Library Act 1939

Let’s face it – reading about legislation is boring! However, we can’t truly appreciate the history of the Coffs Harbour Library without acknowledging how important the introduction of the Library Act 1939 was to the development of public libraries throughout NSW.

Libraries have always existed in society in one form or another – who can remember learning about the ancient Library of Alexandria during history classes? Public libraries themselves have been around for centuries but these were not necessarily public libraries as we would recognise them today. The earliest form of a community library in Coffs Harbour would have been the School of Arts subscription library which you could borrow from once a fee had been paid. The Library Act was a culmination of many years of work trying to create a library which was free for everyone and provided people with access to information and recreational reading, regardless of age, race, gender, religion or socio-economic status.

There were a number of key factors which contributed to the development of the Library Act – starting with the Munn-Pitt report in 1935 which was highly critical of the Australian Government’s inaction in developing free public libraries in our country. The Free Library Movement picked up where this report left off and worked towards convincing local councils of the need for free public libraries, as well as raising awareness of this issue with the general public. Most communities were quite horrified at how backward we seemed to be in regards to the provision of free libraries in Australia.

1936 saw the Free Library Movement making good progress with many branches spreading the word locally – Coffs Harbour didn’t appear to have a branch, but Grafton apparently did, which is possibly why they were the first council in NSW to adopt the Library Act in January 1944!

According to C. Hartley Grattan, an American journalist that worked with the Free Library Movement, ‘a community without a free public library is like a home without a shelf of books – it is incompletely furnished’. He was clearly an avid supporter of public libraries stating that ‘if no library is maintained, then one must conclude that the community is intellectually dead’!

A Libraries Advisory Committee was formed in NSW in 1937 which included members of the Free Library Movement. This committee was responsible for advising the government upon the drafting of a Bill relating to the establishment of public libraries in NSW.

The Library Act was not compulsory and individual councils could choose to adopt it or not. However a library that operated under the act was entitled to a subsidy which was very helpful in financing the service.  However governments rarely give money away unconditionally, so of course there was criteria that needed to be met by each council in order to get that subsidy. Roughly these conditions translated into each council needing to spend a certain amount of money per head of population on library services; the library service being free to all residents and ratepayers and lastly, that the Library Board was satisfied that the library service was being run properly.

Initially public libraries only needed to provide free access to ‘books of literary, informative and educational value’. This meant that most libraries charged a fee to borrow fiction and Coffs Library was no different, charging three pence per adult fiction book. It was in the Library (Amendment) Act 1992 that this was changed so that libraries no longer charged for fiction.

Even though Coffs Harbour Council didn’t adopt the Library Act until July 22 1963, it had obviously embraced the idea of a public library earlier than that, with definite plans for a library to be included in the Civic Centre building which commenced construction in 1962. A letter From Coffs Harbour Council to Clarence Regional Library Service in 1962 states ‘I have been instructed to add that it is expected to commence the Civic Centre building, which incorporates a public library before the end of the present year’.

The Library Act was landmark legislation which has had far reaching effects – impacting not just on previous and current generations but those still to come. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Library Act and whilst today’s public libraries look very different to those of the 30’s and 40’s, at the heart of them they share the same vision of being able to enrich our communities and support lifelong learning through free access to information and recreational reading.

Written by Liz Thomas 

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