This coming Friday is Library Lovers Day, so today on 2SER Breakfast Dr Mark Dunn and host Alex James talked about three book-related historical sites in the city which have had a lasting impact on Sydney’s shape and culture.
1: The Free Public Library on the corner of Bent and Macquarie Streets was the predecessor of the State Library of NSW. First established as a subscription library in 1826 by wealthy Sydney merchants for their friends to use, it was an exclusive club in every sense of the word. A reflection of the value and status of books in the colony, membership of the library was dependent on approval from at least two current members – and being male. Women and the general public, whether male or female, were not able to join.
The library was located in the City, but was allocated two large land grants by the Government in the area then known broadly as Rushcutters Bay to sell if funds were needed at a future date. This they did in 1840, and the Australian Subscription Library subdivision was one of the main land sales in the establishment of the village of Paddington.
The exclusive model proved to be unsustainable however, even after some of the membership restrictions were loosened. In 1869 the library and its stock was taken on by the State government and transformed into a free public library, the foundation for the State Library of NSW we have today. You can read more in Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville’s article The Free Public Library on the Dictionary here.
2: The Gibbs, Shallard & Co printing and publishing company was not a library as such, but they were the publishers of many early colonial books, newspapers like the Illustrated Sydney News, guidebooks, maps, pamphlets, gift cards and more, that are so dear to a Sydney historian’s heart. They were located in a vast warehouse in Hosking Place, off Pitt Street in the centre of the city, near a small street called Moore Street. Printing workshops were dangerous places, full as they were of paper and chemicals, and although the company had survived a couple of smaller fires, a devastating blaze that consumed the warehouse in October 1890 resulted in the entire city block being destroyed. The ruined block was demolished between Pitt and Castlereagh Street, which allowed for the small Moore Street to be widened and extended, in what was the first stage of the creation of Martin Place in the city.
3: Of all the great 19th century book sellers and publishing houses that existed in Sydney, Dymocks is the sole survivor. First established in Sydney in the early 1880s by William Dymock as Dymock’s Book Arcade, it pioneered some of the book shop basics we take for granted today. It was Dymocks who introduced the then-revolutionary idea of ordering their books on the shelves in subject order, much as a library would, allowing customers to browse instead of relying on a clerk to find anything for them. In 1900, they claimed that the store on George Street was the largest book arcade in the world, and in 2020, the company’s flagship store still occupies the beautiful art deco building that now stands on the site.
There are lots of activities planned for lovers of libraries this Friday, so check with your favourite library to see what they’ve lined up. The State Library of NSW has organised a walking tour with Mark of some of the sites of lost libraries and booksellers in the city. You can find out more about how to book on the State Library website here (tickets for Mark’s tours go quickly though!). Don’t forget to check out the other Library Lover activities they have planned for Friday too.
The Library is also hosting a fascinating symposium next Tuesday looking at the history of the subscription library movement and cultures of reading in Australia, Britain and North America, as well as the role of the Australian Subscription Library in the early life of New South Wales. Again, there are more details on the Library’s website here.
Happy Library Lovers Day!
Mark Dunn is the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!