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E.A. Petherick and the Petherick collection.



The Petherick Reading Room is the only reading room in the National Library of Australia named after an individual. Visitors to the Library are often heard to remark, 'What's a Petherick?' Of course, it's not a 'what' but a 'who'--Edward Augustus Petherick (1847-1917).

This year marks 100 years since the committee of the then Commonwealth Parliamentary Library signed an agreement to acquire Edward Petherick's collection of Australasian and Pacific Islands material. The collection of about 16 500 titles formed the nucleus of the Library's holdings of Australiana.

Petherick was a bookseller, bibliographer and collector. Born in Somerset, United Kingdom, his father ran a bookshop and set up a small circulating library and reading room on his premises. Petherick later noted, 'I was born (I may say) in a library, I do not remember a time when I was unable to read.' With the false modesty for which he was notorious, Petherick also claimed to recall an impression of every book that had ever passed through his hands during his career. At 18 years of age, he professed to being a 'walking catalogue to a collection of 100 000 volumes'.

Petherick's parents emigrated to Melbourne in March 1853. In 1862, Edward became a member of staff of the well-known bookseller and publisher, George Robertson. Robertson thought so highly of his young employee that in 1870 he sent Petherick to London to select books for Robertson's growing Australian outlets. By 1873, Petherick was managing Robertson's London office at a handsome salary of 520 [pounds sterling] a year.

Following a thwarted attempt at marriage in Melbourne in 1877, Petherick returned to London and threw himself into collecting as only a well-paid bachelor with no other vices could have done. He soon earned a reputation in bookshops, auction houses, scholarly societies and gentlemen's clubs as being an expert in Australian and Pacific bibliographies. He took great pride in his fiscal aptitude and only bought books for a reasonable price: 'my purchases were always on a silver not a gold basis'. (The receipts for his purchases that reside in his papers in the National Library's Manuscripts Collection indeed confirm this.)

This does not mean to say that Petherick's collection is second-rate or of low value. On the contrary, many of his astute purchases are now quite scarce. For example, first editions of journals by Arthur Phillip, John Hunter, Watkin Tench, John White and David Collins were acquired for no more than 4 [pounds sterling] each, sometimes less than 1 [pounds sterling] each. Petherick's trade and club connections gave him the advantage of knowing what was coming up for auction around London. Moreover, the market in London for Australiana or 'Pacificana' was limited, so he had little or no competition to force up bidding.

Petherick built a collection that had strengths in maritime and land exploration (in particular, the journals of actual and imaginary voyagers and utopias which were popular in the latter half of the 18th century), convict transportation, Australian literature and religious and missionary work, including rare examples of early printing in Pacific Islands languages. He was also an early and prescient collector of pamphlets and other ephemeral material, prints, drawings, paintings, manuscripts, maps, atlases, newspapers and journals.

In 1887, Petherick decided to branch out on his own and formed the Colonial Booksellers' Agency. The venture ended in bankruptcy in 1894, with debts of 50 [pounds sterling] 000. With the help of friends and his wife, a widow whom he had married in 1892, Petherick saved his collection. The stock from his business was sold to E.W. Cole of Melbourne.

Working now for Francis Edwards compiling excellent detailed sale catalogues, still used today as reference tools, Petherick continued to collect. He offered his collection for sale to a number of colonial politicians, bureaucrats and librarians but was politely rejected or, in the case of Prime Minister Edmund Barton, completely ignored.

It was not until Petherick returned to Australia in 1909, bringing his collection with him, that librarians realised what he had. The committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library recommended that his collection be purchased and that Petherick be appointed as its curator. He and the collection were installed in the basement of the Victorian Parliament, where he spent the next seven years also working on his other great lifetime endeavour, an unpublished bibliography of Australasia and Polynesia comprised of around 100,000 cards arranged in 92 boxes, today available for access in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Petherick had not expected a sinecure post, assuming that he would be responsible for all the Australian collections, and these last few years proved to be a great disappointment for him. From the outset, he clashed with the Commonwealth Librarian, Arthur Wadsworth, who regarded Petherick as unprofessional, overbearing and boastful. Conversely, Petherick thought Wadsworth was an ignorant, time-serving, bureaucratic pen-pusher. As his mental and physical state declined with age, Petherick's later correspondence to senior government figures became laced with wild accusations and self-pity.

Despite his disputes with Wadsworth, Petherick bequeathed the rest of his books to the nation in 1915. He died in Melbourne in September 1917, still bitter at the disrespectful treatment he believed he had received.

Petherick's collection is distributed among the various stacks around the Library. Many of the Australian publications he collected so cheaply are still to be found among the general collection materials available through the Main Reading Room. If you're at the Library and see the letters 'E.A.P.' stamped into the spine of a book, you're holding something whose former owner was a great benefactor to the nation and who, if we are to believe what he claimed, could have told you a thing or two about that very publication.

Some of the material for this article was drawn from Graeme Powell's 'The Great Bookmen: E.A. Petherick and J.A. Ferguson' in Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library of Australia's First 100 Years, 1901-2001, edited by Peter Cochrane (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2001). The Papers of E.A. Petherick are held in the Library's Manuscripts Collection (MS 760).

Andrew Sergeant, Reference Librarian, Information Services
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Title Annotation:National Library of Australia
Author:Sergeant, Andrew
Publication:National Library of Australia Gateways
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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