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For Book Week: a brief history of Camberwell and Ashburton libraries

It’s Book Week!

Or, as I call it in my house, F#@king Book Week.

I love books. I love them so much I wrote one. You don’t become a historian if you don’t love books because there is certainly no money in it.

Why do I hate Book Week? It’s the costumes. I LOATHE organising costumes for my kids.

This year, I was hoping the pandemic had killed Book Week costumes but... nope.

A snapshot of my office books that do not require a Book Week costume

Now that I have that little rant over with, I thought in honour of my love of the Book part of F#@king Book Week, a book-themed blog post was in order.

So I turned my attention to one of the homes for books in our neighbourhood: our public libraries.

Pauline Armstrong and Luba Copland

Before I begin, I wanted to highlight two informative sources on public libraries in Camberwell I discovered at the Victorian History Library. Both were published by local Camberwell women in 1989. This seems a pretty niche topic to produce two sources in the same year so perhaps there is a story there somewhere too?!

Dr Armstrong's book

The first is a very helpful essay by Dr Pauline Armstrong. Dr Armstrong, who died in 2001, was one of those intelligent and determined Australian women who refused to be cowed by the conventions of conservative Australia and her Irish Catholic heritage. Born in Camberwell, she was an active member of the Communist Party and an outspoken advocate for the Save Our Sons movement against Vietnam War conscription during the 1960s. She was also heavily involved in setting up the first public library in the Camberwell area. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a photograph of her but she sounded like a force to be reckoned with.

Luba Copland in 1989

The other source is a small booklet by Luba Copland. I assume she was also involved in setting up the public libraries but she does not go into this too much in her short history. All I could find on her was what she wrote on the back of her booklet. She was born and educated in Poland and later, Melbourne University. She had ‘worked enthusiastically with local people to preserve the quality of life in the area’ during her 43 years (and counting) living in Camberwell. This certainly seems to be the case as the Copland name adorns the function rooms at the Ashburton Community Centre.

So we have two intelligent, motivated women seeking to effect change in Camberwell in the 1960s by going up against the conservative old men on Camberwell Council.

What could possibly go wrong?

Developing Australia’s Culture after WWII

Ben Chifley

The story of public libraries in Australia began as World War II drew to a close. Labor Prime Minister John Curtin appointed J B “Ben” Chifley as Minister for Post-War Reconstruction. Chifley was a quiet, observant, and unassuming man. But underneath his methodical exterior lay a strong belief in social-reconstruction programmes that would justify to the Australian people that the sacrifices they had made during the War would be worthwhile.

Chifley wanted to give every Australian freedom from basic economic worries, opportunities for personal development, and the ability to raise healthy and well-educated families.[1] These were not just lofty ideals. He planned to do this by investing in and improving Australia’s culture through community education and enrichment. That plan included publicly funded libraries, art galleries, theatres, ballets, museums, and community centres.

The deplorable state of Victorian libraries

Victoria has a long library tradition. The first library opened in 1838, just three years after the colony's formation. This was an establishment attached to Fawkner’s Hotel that lent books for five shillings. This library relied on the first European settlers in Victoria bringing books into their new country.

Within four years, a more permanent library emerged for members of the Melbourne Mechanics Institute. By 11 February 1856, the Victorian Government opened the Public Library of Victoria (now the State Library) that represented all sections of the community. This was one of the very first free public libraries in the world. By the 1880s, libraries had become important facilities within almost every Victorian town and most Melbourne suburbs.

However, the ‘free’ part only covered access to the buildings and reading rooms; none of these libraries let people borrow books for free.

Until Chifley proposed his ambitious plans in the 1940s, these libraries were often small, parochial, dreary affairs housing old, out-of-date, useless, and shabby books.

The public library push begins

Efforts to revitalise Victorian libraries and make them free began in 1937 with the establishment of a branch of the NSW-based Free Library Movement in Victoria. Its president, Sir John Latham, a distinguished Melbourne barrister and conservative politician (Federal Member for Kooyong), worked hard to address the inadequacies of the public library system in Victoria. This occurred even though he was on the other side of the reigning Labor government.

