Music at the National Library of Australia

By Holmes, Robyn | Fontes Artis Musicae, July-September 2011 | Go to article overview

Music at the National Library of Australia


Holmes, Robyn, Fontes Artis Musicae


In January 1972, a rather remarkable little press notice appeared in the national newspaper The Australian, written by critic Kenneth Hince as he surveyed the previous year of musical activity in Australia.

   Musicians in Australia are a reasonably quiet and orderly tribe ...
   but they have a certain permanent, almost guaranteed
   newsworthiness. Librarians, by contrast, tend to be silent, and
   invisible ... That is why taking a retrospect of 1971 and its
   music, my own choice of a really significant event would surprise a
   lot of people. I reckon the first year's work of the Australian
   branch of the International Association of Music Libraries is
   likely to be more important to Australian music than any of the
   more colourful and spectacular happenings ...

The newly established Australian IAML branch had been lobbying the government's arts bodies to fund a national union catalogue for printed music, to include music in the national bibliography, and to establish a comprehensive national library and archive for Australian print, manuscript and recorded music. However, the idea to build a national infrastructure for music collecting, documentation and access had also been seeded by the then-National Librarian, Harold White, who, in 1966, began discussions with scholars, collectors and composers with a view to systematising the Library's approach to music.

Out of this energetic, imaginative and persuasive collective action, the Music Section of the National Library was formally constituted in 1973, embracing the goals IAML had proposed. Alongside it, the Australian Music Centre was established in 1975 to support the documentation, performance and promotion of Australian music. In 1984, the Library's commercially-recorded sound collections were formally separated from the print and manuscript collections with the establishment of the National Film and Sound Archive, in order to focus on specialist preservation and management of Australia's audiovisual heritage. All three organisations continue today to work cooperatively, alongside many libraries and archives in other sectors.

In 2001, the National Library celebrated its first hundred years with the publication Remarkable Occurrences (2) and a remarkable exhibition Treasures from the World's Great Libraries (3), which included musical riches generously lent by many national libraries across continents. The National Library of Australia had its origins in 1901 with the founding of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Library to coincide with the federating of the six Australian States and (now) two Territories into a nation, though the National Library was independently constituted with its own Act of Parliament only in 1960. In the book, I recounted the establishment and growth of the National Library's music collections, written just as I took up a newly-created position of Curator of Music. This history now forms a useful backdrop by which to review the achievements, directions, and challenges in music faced by the National Library of Australia 40 years after the constitution of a music unit.

Four key themes distinguish the Australian context for the directions that have shaped the development of music at the National Library of Australia, and the challenges that lie ahead.

1. Australia's National Library is youthful by comparison with many other equivalent libraries internationally. Moreover, a 'national music library' was systematised only quite late in the life of this Library. This compelled the Library to rapidly build, manage and make accessible a rich documentary record of Australian music, retrospective as well as contemporary. The subsequent growth of the collections into the largest music research library in Australia has not only created particular challenges but also cultivated a mind-set to trial innovative, alternative, and best practices, to maximise efficiencies within limited staff resources and funding. …

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