2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the NSW Library Act (1939).

NSW led the way in Australia with the establishment of free public libraries. Until this legislation was passed, there were only two free public libraries in NSW: Broken Hill (established in 1906) and the City of Sydney (established in 1909).

This legislation enabled the provision of free public libraries around the state. Under the act, local councils were provided with state government subsidies as an incentive to set up free public library services.

A book repairer at Bankstown Municipal Library, 1957 (National Archives of Australia, Image no. : A12111, 1/1957/16/40)
A book repairer at Bankstown Municipal Library, 1957 (National Archives of Australia, Image no. : A12111, 1/1957/16/40)

The free public library movement had been founded in 1935 by Geoffrey Remington, a prominent Sydney solicitor and businessman. He was influenced by a critical but influential report into Australian Libraries known as the Munn-Pitt report.

The free public library movement was a layperson’s lobby group made up of a diverse group of people and organisations: from service clubs and trade unions to politicians and school teachers. Librarians at the Public Library of NSW were involved informally, providing support and advice.

Story time at Surry Hills Library, 1964 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/3895)
Story time at Surry Hills Library, 1964 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/3895)

The first meeting of the free public library movement was held at the Chatswood-Willoughby School of the Arts. The meeting was convened by Remington and involved broad ranging group, including parents, citizens groups and progress associations.

Although Geoffrey Remington was the key driver of the movement, free libraries came about due to people power. Active members within the movement spread their message through radio and pamphlets. Children were encouraged to write essays on the benefits of free public libraries. Key supporters and unofficial advisors of the movement were the Principal and Deputy Librarians at the Public Library of NSW (now the State Library of NSW).

This agitation for accessible community spaces where local citizens could borrow books (and also films) was a product of an increasingly literate society in the mid-20th century.

The NSW Library Act was passed on 3 November 1939, on the eve of World War 2, and within 18 months, 32 NSW councils had adopted the act. Although the legislation enabled financial incentives to be provided to local authorities (i.e. councils and shires) to establish library services, this aspect of the act was delayed until after the war ended.

Ryde Civic Centre and Centenary Library, c1971 (City of Ryde Library)
Ryde Civic Centre and Centenary Library, c1971 (City of Ryde Library)

In the immediate post-war period, some of the first suburban municipal libraries in Sydney were established at Mosman (1945), Ku-ring-gai (1945), Bankstown (1946) and Marrickville (1947).

Bankstown was the largest municipal area in NSW. Its library was established in 1945, along with several branch libraries into the 1950s.

Libraries were often established in existing buildings, often former school of arts buildings. But into the 1950s, as increased funding became available, purpose-built libraries began to be built. The architectural form of the municipal library was important, as was its siting as an important civic building. The form of the building had certain requirements, such as abundant windows to allow light and enough space for  patrons to move between aisles.

By 1959, two thirds of the NSW population had access to a public library. Today, public libraries are used by 44% of the population.

Find out what’s happening across the state on the State Library of NSW website here and check out some pics of libraries in Sydney and across the state here and here.

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