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A people with a past and the J S Battye Library of West Australian History

Ronda Jamieson

Jamieson, Ronda 2005, 'A people with a past and the JS Battye Library of WA history', Fremantle Studies, 4: 22-31.

A people without a past cannot begin to understand the present or prepare for the future. [note 1]

No Australian state has shown a stronger appreciation of its past than Western Australia. None has a more respectable record of historical writing  Most of this achievement, and certainly nearly all that has been achieved during the last half-century, has been possible only because of the work of the archivists and the keepers of records who have preserved the raw materials of our history  If its strengths are due in the first instance to an admirable series of Battye Librarians, credit must also be given to the tradition of excellent service developed by all its staff over many years. Their knowledge and patience has helped us all, from the most casual inquirer after cemetery records to the most distinguished visiting scholar. 2

To understand the present and question the future of the Battye Library, it is first necessary to reflect on the rationale behind its creation.

It all started with the establishment of the Victoria Public Library [3] in 1889 when the population of Western Australia was 35,000. Basil Porter was guardian of the library for its first four years, dying in office. 4 James Sykes Battye, aged 23, was then offered the appointment of ‘man librarian’ for one year from 1 August 1894 having worked in the Melboume Library for seven years. He arrived to a library of 6500 volumes arranged on bookshelves in desperate need of cleaning and with chairs requiring repairs. 5

The Newspaper Libel and Registration Act of 1884 required the deposit of newspapers with the Colonial Secretary’s Office. Battye promptly asked newspaper proprietors to send copies of their newspapers to the library so that ‘a copy of every newspaper published in the colony may be seen at the Public Library,’ and called for the public to donate books and pamphlet. 6 He ensured that the Copyright Act of 1895 included the requirement for publishers to deposit free copies of all publications with the library, adding further to the collection of Western Australian materials.

After five years in which bonuses were added to his salary for the excellence of his work, Battye became librarian of the Victoria Public Library and secretary of the committee that supported it, agreeing to the condition that he would not ‘cancel obliterate waste embezzle spend or destroy any properties or monies of the Victoria Public Library.’7 By this time the reading room was open for 12 hours each week day and there were 106,239 visitors during the year 1898 to 1899 [8] — remarkable figures for a population of 35,000, not all of whom lived in Perth.

The extensive records of the Colonial Secretary’s Office were acquired by Battye in 1903, and two years later the Australind settlement records and those of the Rottnest Prison. Other notable items were the early minute books of the York Agricultural Society, and the diaries of George Fletcher Moore (Advocate-General of the Colony for over ten years) and of the Reverend JR Wollaston, first Archdeacon.

Battye reported in 1904 that he had been ‘arranging, indexing and binding old records of the State emphasising “the value of these records, upon which the future historian of this State must almost wholly depend for his information”.’ 9 Other records were collected while he was engaged in compiling his many publications, including his Cyclopedia of Western Australia published in 1912, the year Battye was appointed secretary of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery. 10

Battye was an amazing collector and all collections in what became the State Library were enriched as a consequence. Two notable examples in the Western Australian collection pre-date settlement. The Joarnaal Wegens een Voyagie, known as the Vlamingh Journal, was published in Amsterdam in 1701. Although not written by Vlamingh it tells the story of his six-week exploration of Western Australia in 1696-97. Dutch scholar PA Leupe reported in 1856 that he could not trace a copy of the book. In 2005 it remained ‘one of the most conspicuous rarities. We have found no record of a copy at auction and no copy is to be found in any of the great catalogues of the past century.’ 11 The author did not check the Battye Library catalogue or he would have found that Battye bought a copy in 1916 for six pounds. Then there is the Pelsaert journal, Ongeluckige voyagie, van ’t schip Batavia (Unlucky voyage of the Ship Batavia), telling the story of the wreck of the Batavia at Houtman’s Abroholos near Geraldton in 1629 and the subsequent mutiny, massacre and punishment. Published in Amsterdam in 1647, a copy was bought by Battye in 1908 for five guineas. A copy of the Vlamingh Journal sold at a recent auction in Australia for $768,900 and Pelsaert for $466,000.

