‘How to encourage our literature’: Australian Fiction in the Australian Public Library


A visitor to a typical major public library in Australia prior to the Second World War would have found it difficult to locate more than a handful of Australian novels on the open stacks, in a shelf list, or in the library catalogue. In 1884 users of the Sydney Public Library complained that the works of 'even popular Australian authors' could not be found on the shelves ('Free Public Library'). Little had changed in 1935 when author and critic Vance Palmer observed that in the Lending section of the Melbourne Public Library (MPL) there were no books by popular Australian novelist Rolf Boldrewood and 'no evidence that Henry Lawson ever lived and wrote' ('Our Secret'). However, from the late 1930s a new engagement with local literary production can be discerned in major public libraries in Australia, with many libraries actively embracing and promoting Australian literature in their collections. This essay explores the reasons for this important change, which it locates within the contexts of evolving literary nationalism in Australia, critical attitudes to the local literary product, and the advocacy of key individuals in the library profession. The essay focuses on the provision of fiction in the major 'state' public libraries from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, using the Melbourne Public Library (MPL), and the individuals and groups that influenced the development of its Australian fiction collection, as a key example.

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Published 1 May 2012 in Volume 27 No. 1. Subjects: Australian fiction, Australian literature and writers, Lending libraries, Libraries, Readership, Reading.

Cite as: Gaunt, Heather. ‘‘How to encourage our literature’: Australian Fiction in the Australian Public Library.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 2012, doi: 10.20314/als.6d8a63fca8.