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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. Its rival, the BEFL, had managed to increase its collection from 300 books to 10,000 items[3] and this large collection was also housed in a significant building in the Ballarat East civic precinct. Based on the size of their collections, these two libraries were amongst the largest libraries in Australia.[4] In addition, there were another eight institute libraries in the `suburbs' and goldfield settlements surrounding Ballarat and there were plans afoot to build yet another library in the commercial centre of Ballarat.

In spite of this rapid growth, a number of indicators show that by the early 1880s the BMIL and the BEFL had ceased to grow and had entered a second phase of library development that was characterised by introspection, public disputes, and eventually, stagnation. Once again, a number of common characteristics are identifiable

* the BMIL and the BEFL were unable to generate sufficient revenue from government grants or subscriptions to undertake further capital works or to fully develop their collections

* both committees objected to the government's policy of allocating a large number of small grants to parochial committees seeking to form new libraries throughout the colony. The Ballarat committees argued that the bulk of the funding should have been allocated to them

* library committees were reluctant to replace old, nonfiction, titles and retained an ambivalent attitude to the popularity of `sensation fiction'

* all libraries faced increased competition in the form of cheaper books and the serialisation of fiction by newspapers

Externally, colonial libraries appeared to be adhering to their initial goals and a number of reports, such as Holgate's assessment of Australian libraries, Victorian year books, and the annual reports of various colonial libraries,[5] implied that constant growth was a normal characteristic of colonial libraries. However, a more detailed analysis of the data pertaining to the major libraries in Ballarat suggests that the public perception of these libraries varied considerably from that of each library's committee of management. Drawing on a range of statistical indicators, it is obvious that community support for libraries had begun to wane in the early 1880s. For example, casual usage of the Ballarat libraries could not be converted into paid subscriptions and the number of subscribers to these libraries was never greater than about three per cent of the total population. This placed enormous pressure on the library committees, especially when income from subscriptions was falling as fast as bank overdrafts were rising. Furthermore, there was clear evidence that bookstock circulation and daily visitor numbers were falling at a time when expenditure on libraries was increasing. The following table clearly shows that total expenditure on colonial libraries peaked in 1890 whereas circulation and visitor numbers at the Ballarat libraries had already begun to fall by 1885.

The role of the committees of management of Ballarat's libraries

A number of factors had a negative impact on the longterm viability of libraries in Ballarat in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. These included the reliability of government grants and council subsidies, and the challenges facing libraries from newspapers, literary institutes and theatres, sporting clubs. These factors caused real anguish but some of these factors were, in reality, more symptomatic of a more obvious problem--namely, that the men who served on these library committees became more conservative, failed to recruit younger colleagues, and failed to respond to changing social expectations. By examining the generosity of spirit displayed by the founders of libraries in the 1860s, the acrimony between the various committees and the public in the 1870s and, finally, the increasing conservatism of the committees in the 1880s, it is possible to show that members of all the library committees in Ballarat had become stern custodians of their collections, and managed to alienate a generation of supporters in the process.

The visionary all embracing attitudes of the pioneers of the 1850s

Throughout the 1860s, the Ballarat libraries attracted the support of a number of confident young men who espoused visionary dreams about the role of libraries. Like their British counterparts, those colonists who advocated the formation of mechanics' institutes in Victoria were confident that they would realise their goals. This confidence was underscored by the fact that they were determined to acquire a wide range of reading material and that there was no suggestion that a person would be excluded from an institute because of race, religion or skill level. Thus in 1856 Thomas Wanliss, the editor of the Ballarat Star, supported the formation of a library that `contained polite literature and works of a higher scientific and intelligent character' because
 ... the working classes must have access to this library so that their
 minds may be elevated and ennobled by the search [for] emancipating
 knowledge. The diffusion of information amongst the people [and] the spread
 of education will do so much towards raising the masses in the estimation
 of mankind and will daily teach them respect and self reliance.[7]

In 1859 Wanliss called for closer cooperation between the eastern and western municipalities in order that `one central library with a number of satellitic libraries ... carry the lamps of literacy and scientific light to the very outskirts of the district' be constructed. The formation of a central library did not eventuate but this did not discourage Wanliss from arguing that Ballarat`s libraries should be accessible to all residents.[8] When laying the foundation stone of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute, Sir Henry Cuthbert referred to the vital role played by a mechanics' institute in `taming the wilderness of this isolated goldfield city'. Cuthbert echoed the view of a number of his peers when he claimed that this institute provided `clear evidence of the advancement of civilisation' in Ballarat.[9]

