served on their committees. In the space of two generations, the men who served on Ballarat's library committees changed from `disseminators of useful information' to `custodians of collections'. In the process they lost the support of the colonial government, local municipalities and local residents. Edited version of a paper given at `Rediscovering Mechanics' Institutes' Australian Mechanics' Institute conference 17-18 November 2000

The development of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library, the Ballarat East Free Library and the City of Ballaarat(*) Free Library between 1851-1900 could best be described as a period of rapid growth in the 1860-70s, followed a much longer period of stagnation that commenced in the mid 1880s and continued well into the twentieth century.[1] The changing fortunes of these libraries can be demonstrated in two ways--by providing an overview of the two developmental phases and by examining the changing role of the committees of management of these libraries. Elsewhere, I have acknowledged that a number of factors (including the availability of cheap, alternative forms of reading material and changing funding arrangements) had an adverse effect on libraries in Ballarat, before concluding that the most critical element in the stagnation of public libraries from the early 1880s was the behaviour and attitude of the library committees themselves.[2] In this paper, it is shown that the behaviour of the small group of men who managed the Ballarat libraries changed from that of `disseminators of useful information' to that of `custodians of collections'. This shift, from generous provider to stern custodian, had a disastrous effect on library participation levels and on the long term viability of these libraries.

The evolutionary phases of library development in Ballarat between 1851-1900

An analysis of the development of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library (BMIL) and the Ballarat East Free Library (BEFL) and (later) the City of Ballaarat Free Library and Reading Room (CBFL) indicates that in the first phase of library development between the 1850-70s, rapid growth was the norm and that a number of common characteristics were evident

* as early as the mid 1840s the colonial government provided generous financial support to voluntary committees and municipal councils that sought assistance to form libraries

* the men who founded the BMIL and the BEFL had few difficulties in attracting the support and sponsorship of the civic elite of Ballarat

* the wealth of the goldfields was such that scores of significant buildings, including libraries, were constructed in Ballarat

* the intense rivalry between the neighbouring municipalities of Ballarat was a significant element in both the delivery and duplication of services

* many of the pioneers who settled on the Ballarat goldfields and remained as long term residents were firmly committed to the view that the provision of library services would educate and uplift adults of all classes

* Ballarat's library committees believed that they could provide a service that would offer a wide range of useful information to all classes of society, whilst at the same time ensuring that the library was regarded as a respectable organisation

In terms of library development, the results achieved by the BMIL and the BEFL were nothing short of spectacular. Within two decades of its formation, the BMIL had acquired a collection of 11,000 books, magazines, journals and newspapers that were housed in a palatial building in the main street of Ballarat. …