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Identity and nation in the Australian public library: the development of local and national collections 1850s – 1940s, using the Tasmanian Public Library as case study


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Gaunt, HM 2010 , 'Identity and nation in the Australian public library: the development of local and national collections 1850s – 1940s, using the Tasmanian Public Library as case study', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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The major public reference libraries in the capital cities of Australia all maintain a
‘heritage’ role that is a central aspect of their function in their communities. All
have acquired rich and extensive collections relating to the history and literature
of their respective states and, in a number of cases, to the nation as a whole.
However, this aspect of philosophy and practice has not always been part of the
public library’s institutional goals. When the major public reference libraries were
established in the Australian colonies in the second half of the nineteenth century,
the acquisition of a ‘local archive’ reflecting local colonial history and culture was
desultory or non-existent in most cases.
This thesis is a cultural history of the growth of the ‘will to archive’ in the public
library in Australia over the course of a century, focusing on the period from the
1850s to the 1940s. It addresses how, when, and why the Australian public library
came to be a repository of the local and national past, as distinct from (but never
replacing) its role as a purveyor of Enlightenment culture and learning. The
evolution of this function is situated within a broader framework of emerging
historical consciousness, the growth of civic nationalism related to the federation
of the Australian colonies in 1901, changing attitudes to the production of history
and the new value accorded to accurate historical records, and efforts to establish
a ‘national’ creative literature. The thesis argues that the archiving mentality that
emerged in the last decades of the nineteenth century, stimulated by the emerging
interest in local history, became naturalised in the twentieth century through the
forces of nationalism and patriotism. The evolution of this function was complex,
influenced variously by factors such as the degree and type of cultural
philanthropic activity, historical ‘amnesia’ toward the colonial convict past, and
residual ‘cultural cringe’ toward Australian literary production.
While addressing local archiving practices across all the major ‘state’ public
libraries, the thesis focuses on the Tasmanian Public Library. While providing an
overview of the development of the local archive in Tasmania over a century, the
thesis examines in detail the agency of key figures such as trustee James Backhouse Walker and philanthropist William Walker, and the effect of the local
penal past on the formation of the local archive, exemplified by the ‘life cycle’ of
convict text The Hermit in Van Diemen’s Land by Henry Savery.
This study emerges from the conviction that a close examination of the formation
and stratification of library collections that symbolise and promote national
identity contributes valuable information about emerging and changing
‘worldviews’ of communities, particularly the ways in which communities
identify as members of a region and nation. Utilising the lens of public library
philosophy and collections, the thesis offers a new way of reflecting on the formation of local and national identities in Australia.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Gaunt, HM
Keywords: nationalism, library history, Tasmania, book history
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Copyright 2010 the Author

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