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History of the Library: Our Story

I. Beginnings

In 1851 the University Senate formed a committee to select books even before any professors were appointed. The first volume acquired was a Greek-Latin lexicon.

Further books and a bookcase were purchased from local resident Rev Dr Mackaen in 1852 and a list of desiderata was sent to London.

Frederick Hale Forshall, "late scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge", was appointed Librarian in 1852. He resigned after 15 months and the position of Librarian lapsed for sixty years, during which time the Library was under the general direction of the Registrar, aided by an "Assistant Librarian".

A room on the first floor in the Main Building (now the Senate Room) was prepared for the Library in 1857. A year later the first meeting of the Library Committee considered a list of books needed for the Library, a list of periodicals held, the desirability of a catalogue, and revision of library rules. The Committee's first resolution was a recommendation to the Senate that "further bookshelves be provided in the Library for the books for which at the present time there is no room".

In 1878, after decades of sporadic additions, businessman Thomas Walker purchased and presented to the University the private library of the late Nicol Stenhouse, lawyer and leading figure in Sydney's literary and cultural life. The 4,000 volumes precipitated an accommodation crisis and a library building became the University's most pressing need.


II. The Fisher Bequest

In 1885 the University received thirty thousand pounds from the estate of the late Thomas Fisher, retired bootmaker and property investor, to be used "in establishing and maintaining a library".

Thomas Fisher had lived near the University and, although not a formally educated man often walked through the University grounds and talked with staff and students. He attended official functions and would have heard the appeal in 1879 by the Chancellor, Sir William Manning, for "one of our men of great wealth and equal public spirit" to fund "a library worthy of comparison with like edifices at Home". Fisher had also known Stenhouse and would have been impressed that his friend's collection had been considered such an important addition to the Library. Thomas Fisher was the Library's greatest benefactor but unfortunately no image of him survives.

There was a difference of opinion within the University on how to spend the bequest. The Chancellor thought the fund should be used for a building and to contribute to the salary of a Librarian, but the Vice-Chancellor and Library Committee preferred to buy books. In 1887 a compromise was reached. £20,000 plus accumulated interest was set aside for a building fund with the hope that the government would provide matching funds, and £10,000 was directed to an endowment for books. In the event the fund supported the salary of an assistant librarian and later the Librarian until 1937. From 1882 to 1914 the Registrar H E Barff was responsible for the Library. His Assistant, Caleb Hardy, pioneered the use of the new Dewey decimal classification in Australia and printed catalogues were published in 1885, 1893 and 1900. By the turn of the century the collection had reached 50,000 volumes. A second staff member was appointed in 1894 and a third in 1898.

After many reversals and delays the NSW government agreed to fund the full cost of a new library building and the Fisher capital could be preserved as an endowed book fund. Plans were drawn up for the library by the Government Architect, Walter Vernon, and construction took eight years.

Fisher Library opened in 1909. The reading room was in the Gothic tradition with a magnificent cedar roof but the adjoining multi-tier book stack was of advanced design, including two electric book lifts. The reading room is now the MacLaurin Hall.


III. The first true librarian

In 1902 John Le Gay Brereton was selected from ninety-one applicants for the position of Assistant Librarian. He was promoted to Librarian in 1914. 

Brereton was responsible for creating a card catalogue and introduced a professional approach to organization and service. By the time of his resignation in 1921 to take up the Chair of English Literature, the staff had increased to 11 including two in a Law Library in the city and the collection exceeded 100,000 volumes. He was succeeded by Henry M Green.

Green guided the Library for a quarter of a century, through the years of the Great Depression, when only the income from the Fisher fund saved the Library from complete stagnation. On his appointment he submitted a report arguing for more staff, salary increases to match those at the Public Library, and "most important of all, there is a whole series of catalogue records where there should be only one". 

In 1922 two additional positions were approved and Green appointed the first women as library assistants. Early staff included K W Binns, who became Commonwealth Parliamentary Librarian and J W Metcalfe, who became Principal Librarian, of the Public Library of NSW and a key figure in library development in Australia. An extension to the book stack was commenced in 1924 and ten years later the collection exceeded 200,000 volumes.

By 1935 the staff had grown to 16, including three in Law, and one in the Medical School. When the new Medical School opened in what is now the Blackburn Building in 1935, it included an octagonal Medical Library. 

Green was succeeded in 1946 by his Deputy, Edward V Steel, a member of the staff since 1911. The twelve years of Steel's incumbency coincided with an escalation in student numbers, which outpaced the Library's ability to provide adequate resources or services.

IV. A new era

In 1959 Andrew D. Osborn became Librarian and led the Library into a new era of collection building and service provision. In less than four years he doubled the size of the collection and planned a new library building. 