Sir Redmond Barry was a keen supporter of free libraries and he claimed that the Ballarat East Free Library would `provide a springboard to knowledge which would allow the working classes to mix freely with the upper classes'.[10] Several years later, Barry, now the patron of the BEFL, said that the liberal terms of access to this library, and to the Melbourne Public Library, was regarded with `envy and astonishment' by his colleagues in the northern hemisphere.[11]

More recently, Weston Bate claimed that the pioneers who settled in Ballarat in the 1850s were men who `embraced the liberal-democratic ideal of equality of opportunity'. Bate's general comment has specific application to the founders of the BMIL and BEFL.[12]

The BEFL initially provided free access to all residents of the township of Ballarat East and McCallum argues that, as such, it was the first free library in Australia.[13] Due to escalating building costs and low levels of expenditure on new bookstock, the committee was soon forced to introduce a nominal charge for the borrowing of books but neither the committee of the BEFL, or the rival BMIL, believed that the imposition of such fees would be a barrier to public access. The BEFL was able to show that hundreds of men visited its library on a daily basis in order to use the extensive newspaper and journal collection. Similarly, the BMIL was untroubled by the imposition of fees because its membership base was growing steadily. The number of financial members of the BMIL increased from 1,095 subscribers in May 1876 to 1,592 in May 1880,[14] and even though numbers began to fall slightly after that date the committee of the BMIL refused to reduce its fees or to consider the alternative of becoming a bona fide free library in order to fully comply with government legislation.[15]

The confidence of the founding library committees was also evident in the robust manner with which they responded to public criticism. On one occasion, an anonymous member of the public, calling him or herself `Bibliophole', challenged the committee of the BEFL to explain its book buying policy. The committee simply refused to enter into the public debate other than to say that all residents could have complete faith in the probity of the library committee.[16] On another occasion, a Ballarat resident had the temerity to suggest that the book collection at the Prahran Mechanics' Institute was `superior' to that of the BEFL. The local committee was highly offended by this suggestion and reported that its library was `housed in one of the handsomest structures in Victoria' and that its annual attendance of 100,000 visitors per annum was three times greater than that recorded at the Prahran Mechanics' Institute. The Ballarat committee then recorded a `protracted expression of contempt' for the anonymous correspondent before moving on to other matters on the agenda.[17]

Public tensions on display

The pioneers who established libraries in Ballarat must have been aware of the widespread criticism that mechanics' institutes had failed to embrace the working classes or respond to their needs.[18] Yet by 1875 there was a groundswell of resentment against the BMIL's receipt of a government grant, whilst at the same time, it continued to enforce its earlier policy of restricting public access to the collection. As a consequence, a local committee was formed and elected as its chairmen the city's mayor and long serving colonial politician, Lt Colonel William Collard Smith. This new committee advocated the formation of a freely accessible public library modelled on that of the Ballarat East Free Library, and chose a site directly opposite the BMIL. The local committee relied on three strategies to achieve its goal. It organised a petition that contained signatures of a large number of men who were recent arrivals to Ballarat. The committee then launched a public campaign to highlight the shortcomings of the BMIL and, as a result, there was a spate of references to the Institute's debts, the popularity of billiards and other forms of nonliterary entertainment, and the prevalence of book thefts from the library.[19] Naturally, this negative publicity campaign did not go unanswered, and at various times members of the fledgling City of Ballaarat Free Library committee were said to be `political tools' and `lying scoundrels' and one unnamed committee man was described as `an unmanly backbiter'.[20]

When it became apparent that the BMIL was not going to change its policies with regard to public access and the colonial government was not going to enforce its own legislation regarding the conditions of eligibility for annual grants,[21] the City of Ballaarat Free Library committee proposed the construction of one huge building that would house the Free Library, the Trades Hall Council and the YMCA. In addition the building would provide commercial space for stockbrokers and businessmen and, as a result, the whole enterprise would be self funding. Not surprisingly, this scheme failed to eventuate so the CBFL committee then announced its intention to sell part of its crown land grant in order to finance the construction of a building to be used exclusively for library purposes. The proposal to sell public land was instrumental in the formation of a parliamentary Free Libraries Bill Commission which examined the costs associated with building single purpose free libraries on crown land. The commissioners travelled to Ballarat to take evidence but the hearings generated such a furore among the Ballarat delegates that there were calls for an audit of the Free Library, and threats of legal action for assault and slander[22] (by the time the government's legislation was amended, the Ballarat Free Library committee had devised yet another scheme).