Concern about the destruction of valuable historic records prompted the formation of the Public Records Committee in 1923, chaired by Battye, which became the State Archives Board six years later. In 1943 a further committee, including a representative of the Western Australian Historical Society 12, was appointed to consider and report on an archives department. The establishment of an Archives Branch of the Public Library was recommended with an archivist working under Battye. In drafting regulations, a wide interpretation of the meaning of archives was used, namely: ‘all manuscripts, records and printed matter, relics and objects, of a historical nature relating to Western Australia.’ 13

Mollie Lukis was appointed the first archivist in March 1945, and immediately spoke of the enormity of the task ahead which would outlast her lifetime, with her work consisting of: ‘sorting, indexing and filming old papers, letters, documents and records that have been stored for many years  but never tabulated. Among the piles is much material that is known to have a high historical value.’ 14

Most early donations were personal papers, but increasingly regional and local history was gathered in collecting trips around the State, including from stations in the North West. A growing interest in business, institutional and labour history led to records being sought from firms of solicitors and accountants, trade unions, gold mines, and clubs and associations. The archives became the official repository for periodicals from organisations such as the Perth Chamber of Commerce, the WA branch of the Australian Labor Party and the Westralian Farmers Co-operative. A microfilm program started in 1951.

As staff numbers slowly grew, preference was given to graduates with knowledge of Western Australian history. Margaret Medcalf joined the team in 1955, and Lukis and Medcalf worked in concert in the following decades to achieve outstanding collections and services.

Another influence in the story of the Battye Library came with the appointment of FA (Ali) Sharr in 1953 as State Librarian and secretary to the new Library Board set up to promote and support public libraries, not to take over the Public Library in Perth. The following year Battye died in office aged 83 and it was decided to amalgamate the library service provided by the trustees of the Public Library and the services to public libraries provided by the Library Board. By then an average of only 20 people were daily using the Public Library, compared with 410 people a day who visited 57 years previously from a much smaller population. Sharr attributed the meagre support to the building being run-down and uninviting, a decline in the quality of librarianship, and poor book stock.

The Public Library was closed for twelve months for refurbishment and reopened as the State Library of Western Australia on 14 December 1956. The local history collection had a separate reading room, and there was a photographic office and darkroom. Sharr successfully proposed that the local history library become the J S Battye Library of West Australian History to honour Dr Battye. ‘Western’ was not used because the collections pre-dated white settlement.

Sharr set high standards. No reader was to be allowed to feel ‘lost’ on entering the library ‘but must be approached and offered help if he or she did not look entirely confident’. He believed it was the responsibility of librarians to always get answers for readers just as the Mounties always got their man. 16

Battye Library staff were responsible for both government and private records. In Sharr’s view, with the State ‘inextricably involved in most developments, the study of the State’s history, necessarily involved concurrent access both to the records of government (archives) and to non-govemmental sources.’ He also felt that books, maps and other non-archival sources of Western Australian history being arbitrarily divided between the archives and the library could not be justified, but should all be in one place for the convenience of readers. Librarianship was concerned with ‘all written or audible records of mankind’. Sharr considered staff as important as the material. He wanted the Battye Library to ‘contain all the material on the history of Western Australia and be staffed by people able to give a high level of professional service in that subject to readers and scholars.’ 17

Sharr rated the two most important additions to the State Library in his time as the establishment of the Central Music Library and the oral history program started by Mollie Lukis, both in 1961. 13 The oral history collection came out of a concern that many of the pioneers in country districts were getting old and it was they who knew the early history of their districts. 19 Medcalf also recorded interviews, with both women fitting in interviews with their normal work responsibilities.

In travelling around the State seeking archival records, Lukis was very aware of the needs of regional areas and was responsible for copying materials held in the Battye Library to start what are now local studies collections in public libraries.

Margaret Medcalf succeeded Lukis as Principal Librarian of the Battye Library and State Archivist in 1971. She continued the work of collecting archives and progressing the pressing issues of improved access to collections, records management and storage. The Library Board was persuaded to set up a formal oral history program with staff dedicated to interviewing and transcribing, and Medcalf was also responsible for the transfer of the State Film Archives to the Battye Library in 1978. Two years later, the Pictorial Collection became a separate collection with its own staff, and a photographer was employed to do archival work.

In 1986 Margaret Medcalf was quoted as saying: ‘On the one hand you need to preserve material but there’s no point in doing so unless people are going to use it; so it can be problem deciding what to keep and what to destroy’; 20 a continuing dilemma.