Osborn had left to become Professor of Library Science at the University of Pittsburgh by the time the new Fisher Library opened in 1963. The first stage of the building was a five storey undergraduate wing, to which a nine storey stack was added four years later. 


In 1962 the Friends' of the University of Sydney Library was launched, with Professor Sir Edward Ford presiding. The Friends first purchase was a 15th century French manuscript which they presented to the Library in their first year. Over the years the Friends have raised more than $250,000 to support the Library, have presented 400 special volumes and assisted with the acquisition of major collections.

Harrison Bryan succeeded Osborn in 1963. The Bryan years coincided with a period of expansion in tertiary education and the adoption of new technology to improve services. In 1964 the first coin-operated copier was installed for student use and a punched card system was introduced for loans.

The unit card system was replaced in 1975 by a fully automated circulation process.

In 1967 the Library became the first university library in Australia to achieve a collection size of one million volumes. The one millionth acquisition was the work by Henry Lawson Short Stories in Prose and Verse and was presented by the Friends.

The two millionth book, John le Gay Brereton's Sea and Sky manuscript, was presented in 1976 by Walter Stone.

By 1970 the staff had grown to over 200. Computer input of current cataloguing began in 1971. In 1972 the first electronic book detection system was installed in the Medical Library. In 1976 the first tentative steps were taken to search an overseas database, Medline, on a computer terminal lent by the Faculty.

The number of department libraries had grown over the first half of the century but gradually some were incorporated into the library system or combined with others. By 1981 there were 10 branches and five department libraries.

Harrison Bryan resigned to become Director-General of the National Library of Australia in 1980 and Neil A Radford was appointed Librarian. The Library joined the Australian Bibliographic Network as a foundation member and remains a constant contributor to the national database of library holdings.

The three millionth item was added to the collection in 1983. It was the volume Daphnis and Chloe, was printed by Bodoni.

A large storage facility was opened in Darlington that year, easing pressure on accommodation. The store now houses 650,000 volumes.

During the 1980s automation of library processes accelerated. Production of catalogue cards ceased and the catalogues were initially output in microfiche before being replaced in 1987 by an online catalogue listing all items acquired since 1971. An integrated library system was implemented for cataloguing, circulation and Special Reserve in Fisher. The first CD-ROM was purchased for the collection in 1989.

On 1 January 1990 three colleges of advanced education and two parts of a fourth amalgamated with the University. After protracted negotiations the Institutes of Education and Nursing of the Sydney College of Advanced Education joined the University Library and three college libraries remained separate. The mergers took total staff numbers to 271, boosted the collections to 4.2 million items and increased the number of branch libraries to 22. The addition of the four millionth item went unnoticed in the turmoil. 

The momentum for automating library services was building and although automated loans were available in four branch libraries by 1992 funding constraints impeded further progress. 

In 1993 a review of the Library was held, led by Professor Mairead Browne. Implementation of its major recommendations began the following year with the University funding a new automated system. The new system went live in 1995 and transformed the library into a full network, offering automated services at all sites. The Library's first web site was launched that year. 

Another major recommendation of the review was that "all the University of Sydney libraries be managed as one system for which the University Librarian is responsible" and in 1996 three department libraries and the Cumberland College of Health Sciences joined the library system.


V. The Electronic Age

The Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service (SETIS) was established in 1996 to provide a platform for full-text databases and to facilitate textual studies at the university. SETIS was the first service of its kind in Australia and has developed as a national platform for innovative electronic publishing and digital library conversion projects. SETIS is a key participant and host in collaborative projects such as the AustLit database, the Australian Federation Full Text Database and the Australian Digital Theses Program.

Neil Radford retired in 1996. He was followed in 1997 by John Shipp, who had been Librarian at the University of Wollongong and a member of the 1993 library review team. Two college libraries were added in 1998, raising staff numbers to over 300, a peak unlikely to be reached again. A restructuring process was begun, driven by a funding shortfall and the need to meet a changing environment. 

In 1999 the Library instituted a policy of acquiring networked electronic resources in preference to print when equivalent versions were available. By the turn of the century the Library's web site had become the primary access to library resources and services. In 2002 the Library purchased its 5 millionth acquisition, Early English Books Online (EEBO).

EEBO provides images of 125,000 titles published between 1473 and 1700 and comprises 22.5 million pages.

The Library's role in electronic publishing was further developed in 2002. SETIS created electronic editions of three titles from the Sydney University Press backlist, in addition to 8 titles from the Colonial Imprints series for the AustLit database. The number of electronic texts created and hosted at SETIS now exceeds 200. The Library joined the international Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership and will participate through SETIS in the production of this important digitisation project.