Serle argues that `the post gold rush decades were a period of prolonged and painful adjustment' for many colonists[23] because the process of settling into the more conventional routines of organised society brought with it a number of clashes between those pioneers who had enjoyed almost unfettered control over their communities in the 1850s and those of the current generation who favoured the imposition of more regulations on social behaviour. This process of `painful adjustment' was particularly evident in Ballarat[24] and one outcome of this transitionary process included the establishment of another library in a city already well supplied with large libraries. Of even greater significance was the fact that the BMIL was widely recognised as a remarkable institution and yet all the arguments put forward to develop the CBFL were based on the negative perceptions of the BMIL.

Stern custodianship

The acrimony, and the public display of the inadequacies of the dominant public library model, represented a turning point in library management. Prior to this crisis, the BELF and the BMIL held a common belief that libraries would appeal to the thousands of adults who sought the means of self improvement. But by the late 1870s it was apparent that these library committees were motivated by a number of other, more complex, forces. Both committees now believed that their libraries were respectable institutions and there was a grudging realisation that the majority of the population was not prepared to pay the annual membership fee to join them. Conversely, at least three other local organisations including the Ballarat Ironworkers and Polytechnic Association, the Ballarat German Association and the Australian Natives Association, were operating libraries and they experienced few difficulties in attracting the support of fee paying adult members.[25] Finally, the arguments surrounding the formation of the CBFL showed that Ballarat's library committees were becoming increasingly frustrated with the behaviour and attitudes of the public.

The transition of the typical committee man from disseminator to custodian can be demonstrated by focusing on a number of seemingly unrelated matters that highlighted the increasing conservatism of library committees. These factors include the opening of libraries on Sundays, the behaviour of women in libraries, the ageing of the committee men, and accusations that institute libraries were little more than private clubs.

Sunday opening

The question of operating public libraries on Sundays was a contentious issue that was always defeated on the basis that a library should be treated with respect and not be regarded as a place of amusement.[26] The upshot was that in a city that tolerated bands playing by the lake, hotels serving beer, and numerous clubs organising activities on Sundays, the doors of the library remained shut. As early as February 1877, the Town Clerk of Ballarat East had been `howled down' when he recommended that the free library open on Sundays. Members of the committee threatened to resign over the issue and the forcefulness of their resolve put an end to the discussion until the end of the century.[27] The situation in other townships was similar. For example, the question of opening the Ararat Mechanics' Institute library was raised on at least three occasions over seventeen years in the 1860-70s. Each time there were threats of resignation, accusations of meeting stacking, suggestions of loose morality and lengthy editorials. On each occasion, the proposal was soundly defeated.[28] The BMIL briefly flirted with Sunday opening on one occasion but then stated that it had abandoned the idea for financial reasons.

Misbehaving women

The BMIL committee appears to have been constantly annoyed by the behaviour of women patrons and book thieves (this could be restated in a number of ways!). On one occasion the BMIL was so offended by the behaviour of certain women that the committee resolved that `the pages of the ladies suggestion book be pasted together [and that a notice written in the front page requesting the] ladies not to allow the book to be made the receptacle of idle and impertinent remarks'.[29] A decade later, the same committee resolved that Miss Hart, a noted temperance lecturer and speaker on women's issues, not be permitted to enter the building, let alone book the lecture hall.[30] On another occasion, the BMIL committee recorded its dismay that women brought (small) dogs into the library.[31] On several occasions the BMIL committee engaged the services of a private detective to supervise the behaviour of library patrons.[32] In September 1885 it was reported that a resident had been successfully prosecuted for stealing seventy books from the library and he was gaoled for one year, with hard labour.[33] On later occasions, the committee expressed its disappointment that the private detective had been unsuccessful in arresting book thieves, which suggests that his primary role was apprehension, not deterrence.