With the opening of the Alexander Library Building in April 1985, the Western Australian history library and the State Archives remained as one. It was said of the Battye Library:

The team of public servants who keep this unique library running smoothly could be regarded as the voice of Western Australia, past and present while they mould a fine heritage for the future  “Clients” include not only public servants but academics, business people, students and in fact the whole community including the casual inquirer—often a tourist—seeking to find out something about the State. All are regarded as equal in importance by the staff of the Battye, which has an impressive history of democratic shopfront service. 21

The same applies today. Staff are often praised for the high levels of service they provide and it is not uncommon for clients in the eastem States to express the wish that they had access to a library with such good services. And it is not only the services that are praised. Professor Dean Jaensch of Flinders University declared Battye Library’s election ephemera collection a ‘treasure trove’ in 1998. He considered Battye Library’s collections were ‘vastly superior to that of any other State as to be incredible’ and should be ‘enshrined in gold’. 22

In 1988, the State Archives (renamed the Public Records Office in 1995), including govemment and private archives, was separated from the Battye Library which retained responsibility for government publications. Collecting and preserving private archives retumed to the Battye Library in July 1996. The State Records Office was established in 1999 and, with the passing of the State Records Act in November 2000, separated administratively from the State Library to form a division of the Department of Culture and the Arts.

Following a functional review of the State Library, the Battye Library became a branch library in the State Reference Library in 1988. Margaret Medcalf retired the following year after a period as State Librarian, with Patricia Allen as manager of the Battye Library until her retirement in 1995. The arrangement did not give the Battye Library its due place and it became a directorate in its own right with Lennie McCall as director in 1995, a position she held for three years. Both Allen and McCall carried on the traditions that had been so firmly established by their predecessors.

I took over as director in 1998 until retirement in early 2005 and will outline some of the major developments of that period.

The Battye Library does not have enough staff or finance to do all that should be done to collect, process, preserve and make available Western Australia’s vital documentary heritage. It has therefore been imperative to make the best use of resources by setting and regularly re-evaluating priorities for collecting, processing, and preserving materials. A revised collection development policy is available online, all collections have been surveyed to establish preservation needs, and preservation standards have been set to guide staff in handling and preserving materials.

Generous donations from the Lotteries Commission, the State Library Custodians, the Sunday Times, the Friends of Battye Library, the Constitutional Centre of Western Australia, and corporate and private donors, and grants from the National Library of Australia, have extended collecting and preservation. Examples are the establishment of the Migrant Communities Archives; gathering and processing of wool industry records, the WA Pastoralists’ Association and WAPET digitisation of 22,000 photographic negatives at greatest risk; preservation of nearly 90 titles from the State Film Archives; and microfilming of pre-Federation city and regional newspapers, the Sunday Times (1902-1929), and the West Australian (1901-1911).

An amazing public response saw seventeen items purchased when the Freycinet collection became available in 2002, from the 1801 Baudin expedition and that of Freycinet in 1818, including the first detailed map of the Swan River drawn by Heirisson in 1801. Other significant additions to the collections include the Rica Erickson archives and 500 of her botanical artworks; the Elizabeth Durack archives and many of her artworks; the Katharine Susannah Prichard collection copied from the Russian Literature Archives (1935-1969); the Krantz and Sheldon architectural collection; the Elaine Forrestal archives, including manuscripts of her popular children’s books; the Schenk collection of 1000 photographs of the Mt Margaret Mission and the Wongi people of the mission and surrounding area; North West images of Aboriginal lifestyle early in the twentieth century; the archives of Esperance Rural Properties; 34 lantern slides of the construction of the Goldfields Water Supply; the McKeich collection of 636 images of Cundeelee Aboriginal Mission; and superb albums containing 25 000 photographs of the Halls Creek community taken over two decades. Then there is the Mario Malos collection of photographs of Broome; the Ray Stewart collection from WWII, including diaries kept when he was a POW; the Shirley de la Hunty collection; the Maltese migrant oral history project; 53 reels of microfilm from the National Library covering the Daisy Bates collection; legal documents from the law firm Clayton Utz; and the Richard Court archives.

More than 12,000 photographs have been digitised and linked to the State Library’s online catalogue enabling members of the community to print images for their personal use. Nearly 50% of manuscript notes covering the collections in the Private Archives are available through the same catalogue. Another online aid is Katitjin: a guide to Indigenous records in the Battye Library. The Battye Library is a participant in the National Library’s PANDORA archive to preserve electronic publications and websites, and has recently joined PictureAustralia to provide a further means of promoting photographic images available online. With Australian Research Council grants, the Battye Library has been a vital partner for the Midland Railway workshops, in association with Cuitin University, and Italians in Western Australia with the University of Western Australia. Both projects have and will enrich the archives.

Collection materials are more widely accessible through specialist websites. Western Perspectives of a Nation tells the Western Australian view of Australia’s economic and social development in the twentieth century, including from a women’s perspective. Western Australia and Federation examines federation (1890- 1910), the secession movement (1929-1939), and issues affecting Commonwealth- State relations in recent times. The Rica Erickson website honours her special place in Western Australian history as naturalist, author, genealogist and historian. Treasures of the Battye Library explores some of the many treasures from its fascinating collections.

