Life Sentences - Australia's Great Book Collectors

Life Sentences - Australia's Great Book Collectors
Interior of the Fisher library, University of Sydney

Christine Fernon takes a look at the fascinating lives of some of Australia's greatest book collectors and public library benefactors, from ANU Reporter, Winter 2010

This year the State Library of New South Wales is celebrating the centenary of the opening of the Mitchell Library, home of one of the world‘s great national collections. Reclusive, sensitive and with an independent income, David Scott Mitchell (1836-1907) devoted much of his life to book collecting. He aimed to gather a copy of every document that related to Australia, the Pacific, the East Indies and Antarctica. In poor health by 1898, Mitchell offered his collection – amounting to over 60,000 documents – to the state library on the condition that it be housed in its own wing.

The State Library of New South Wales also holds the Dixson collection, bequeathed by Sir William Dixson (1870-1952). The businessman focused his collecting on early navigation and geography, exploration of the Pacific, early Australian settlement and, above all, pictures. He also paid for the library‘s spectacular bronze entrance doors, its Chaucer stained glass windows and left it a substantial endowment to establish the William Dixson Foundation.

When bookseller Edward Augustus Petherick (1847-1917) offered his great collection of Australiana to the Commonwealth National Library (now National Library of Australia) in 1908 he included himself – as its custodian – as part of the deal. His other great work was to write a bibliography of Australia and Polynesia. Consisting of over 100,000 cards, the bibliography remains unfinished, in 92 boxes, in the national library.

Like Petherick, Sir John Ferguson (1881-1969) was both a passionate Australiana collector and bibliographer, who also found time to serve as a judge with the Industrial Commission. In 1918 he began work on his seven-volume Bibliography of Australia in which he aimed to include an accurate description of every book, pamphlet, broadsheet, periodical and newspaper relating in any way to Australia pre-1900. The first volume was published in 1941 and the last in 1969, shortly after his death. He began depositing his collection of 34,000 items of Australiana in the national library in 1939.

The National Library of Australia also holds the Rex Nan Kivell (1898-1977) collection. A New Zealand-born art dealer who adopted the style of a bon vivant, Nan Kivell amassed over 15,000 pictures, manuscripts and printed material relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.It was said that he donated his collection to the library in exchange for a knighthood.

Thomas Fisher (1820-1884) is, perhaps, the most unlikely of all the great library benefactors. The son of convicts, Fisher was orphaned at 12. He was apprenticed as a bootmaker and soon owned the building that housed his shop. Further property speculation saw him buying cottages, ships and hotels. In his retirement he liked to stroll through the grounds of the University of Sydney and attend commemoration addresses. Stirred by the Chancellor‘s address in 1879, for a man of great wealth and public spirit to 'earn the gratitude of their country by erecting for the University a library worthy of comparison with like edifices', Fisher left the bulk of his estate to the university. The library building, opened in 1909, was named in his honour.

Updated:  7 November 2017/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications