When you walk into State Library Victoria in 2023, you will be welcomed by a diverse range of staff – people of different backgrounds, genders, ages and nationalities. But things haven’t always been this way, especially for women.  

For various reasons, the elderly fathers of the Melbourne Public Library do not employ women except to scrub floors. There are a good many jobs at the library…Much of the work consists in sitting down and waiting for somebody to turn up and ask for something; and a woman could almost do that. The time seems right to give her a chance. In neither war nor peace can we any longer afford to waste men in unproductive jobs. If the new arrivals at the library are nice things in clean pinnies, so much the better… 1

Two rows of men standing on front steps of library, back row: Armstrong Boys, Harvey Weatherall, Quirk, Bryant, Shellew, Vogler, O'Malley, Irving, [unnamed], Atkinson; front row: Kerr, Walcott, Barbey, Simpson, Mattham, Edwards, J. E. Shield, [unnamed], Dymond.

[Staff of Melbourne Public Library standing on steps of library, Swanston Street, Melbourne, Victoria], [ca. 1896 – ca. 1898]; H13084

For many decades, Victorian legislation discriminated against women who wanted to work at the library or in any other public service. In 1890 the Public Service Act (s. 43), stated that ”no married woman shall be eligible for appointment to any office in the public service.” 

The first female Library staff member on the public service lists is Isabella Fraser. We don’t know much about her upbringing, but we know that she was born in Ballarat in 1881 and died in Kew in 1969. She began her career at the Library in 1908 and was appointed to the role of Assistant in 1924. At the time, there was very little regulation around the work women were permitted to do in libraries. It is quite likely that Isabella undertook librarian or library technician duties in her role as an assistant, but was never actually granted the title of librarian.

Women were not allowed to become qualified librarians in Victoria until 1926 when the Women’s Qualification Act 1926 was passed. That didn’t stop Isabella from following her passion and continuing her studies, so by 1931 she held a Bachelor of Arts qualification. 2

Inscribed identifications: Front row (left to right) M. O'Connor, F. J. Perry, E, Whitelaw, M. Ryan, I. A. Fraser, J. Clarke, R. Keble, J. A. Kershaw, D. J. Mahony, E. R. Pitt, R. H. Walcott, T. F. Cooke, -, M. D. Wilson, -, W. C. Band, A. B. Foxcroft, W. M. McInnes, J. A. Evans, C. A. McCallun, I. A. Mair, A. Lodewyckx, T Kealy. Second row, G. Hutchinson, G. Dunn, E. Olive, E. Ingram, M. J. C. Malone, C. Brazenor, G. Mack, G. Burrowes, K. McPhee, K. M. McFarlane, J. Kenney, H. Willismaon, L. roberts, B. Freeman, J. Connellan -, Cunningham, J. Brotchie, D. Laycock, F. D'Orival, M. Mathews, Donaldson, Tom Rochford. Top row, T. L. Dober, G. Fowler, H. D. Daniels, W. Russell, R. H. Hockley, A. Morrison, R. Greening, B. Street, W. Crawford, J. E. Sheilds, G. Taylor, A. J. Austin, W. Newcombe, H. Baldwin, F. Harding, D. Sandford, E. Dicks, W. Morphett, R. Blade, D. Danaher, A. Mithen, P. Frail, W. Muller. Missing was P. V. L. Garrett.

Detail of [Library staff, State Library of Victoria], 1932; H82.139/4, showing Isabella Fraser (centre).

Even after the Women’s Qualification Act 1926 was passed, The Argus noted that the salaries for such a position requiring a university qualification were very poor. 

Picture of The Argus article reporting on Librarians income.

The Argus, 17 December 1926, p 22

Isabella was still an assistant in 1941, however things were to change for women at the library in the following years. By 1955 the Library had many female Librarians. Several of these women had originally been Assistants, and later had their job titles changed to Librarian. Isabella Fraser no longer appears on the 1955 staff lists, indicating that she left the Library in or before 1955. 

Article in The Herald about Women Qualification Act.

The Herald, 11 Dec 1926, p 20

Isabella Fraser is one of the many brave women that challenged the times and the work culture and proved they can take up any job and do it just as well, with passion and dedication. Named in her honour, the Library’s Isabella Fraser Room opened in September 2018. 

This blog post was adapted from content on the State Library Victoria – history research guide.

Wander through more of these wonderful Library stories with the Wander digital tour.


  1. The Bulletin, 1 March 1917, p 45
  2. Armstrong, Edmund La Touche, The book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria, 1906-1931, Trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

This article has 2 comments

  1. A great read. Another woman librarian trained in Victoria worthy of mention is Christobel Mattingley who I recall meeting briefly at the Yallourn Library in the 1950s. After the Stretton Royal Commission into the bushires, the SEC needed to improve community facilities and Mattingley was employed to help create the outstanding the Latrobe Valley library service.
    Another woman from Ballarat who started work as an assistant at the SLV when she left school in the late 1950s was (Geraldine) Ann Lynch. While working at SLV she completed Adult Matric, go into the Uni Melb BA via the back-door…the Dip Public Admin.After doing MA Prelim in Political Science she entered the Commonwealth Service & ended up as Deputy Clerk of the Senate before her untimely death

    • Dear Sheila,
      I am glad you enjoyed our blog. There are many amazing women out there whose passion and dedication changed the world bit by bit. Thank you for sharing their names with us.

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