Members of the three Ballarat library committees appear to have aged at a faster rate than that of the general community. It should not be assumed that Ballarat had a shortage of young men because the Ballarat branch of the ANA had 1,000 members and was claimed to be the largest branch in Australia.[34] In many instances, library committee representatives served in a voluntary capacity for twenty or even thirty years and, coupled with the fact that there were few elections, it was not uncommon for individuals to serve on their library committee `for life'. This is most obvious in Ballarat East where the average age of the men (there were no women) on the committee was thirty six in 1875 but had increased to sixty two years of age in 1890. James Vickery was seventy years old when he joined the committee in 1899 and William Thompson joined the committee at the age of seventy nine, having been born in 1791. In both instances they filled vacancies caused by the death of a colleague. A more extreme example can be found at the BMIL where that institute was under the careful stewardship of William Henry Batten from 1859-1910 and his son, Henry Cole Batten from 1910-1951.[35]

Subsidised private libraries

The most consistent criticism of nineteenth century institute and flee libraries was that they were merely private clubs for an elite group of men who used government grants to subsidise their personal reading habits. McCallum[36] accused all Ballarat library committees of displaying the same level of hypocrisy in that they sought government grants on the basis of providing generous terms of public access, whilst at the same time `paying obsessive attention to the discouragement of the general public'. All library committees bemoaned the lack of patronage by local residents but it was evident that none were prepared to make serious changes to the operation of their libraries. By the 1880s, most library committees had made all effort to comply with the terms of the government grant and, as a result, Ballarat's larger libraries each maintained two collections in the same building, one in a public reading room and the other, for the benefit of subscribers, in a separate room. Similarly, these concessions failed to impress politicians. In the 1850s various library committees had been awarded grants of 500 [pounds sterling] from the colonial government but by the 1880s library committees were struggling to obtain grants of one tenth of this amount and even then their requests were treated with considerable hostility. In 1883 Graham Berry claimed that both control and patronage of mechanics' institutes had `passed into the hands of the middle classes[37] and in 1887 Alexander Peacock claimed that there was no difference between institute and free libraries because they both discriminated against the bulk of the population.[38]

Low patronage

In every annual report of the BEFL between 1877-1890 there were complaints about the low levels of patronage, but even the way in which this vital issue was reported changed over time. Initially, the committee pleaded with residents to join the library but toward the end of the nineteenth century the tone had changed as the committee criticised the public and said that local residents were foolish if they did not avail themselves of the treasures of this library. Finally, the repeated claim that `the collection merits greater appreciation from the public than it receives'[39] suggests that the committee had conceded defeat. Once again, it should be noted that this debate was far from one sided. At nearby Smythesdale, a lengthy argument took place when `Censorious' claimed that the library was `mismanaged by the committee who enjoyed all the benefits of a private library whilst continuing to solicit government grants'. Furthermore, `Censorious' claimed that the institute's committee treated casual readers like `lepers'. The secretary of the mechanics' institute attempted to refute these claims by alluding to the excellent book collection which included works in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, German and French. He also stated that, to him, it seemed fair that subscribers be allowed prior access to the new books, magazines and journals before this material was made available to the general public.[40] On another occasion, a Ballarat resident said that the public reading room at the BMIL `ranked only second to the Black Hole of Calcutta' and accused the committee of purchasing books that would have been regarded as offensive to family men, their wives and children.[41] The clear inference was that the BMIL offered far better facilities to its financial members than it did to the general public.


The anecdotal information about the changing attitudes of the library committees and the information contained in Table 1 indicate that all Ballarat libraries were in serious trouble by the early 1880s. The argument that libraries only began to stagnate following the withdrawal of colonial government funding in the early 1890s[42] cannot be sustained. Ballarat's library committees failed to capitalise on their earlier successes for a number of reasons. Some were external, but most of the problems confronting library committees in Ballarat in the 1880s were largely of their own making. The Ballarat libraries did not enrol enough paying subscribers and the small group of men who remained on the committees changed their attitudes toward the public. The committee men no longer regarded themselves as disseminators of useful information. Rather, they adopted more conservative attitudes and regarded themselves as custodians of their libraries. When the government was forced to reduce its funding in the early 1890s, none of the Ballarat library committees was able to convince the colonial government, the local municipalities, or the public, that libraries were `invaluable community assets'[43] that were patronised or even supported by all members of society.
Table 1 Total expenditure / bookstock circulation /
library visits (pa)[6]

Year 1880 1885

Total exp on
libraries 26,800 [pounds sterling] 38,500 [pounds sterling]

BMIL bookstock
circulation 30,900 52,000

BEFL library
visits 120,000 100,000

Year 1890 1895

Total exp on
libraries 55,000 [pounds sterling] 44,000 [pounds sterling]

