The doors to the Library building may be closed, but our extensive and diverse collection is continuing to grow.

During a closure, the Library retains a minimal staff presence in the building mainly consisting of security and dispatch staff to accept incoming deliveries. Our Conservation and Preservation teams also visit occasionally to ensure the collections are being maintained in a good state (read about Collection Care from home). But what have our talented librarians been up to?

Though unable to access the building, our librarians have managed to continue growing and curating the Library’s collection from home. Like many of us they’re inhabiting a virtual space, attending meetings via Zoom, creating videos at home, and participating in public events via their lounge rooms.

For Des Cowley, Principal Librarian History of the Book and Arts, the Library’s recent closure has been a strangely good time for purchasing rare items.

‘Working from home, being online much of the time, has allowed us to dedicate more time to working directly with antiquarian booksellers, here and overseas, to develop areas of the collection. The rare books market is a very competitive one, and the extra time has allowed us to be very responsive when antiquarian book catalogues land in our inboxes. It is not uncommon for us to respond within 10 or 15 minutes of receiving a catalogue, something we’d rarely manage to do when working onsite, where our time is swallowed up by so many other competing demands.’

Des Cowley (Principal Librarian of History of the Book and Arts) and Anna Welch (Senior Librarian of History of the Book and Arts)

That said, Des shares that it’s been a difficult period for managing donation offers which come in from our community.

‘The Library is approached regularly by people wishing to donate material. During lockdown, we’ve been unable to visit donors to view and assess material, to have informal face-to-face conversations, or to even have material brought in to the Library. This has necessitated growing backlogs of potential donations that need to be followed up when staff are back onsite.’

Kevin Molloy, Principal Librarian Victorian and Australian Collections, mainly works with multi-format manuscript collections, and is missing the ability to see the collections and their donors in person.

‘I’m excited to see original heritage materials when I return to the building,’ he says. ‘That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning!’

Bridie Flynn, Senior Librarian Victorian and Australian Collections

Meanwhile for Bridie Flynn, Senior Librarian Victorian and Australian Collections, her focus has shifted from physical acquisitions to born digital photographs. ‘It’s very rewarding working with contemporary artists and collecting recent Victorian stories, the exciting or everyday moments that will become historic in the future,’ she says.

MOD Markit, 2019. Annette Ruzicka, photographer. This work is in copyright.

This shift to digital has fast tracked some positive changes, Bridie says, eliminating physical distance as a barrier to acquisition. Some examples of born digital photographs purchased in the past 12 months include Annette Ruzicka’s photos of Melbourne Fashion Week’s first modest runway show in 2019, Paul Dunn’s photographic series ‘Opening Doors’ which captures portraits of people living with a disability in their own home environment, and photographs of the Mallee by the photographers behind the 2020 publication The Mallee: a journey through north-west Victoria.

Janet Curtain, 2019. Paul Dunn, photographer. This work is in copyright.
Glenn-Tech engineering works, Woomelang, 2018. Phil Campbell, photographer. This work is in copyright.

It’s safe to say that when the day does come for our librarians to head back to our building, there will be some particularly exciting items waiting for them at the Library’s Dispatch.

For the Rare Books Collection, Des is particularly keen to unpack Castlemaine printmaker David Frazer’s new artist book made with Nick Cave, which comprises a series of original woodblock prints illustrating the lyrics of the Nick Cave song Love letter. The book has been hand printed in an edition of just 20 copies, signed by both David and Nick.

‘The Library also recently bid at a Melbourne auction and successfully acquired a volume containing twenty-five issues of the Victorian Football Follower for the year 1908,’ Des says. ‘This very early football magazine is of the utmost rarity, known in only a handful of individual issues. The Library’s football and sporting experts are champing at the bit to get back onsite and see this one.’

Victorian Football Follower Melbourne, 1908

But it isn’t just items from within the state which Des is looking forward to unpacking – we have many rare books which were acquired from booksellers in the US, the UK and Europe currently in transit. Titles he’s particularly keen to see include the first edition of Lynd Ward’s illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1934, and Martin Luther King Jnr’s pamphlet Letter from Birmingham City, in which King sets out the principles of non-violent resistance. He also has some fine early first editions of the poetry of Sylvia Plath in transit, including her major work Ariel, and a terrific curio, François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif’s Les chats, published in Paris in 1727. Moncrief’s illustrated work is the first western European book dedicated to the study of cats.

The beauty of digital collections, as Bridie says, is you can see them from wherever you are. But as for items she’s looking forward to seeing in person, there’s a series of large photoprints by creative duo The Huxleys, from their series ‘Places of Worship’, whose glittery portraits in Victorian landscapes are irresistible, as well as some paintings and drawings by the late artist Klaus Friedeberger, which are coming from London as a donation to the Picture collection.

Melting Moments, 2021. The Huxleys, photographer. This work is in copyright.

Though working remotely has its challenges, it can also produce some exciting initiatives. There is one in particular which Des has been working on, and is looking forward to sharing with our community.

‘One of the most exciting recent initiatives has been the Library’s development, via generous philanthropic support, of a fund to help us acquire significant works by women writers. This fund is intended to help us address the historical imbalance that saw past generations of librarians acquire the works of the great male writers of the day, to the detriment of collecting important female writers. We are hoping to make some exciting public announcements around this soon.’

As for Bridie, she’s looking forward to collecting more contemporary works in partnership with Arts Project Australia once she can visit their gallery shop again and look at the works up close.

So, will it be back to business as usual once our librarians can once again walk through the doors of our historic building?

‘There has been a significant shift in our services to the digital space, rather than the physical,’ Des says. ‘A number of these shifts have the potential to offer real benefits for the future, providing us with an opportunity to tailor our services to regional areas, no longer limited by the Library’s physical building. Time will tell, but it’s likely that many of the changes and innovations we’ve witnessed during the pandemic will be here to stay.’

This article has 4 comments

  1. I’d love to see that illustrated edition of Frankenstein…

  2. An exciting time for librarians to open and view new acquisitions, and then in time, for us to view also. Wonderful to hear of the philanthropic support to acquire significant works by women writers. The lockdown has brought some positive outcomes, by the sounds.

    • Hi Isabel, thanks for reading our blog.
      The librarians are very happily returning this week to finally view their new acquisitions – we look forward to sharing them with the public soon too!
      It’s been a challenging time, but we’re glad to be able to share some of the more positive stories.

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