After Chifley’s great plan for libraries emerged, the State Government passed the Free Library Services Act to encourage local government authorities to establish public libraries with the aid of a State subsidy. By 1947-48, the efforts of the Free Library Service Board convened to administer the Act resulted in 12 State-subsidised municipal libraries across Victoria.

A lack of support from Councils

Although this might seem like a positive step forward, most Melbourne Councils rejected the idea of free public libraries. Around the suburbs there were ample numbers of small, privately-owned lending libraries – Ashburton had three in High Street alone – so perhaps they did not think this was a priority for their resources. It certainly seemed cost was a major factor, with one 1955 report putting the anticipated expenditure at £100,000 just for establishing the libraries, let alone maintaining them.[2]

Camberwell Town Hall (2022)

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile it will not surprise you that in Camberwell, there was also an initial lack of support for public libraries. Over the previous century, Camberwell Town Hall had housed several attempts to start a lending library that had persistently failed. After WWII, Camberwell and South Camberwell both had free lending libraries for children but nothing for adults.

In his history of the area, Geoffrey Blainey wrote that one of the reasons for Camberwell Council’s position was that it tended to favour horticultural investment over culture. This certainly aligns with its investments in purchasing land for green spaces.

Camberwell Council comes around... eventually

Headline in a March 1955 issue of Progress Press

In 1952, a grassroots organisation emerged around Camberwell dedicated to lobbying the Council for a free public library. The Camberwell Free Library Movement formed and included the Camberwell Literary Group (Pauline Armstrong was a member), the Camberwell Film Society, and local representatives of the Labor Party. It was no easy task. Spear-headed by His Honour Judge J C Norris and his wife, the movement presented a pro-library petition signed by 8,201 citizens to Council.[3]

As Dr Armstrong wrote, ‘[the Council] was reluctant to commit itself to joining, without obligation, the Library Association of Australia. There are few things more difficult to arrange than initiating changes where constitutions or by-laws are involved. Many people resist change until it has been tested.’[4] Truer words were never spoken: just ask the advocates for Sport on Sunday on that battle and the people trying to install solar panels on their heritage-listed houses.

Fortunately the residents of Camberwell had Eric Raven on their side. He is starting to become a bit of a hero on this blog because once again, over several years, he pushed the Council to pass a resolution to establish a permanent municipal library. It eventually passed by a narrow majority.

The first Camberwell Library

The subscription-only library at Canterbury Gardens became the site of the first Public Library in the City of Camberwell. It opened on 1 August 1955 with barely enough books for the people at the opening ceremony. Within 15 months, it was the busiest library in Victoria. Three years later, it housed half a million books and moved to bigger premises out attached to the Town Hall.

Thomas Woodrow: the first librarian

An enormous influence on the new library’s incredible success was the effort of its first librarian, Bendigo resident Thomas Woodrow (1926-75). The Council had assumed that there was not a suitable candidate in Victoria, so set aside funds to recruit a man (because a woman would be out of the question) from England. Somehow Mr Woodrow got the position. He proved to be a man of vision, enthusiasm and considerable enterprise.[5]

Mr Woodrow believed that a modern library went beyond just loaning books. It should also include recorded music, records, maps, magazines, and fine prints; show documentary films, host lectures and discussion groups, tell stories to children and host hobby classes during holiday periods.

In short, Thomas Woodrow believed the library should be the cultural centre of the community. He set about implementing this belief. By 1966, the Camberwell City Library was the first library in Victoria to issue one million books in a year.

A library for Ashburton?

Buoyed by the success of Camberwell Library, Camberwell Council decided to establish Branch libraries throughout its jurisdiction. In an unusual move given its history of civil neglect of its southern section, the Councillors decided in 1969 that Ashburton should be given a high priority for a library branch.