BMIL bookstock
circulation 33,000 25,000

BEFL library
visits - 50,000

Year 1900

Total exp on
libraries 30,000 [pounds sterling]

BMIL bookstock
circulation 9,000

BEFL library
visits 6,200

(*) The original spelling of Ballaarat is still used in official circles. It derives from the Aboriginal balla-arat, meaning a resting place ed


[1] Munn, R and Pitt, E Australian libraries: a survey of conditions and suggestions for their improvement Melbourne, ACER 1935 p22-25

[2] Mansfield, P Public libraries in Ballarat: 1851-1900 PhD thesis Deakin University 2000

[3] The 300 books were initially housed in the Ballarat East Fire Station

[4] Australian dictionary of dates Sydney, George Robertson 1879

[5] Holgate, C An account of the chief libraries in Australia and Tasmania London, C Whittingham & Co 1886

[6] Victorian year books 1875-1910 Melbourne, Government Printer 1875-1910); Holgate; Ballarat Mechanics' Institute minute books, 1870-1905; Ballarat East Free Library annual report 1902

[7] Ballarat star 18 December 1856

[8] Ballarat star 18 April 1859

[9] Ballarat star 29 September 1859

[10] Ballarat star 22 February 1867

[11] Ballarat star 2 January 1869. His address was reprinted in La Trobe library journal October 1980

[12] Bate, W Lucky city Melbourne, MUP 1978 p148

[13] McCallum, R A history of Ballarat libraries Ballarat, Central Highlands Regional Library Service 1978

[14] Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library minute book May 1876-May 1881

[15] See for example Victorian Government gazette 1885 p55

[16] Ballarat star 26 April 1874-17 May 1864

[17] Ballarart courier 6 February 1877

[18] For example there are references to the absence of mechanics and artisans in Melbourne Mechanics' Institute annual report (1849); Geelong advertiser 18 December 1860; Annear, R and Ballinger, R There are not many votes in books, a history of the Castlemaine Mechanics' Institute Castlemaine, Friends of the Castlemaine Mechanics' Institute 1996

[19] For example a number of letters of criticism were published in the Ballarat courier, in the week of 5-12 February 1877. The Ballarat star did not publish such reports

[20] Ballarat courier 18 August 1880-13 November 1880

[21] This did not happen until 1888

[22] Ballarat courier 9 August 1885

[23] Serle, G The rush to be rich Melbourne, MUP 1971 p1

[24] Bate. See Chapter 11 Goodbye to growth

[25] In the 1870-1880s, the Ballarat German Association received grants from the government to offset the cost of running its `public' library

[25] `Sunday opening' referred to providing access to the reading room, not to the borrowing of books from a library

[27] Ballarat courier 12-13 February 1877

[28] Ararat advertiser 2 November 1860--2 November 1877

[29] Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library minute book, July 1875

[30] Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library minute book, July 1884

[31] Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library minute book, November 1886

[32] Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library minute book August 1881, August 1885, July 1892

[33] Ballarat Mechanics' Institute minute book September 1885

[34] Menadue, J A centenary history of the Australian Natives Association, 1871-1971 Melbourne, Horticultural Press 1971

[35] Davison, K The Ballarat Mechanics' Institute 1859-1951 and the influence of Henry Cole Batten MA thesis Monash University 1993

[36] McCallum

[37] Bendigo advertiser 19 September 1883

[38] Victorian Parliament, Legislative Assembly 1887 p792

[39] Ballarat courier 7 February 1894

[40] Ballarat courier 26 October 1877

[41] Ballarat courier 26 October 1880

[42] McCalman, L Pioneer and hardy survivor Prahran, Prahran Mechanics Institute & Arts Society 1983 p3, 17; Barker, D The Sandhurst Mechanics' Institute and Free library In Instruction and amusement: papers from the sixth Australian library history forum ed B McMullin Melbourne, Ancora Press 1996 p48

[43] Ballarat star 22 January 1869

Dr Peter Mansfield is the Chief Executive Officer, Central Highlands Regional Library Corporation, and the President of the Ballarat Historical Society Inc. His Deakin University doctoral thesis was on public libraries in Ballarat 1851-1900. Address: 178 Doveton Street North Ballarat Vic 3350 tel(03)53211211 fax(03)53317908
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Author:Mansfield, Peter
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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