An extraordinary community movement saw the formation of the Historical Records Rescue Consortium in 2003 where representatives from the Friends of Battye Library, Western Australian Genealogical Society, the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, History Council of Western Australia, Professional Historians Association, the Oral History Association (WA), the Ethnic Communities Council, State Library Custodians, Mining History Association of Australia, and private donors, came together and worked hard for a year to consult with the community and put together a proposal for special funding from Lotterywest for the preservation of items at most risk in the Battye Library collections.

Among successful promotions of the collections was the treasures display in David Jones, the first time their premises had been made available for an outside purpose. The display featured items from the Battye Library collections, as well as Western Australian music from the State Reference Library, and treasures from the state’s four main universities. Remarkably 2004-2005 has seen a substantial rise in enquiries and reshelving of items in the Battye Library at a time of decline in these statistics in most other libraries.

What of the future? Are there any threats to the future of the Battye Library and the collections and services it provides?

While the community's assistance in preservation has been enormously encouraging and has ensured some material will last that would otherwise have been lost, it is to the shame of government that it has not funded this vital preservation work to the extent it should. It is likely that even less funds will be available in the future, and later generations of Western Australians will have reason to curse the modern generation and its disregard for our history. Problems are being exacerbated as the rate of deterioration of photographic negatives and film accelerates, newsprint becomes brittle, technological changes endanger the oral history collection, and modern digital formats for photographs, films and documents, with no assured longevity, add to the problems. Only a small proportion of the private archives collection is housed in the correct archival materials, and thousands of rolled plans lie on the shelves because of lack of resources to flatten them so they can be preserved and used. Videotape brought its own problems, but CDs and DVDs are proving greater headaches.

One of the greatest worries for the future is the proliferation of electronic publications and websites which are sources of historical information of value, but for which no print copy exists. Increasingly they are becoming the most common form of publication. The Battye Library can channel only a small amount of staff time to capture and archive these publications. Most importantly, staff need to know these publications exist to decide which ones to archive. The Premier has issued an instruction to all government departments that they must print electronic publications and send copies to the Battye Library for preservation. Not all do so and if staff do not know the existence of publications they are not able to follow up and ask for copies. Local government and non-govemment publishers are not covered by the circular. With the average life of an electronic publication or website being 44 days, 23 the impossibility of the task comes into focus.

This situation would be helped if legal deposit legislation, which included publications in all formats, was to exist in Western Australia. With the repeal of the 1894 Copyright Act in 1994, legal deposit legislation was lost. This means there is no longer a legal obligation for publishers to deposit their works with the Battye Library. Fortunately publishers continue to deposit such works ‘in the spirit of legal deposit’, but it is urgent that legislation is reinstated.

In an age where time is at a premium and efficiency is all important, the prime archival sources for research should be brought together, returning to Sharr’s inspired vision. But there needs to be another step. One of the greatest reasons people undertake research is for genealogical purposes. Ideally, the Battye Library, State Records Office, National Archives of Australia, Genealogy Centre of the State Library, Western Australian Genealogical Society and the Royal Western Australian Historical Society should combine to provide services from the one reading room as a ’one-stop’ research facility for Western Australian and genealogical research. This would bring economies in staff, and excellence in reference services while assisting researchers and genealogists.

The current reference services provided by Battye Library staff range from good to outstanding. Will future staffing levels devoted to Western Australian history ensure these levels of excellence are maintained, or will a push to combine reference services for all the State Library collections, water down the importance of the Western Australian collections and knowledge about them?

Digitisation of items from the collection is the way of the future, making them available to anyone with access to the intemet, anywhere in the world, including in schools and to people with disabilities. The work that has been done so far has been fitted in by staff carrying a full load of collection responsibilities and provision of reference services. There should be a team devoted to this task alone, but budgetary constraints have seen the loss of staff positions year after year.

The State Library has the best micrographic team in Australia which produces work to a standard which ensures a clarity of image that is a boon for research and can be digitised. Will this team be maintained in the future? The same question can be asked of all the activities provided by Preservation Services, which are insufficient now, and would be disastrously so if staff numbers are reduced.

Western Australian newspapers should be digitised and available online with keyword searching; other vital archival sources should be available in the same way. This takes money and resources. Even a substantial Lotterywest grant cannot hope to provide all the money that is needed.

