ADELAIDE’S HISTORY WARS
TWO OF THE STATE’S GREAT INSTITUTIONS ARE HAVING A VERY REFINED ROW . AT THE HEART OF IT LIES A TREASURE TROVE OF ARTIFACTS FROM THE HALCYON DAYS OF EXPLORATION
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.