1946 Advertisement for subscription library in Ashburton

One of the deciding factors was that Ashburton already had an established culture of book lending. Aside from several long-established private libraries on High Street, the suburb had an extremely heavily used Bookmobile site on the corner of Johnston Street and High Street.

Market research spearheaded by Mr Woodrow revealed popular support for the library. The researcher found that nearly every resident of Ashburton passed through High Street every week. This was the only logical site for the new library. Not only that, but High Street was within one square mile of 12 schools, including Ashburton Primary, Solway Primary, St Michaels and Ashwood High School. So the Council purchased land for the new library at 158 High Street (its current location).

But then... nothing happened.

The commercial ‘revitalisation’ of Ashburton

In my post about Ashburton and the rise of Chadstone Shopping Centre, I documented the belated attempt by Ashburton’s shop-owners to recognise the threat the new Centre had on their commercial viability in the mid-1960s.

Sketch of proposed Pedestrian Mall in High Street

It seems the main cause of the delay in the building of a library for Ashburton was Camberwell Council’s ambitious attempt to transform High Street into a major commercial centre to rival Chadstone. According to Luba Copland’s pamphlet on the history of the public library service in the area, the Council engaged an Engineer to plan the revitalisation of Ashburton Shopping Centre. He came back with an idea to divert High Street to the south, destroy 200 dwellings in the residential area, and create a pedestrian mall.[6]

Proposed development near Y Street

The public backlash was immediate. The Council received 700 objections to this plan. Not to be deterred, the Council went back to new developers in 1972. They came back with a shopping centre proposal that involved the re-zoning of a solely residential area between Highgate Grove and Munro Avenue, exactly where the library was supposed to be. It also required the compulsory acquisition of residences along High Street until Tower Hill Road.

This time the objecting residents mobilised into an action group called the Ashburton Glen Iris Association. It goes without saying they were not there to celebrate this new development plan.

A library for Ashburton... take two

At the first public meeting of the Ashburton Glen Iris Association in 1973, 300 residents voted for the priority for High Street development to be the building of a Branch Library at the originally proposed site at 158 High Street.

Even then, the site was too small for a decent sized library. So the Association engaged an architect experienced in library designs. He advised that in the 1970s, libraries doubled as cultural centres and would require four blocks of land, not just the one already in hand. The Association then persuaded the Council to buy the tennis court next to the library site. Some time later, the duplex behind the two blocks came on the market and the Association persuaded the Council to buy that too.

Ashburton Library (2022)

Nevertheless, it took until 1977, eleven years after Mr Woodrow first proposed a library for Ashburton, for construction to finally begin. The total cost of the four blocks of land and the buildings came to $790,500; less than the cost of one of the blocks today.

The Ashburton Library was officially opened on 14 March 1980.

Another branch library at Balwyn – proposed to Council around the time the Ashburton Glen Iris Association formed in 1973 – opened two years earlier.

The Boroondara Library Service

Camberwell Library (2022)

Boroondara Council opened a new, modern library for Camberwell in the Camberwell Civic Precinct in 2012. In Ashburton, the local library became exactly what Thomas Woodrow envisaged all those years ago; a non-denominational centre for learning and education. It too received a revitalisation and refurbishment, re-opening in 2014.

So this Book Week, keep in mind how local residents fought hard for the book-lending and reading facilities that we take for granted today.


[1] Armstrong, Pauline, "An Outline of Events Which Surrounded the Establishment of Free Municipal Libraries in the Adjoining Cities of Camberwell and Waverley in Post-War Melbourne" (University of Melbourne, 1989). [2] "Free Library Cost Frightens All Councillors," Progress Press, Ashburton, 30 March 1955. [3] Copland, Luba, History of Free Library Service of the City of Camberwell (Melbourne: Unknown, 1989). [4] Armstrong, "An Outline of Events Which Surrounded the Establishment of Free Municipal Libraries in the Adjoining Cities of Camberwell and Waverley in Post-War Melbourne." 13 [5] Ibid. [6] Copland, History of Free Library Service of the City of Camberwell.

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