Other state libraries have recognised the importance of a field archivist and one should be appointed to the Battye Library. Lukis and Medcalf fulfilled these roles in the past, but increasing administrative work to fulfil the demands of government has meant that present staff cannot properly fulfil this role. Collecting needs to be proactive if unique material is not lost and research gaps in the collections filled.

An education officer has been talked about in the State Library for years, but none has been provided. Such a person should be appointed to help students at all levels of education and the community to better use the Battye Library collections. The officer could liaise with the Education Department and visit schools to show teachers and students how the collections can support their curriculum needs.

The library needs cataloguing systems that better describe archival materials and provide greater flexibility as collections are added to. At present the State Library uses Innopac for cataloguing all its materials. An example of its limitations is that when a Manuscript Note needs to be changed, the existing record cannot be edited but must be redone. The outstanding community and government information database service known as Infolink also operates on Innopac and needs a more flexible operating system so information can be better shared with public libraries and the community.

With Battye first collecting Western Australian materials in 1895, the Battye Library’s collections have existed for 110 years, its contents spanning four centuries. The Battye Library as a formal entity has existed for nearly 50 years. If we are to understand our present and prepare for the future we need to ensure that the record of the past is as complete as possible. It must be available for all time in the most accessible and helpful way, which means that the Battye Library must continue to exist. Indeed existence is not sufficient; it must thrive and be provided with enough resources to do all that needs to be done to collect, preserve and make available our precious documentary heritage.

Fremantle Studies Day, October 2003


1 Leigh Hays, Worth telling worth keeping: A guide to the Battye Library collections, Library Board of Western Australia, Perth, 2002, p7.

2 Geoffrey Bolton in Leigh Hays, ibid., p4.

3 Victoria was later dropped from the title to avoid confusion with the state.

4 JS Battye Personal File, Battye Library Acc 1002A.

5 The West Australian, 14 September 1894.

6 The West Australian, 13 November 1895.

7 Agreement 1 July 1899 signed by Sir James Lee Steere, Chairman of the Committee of the Victoria Public Library and James Sykes Battye, Librarian, J S Battye Personal File. Battye Library Acc 1002A..

8 Twentieth century impressions of Western Australia, Thiel & Co., Perth, 1901, pp92-93. The reading room was open from 10.00 am until 10.00 pm on week days.

9 Celia Chesney, ‘A man of progress: Dr. James Sykes Battye’, Graduate Diploma of Arts Dissertation, Department of History, UWA, 1998, p31.

10 Battye Library Research Note 324.

11 Australian Book Auctions, The Davidson collection : Australian and Pacific voyages and travels from the library of Mr Rodney D Davidson, Australian Book Auctions, Armadale, 2005.

12 Later the Royal Western Australian Historical Society.

13 Margaret Medcalf, ‘The Battye Library: Two decades of development’, Battye Library PR 10782, pp255-56.

14 Western Mail, 22 March 1945.

15 FA Sharr, Recollections: forty years of public library service, Auslib Press, Adelaide, 1992, p90.

16 lbid., p95.

17 Ibid., p89.

18 lbid., p106.

19 Ibid., p104.

20 The West Australian, 26 July 1986.

21 Jack Jones, ‘Are your papers in the Battye yet?’, All part of the service, v2, n6, July 1989, p4.

22 Dean Jaensch interviewed by Peter Holland, ABC radio station 720, 18 August, 1998.

23 ‘Billington leading digital revolution at LoC’, The Hill, 7 Feb. 2003, p1.


Since this article was written in March, there are now 25 000 photographs that have been digitised and linked to the State Library’s catalogue and further early 20th century newspapers that have been microfilmed thanks to Lotterywest grants and a generous private donor. It has also just been announced that Lotterywest has awarded a $3 million Special Initiatives Grant to the Historical Records Rescue Consortium for the preservation of at-risk photographs, films and newspapers held at the Battye Library.

Ronda Jamieson

Ronda Jamieson retired as director of the J S Battye Library of West Australian History in February 2005 after nearly seven years in the position. She joined the Library and Information Service of Western Australia in 1978 as a part-time oral history officer and later managed its Oral History Unit. Three years as the manager of Preservation Services followed, which brought close involvement with the preservation of the State Library’s heritage collections. Previous experience was in health and with the ABC Radio and Television News Service. With degrees in librarianship and history, Ronda’s doctoral thesis was on storekeeping in isolated rural communities. She was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 199l to study oral history in New Zealand, the USA and the UK. Among published works is Charles Court: the early years, published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in 1995, which Ronda edited in association with Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey.


Garry Gillard | New: 10 February, 2018 | Now: 16 December, 2018