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a long climb to the rst mez­za­nine of the Mort­lock Wing of the State Li­brary on North Ter­race, but there’s re­ward for the ex­er­tion. Here in this tri­umph of High Vic­to­rian ar­chi­tec­ture, soft light lters through the glass roof, il­lu­mi­nat­ing high shelves stacked with ob­scure hard­cover books from cen­turies past. In quiet al­coves, a few stu­dents pe­ruse while lovers in search of pri­vacy mur­mur qui­etly to each other.

It was once a bustling place, the Mort­lock Wing. Here was a space akin to the fa­mous read­ing room of the Bri­tish Mu­seum. Down in the booths on the cen­tral con­course be­low, and around the heavy oak ta­bles of the Jer­vois Room, throngs of read­ers would ea­gerly gather.

These days it’s dark, mostly empty, and many of the doors are locked.

But there’s still trea­sure to be found, if you know where to look. The ad­ven­tur­ous who reach the mid­dle mez­za­nine will dis­cover, at the far end of the bal­cony and up a half stair­case, the re­duced cir­cum­stances of the 125-year-old Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety of South Aus­tralia. Here, locked away, is one of Aus­tralia’s out­stand­ing his­toric li­brary col­lec­tions, with 30,000 to 40,000 items be­long­ing to the RGS. It’s worth at least $12 mil­lion and pos­si­bly $20 mil­lion on some es­ti­mates, and in­cludes all sorts of marvels, in­clud­ing some of the ear­li­est maps of Aus­tralia and a book of tapa cloths col­lected by Cap­tain Cook in the Paci c is­lands.

One of its most prized ar­ti­facts was re­cently on dis­play around Aus­tralia in the ex­hi­bi­tion of Na­tional Trea­sures from Aus­tralia’s Great Li­braries. Arnold Colom’s spec­tac­u­lar and colour­ful Zee-at­las, pub­lished in 1658, has some of the ear­li­est map­ping of Aus­tralia, in­clud­ing the West Coast of South Aus­tralia, by Dutch sea­far­ers who vis­ited our shores more than a cen­tury be­fore Cap­tain Cook. These re­mark­ably ac­cu­rate maps were pub­lished al­most 150 years be­fore Cap­tain Matthew Flin­ders reached the same shores. It’s a trea­sure cer­tainly worth ght­ing over. And that, on the most se­date bat­tle eld imag­in­able, is what is hap­pen­ing.

Here in one of Ade­laide’s most glo­ri­ous her­itage build­ings the cus­to­di­ans of two of the state’s most valu­able and his­tor­i­cal li­brary col­lec­tions are locked in a cen­tury-old strug­gle that is nally com­ing to a head. The State Li­brary is the less-than-en­thu­si­as­tic host of the Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety of South Aus­tralia and the two have been ar­gu­ing, very po­litely, about the fu­ture of the so­ci­ety and its huge and valu­able col­lec­tions.

The key is this: in a his­toric deal signed in 1906, the Li­braries Board of SA promised to house the RGS – and its magni cent col­lec­tion – for noth­ing, in re­turn for the so­ci­ety mak­ing its col­lec­tions avail­able to the pub­lic. Now, ac­cord­ing to Kelly Hen­der­son, an RGS life mem­ber, the State Li­brary has served the so­ci­ety with a no­tice to quit and a no­tice of ter­mi­na­tion of the cen­tu­ry­old af li­a­tion agree­ment. “The af li­a­tion agree­ment still stands and the evic­tion no­tice has not been with­drawn and the so­ci­ety is in an in­vid­i­ous po­si­tion,’’ she warns.

Some won­der whether the li­brary just wants to get rid of the RGS and then keep its col­lec­tion. That’s strongly de­nied. So far it’s been a very pri­vate bat­tle, fought at close and largely con den­tial quar­ters.

The anger among some of the learned RGS ranks of about 300 mem­bers be­gan to grow in 2005 when Arts Min­is­ter John Hill, through the Crown Law Of ce, tried to in­sert the ter­mi­na­tion clause in the so­ci­ety’s ten­ancy. While the so­ci­ety board is re­luc­tant to dis­cuss the is­sue, Hen­der­son is roused for ac­tion. So here we are, up on the locked third level of the Mort­lock Wing. Around us are thou­sands of books and pe­ri­od­i­cals that be­long not to the State Li­brary but to the RGS. These are part of the York Gate Li­brary – and lie at the core of the prob­lem that has be­dev­illed the two groups.


some his­tory: the con­nec­tion be­tween the RGS and to­day’s State Li­brary of SA came about be­cause in 1905 the so­ci­ety bought a ma­jor pri­vate col­lec­tion of books and doc­u­ments about geog­ra­phy, ex­plo­ration and coloni­sa­tion which had been amassed by a London tea mer­chant, Wil­liam Sil­ver.

The col­lec­tion was known as the York Gate Li­brary, for Sil­ver’s Re­gent’s Park home ad­dress in London. On Sil­ver’s death, his widow did not want to see the li­brary dis­persed, so she searched for some­one pre­pared to main­tain it in its en­tirety. That some­one was the RGS, and the sale for an ad­van­ta­geous price at­tracted a lot of at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing from The Times in London. “The City of Ade­laide has be­come the pos­ses­sor of a Li­brary at once unique and of the high­est in­ter­est and im­por­tance of all stu­dents of Greater Bri­tain,” it told its read­ers.

The State Li­brary agreed to house the so­ci­ety if it made the York Gate Li­brary avail­able to the pub­lic in per­pe­tu­ity. It is that open-ended agree­ment that is now be­ing in­voked as the State Li­brary and State Govern­ment chafe at hav­ing to ac­com­mo­date the or­gan­i­sa­tion and its col­lec­tions. Partly, the agree­ment said: “That the so­ci­ety shall be pro­vided with such ac­com­mo­da­tion (by the State Li­brary) as may be ad­e­quate and prac­ti­ca­ble.” And “that the York Gate Li­brary be­ing ded­i­cated by the so­ci­ety for the use of the pub­lic for all time and such books as may be added from time to time . . . shall not be per­ma­nently re­moved from the rooms as­signed to the so­ci­ety . . . or sold or oth­er­wise dis­posed of.”

The State Govern­ment even built a large ex­ten­sion to the 1860s In­sti­tute Build­ing on the corner of Kin­tore Av­enue and North Ter­race, opened in 1908, to house

The Colom Zee-at­las of 1658 and Joseph Banks’s diary of his trav­els in New­found­land in 1766.

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