Reprint: Our Secret Books: A Visitor's Dilemma by Vance Palmer

An American publicist has been making exploration into Australian literature, present and past. He confesses that the task has been extraordinarily difficult. The books that would have made a complete survey possible were simply not to be had though he was willing to pay nearly twice as much for them as the prices at which they were first published. One bookseller even refused to sell copies of certain books on the ground that they were so rare that they ought not to be taken out of Australia. As for others, consistent advertising failed to bring a single copy to light.

What is anyone who wants to burrow into our past, literary or historical, to do about it? Of course there is the Mitchell Library in Sydney, which meets every demand and is a national asset that will grow in value with the years. But not every serious student can go there to work. And, apart from serious students, there are casual explorers who want to fill in, for their own satisfaction, the empty outlines of our past. There are the visitors who, in passing through our public libraries are naturally anxious to see what books have been written in or about Australia. How are their demands met? Is there anything to show that we are a literate people, interested in our own history, our topography, or the imaginative rendering of our own lives?

The answer must be a fairly emphatic negative. Such books of value as we have produced are usually hidden away, like the family photograph-album of which we are secretly ashamed. Lately I watched a foreign sailor wandering round the vast circle of the Melbourne Public Library and slowly spelling out the lettering of the varied categories of books. He came to rest finally at one tiny shelf in the geographical section labelled Victoria, and took down a volume, his eyes growing large and puzzled as he pored over the pictures. Evidently he wanted to know what the country was like beyond the streets and houses that were not so different from other streets and houses he had seen. But what met his inquiring gaze? Pictures of seals on icefloes, of men in furs, of wooden ships being buffeted by Arctic seas! He turned to the next book on the shelf and it was the same. Ice, sailing-ships, white landscapes, with little black dog-teams straining over the snowy expanse! He put the book down gently and stole off, as if all he had heard about the Antipodes being the country of "upside-down" were true.

Fruits of the Search

If he had explored further on the Victorian shelf he would have found similar books - "A Naturalist at the Poles," Stefannson's "Friendly Arctic," Bilby's "Among Unknown Eskimos" - but no book about Victoria. On the New South Wales shelf he would have found "People of the Twilight" but no book about New South Wales. To be sure, the shelf higher up, labelled Australia would have provided some books about the country, although a meagre and rather uneven collection. Let us suppose though that he had been tempted to explore for pure literature. On a tiny shelf near the roof he would have found a label, "Australian Poetry," attuned to works by Wilfrid Gibson and other modern English poets but not a single Australian book! An eye familiar with the names of Australian writers might have detected a mixed collection of Australian verse farther along on the "Contemporary Minor Poetry" shelf but one does not begin by expecting a visitor to have such a knowledge of names.

A complete circling of the reading room would, in fact, lead a stranger to believe that it held fewer books on Australia than on, say, Peru. That would be an error, for a student with a precise knowledge of what he wanted could by a somewhat laborious search in the card-catalogue of the inquiry-room finally unearth many needed volumes. All students have not this precise knowledge, though, nor should they require it. As for the visitor - well, he probably goes away feeling that, if we have such a perfunctory regard for our own books, there cannot be much in them that would interest him.

To the Lending Library, much the same criticism would apply. In the fiction department there is a shelf labelled as containing the works of Edna Lyall; but there is no evidence that Henry Lawson ever lived and wrote. Another shelf is apparently reserved for the diverting novels of P. G. Wodehouse; but none for Rolf Boldrewood's. Of course fiction is only a minor concern of the Lending Library; the books of general interest are good, both in quantity and quality, but the lack of any guide to Australian work is astonishing and regrettable.

Forgotten Novels

The trouble with our books is that they go out of print quickly and are soon unprocurable. If suburban libraries had formed a habit years ago of buying all Australian books of a certain quality they would have been sure of something that had, at least, historical value. As it is,they have quantities of outmoded "best sellers" that can interest no one. I have diligently searched the shelves of a local library for Louis Stone's "Jonah," Barbara Baynton's "Human Toll," Albert Dorrington's "Castro's Last Sacrament," but I might as well have searched for black opal in a heap of discarded potch.

It is time that a little more attention was paid to the whole subject. In the Public Library the stock of Australian books seems, as far as one can gather, to be fairly adequate; it is the burrowing for them that is difficult. Surely a small section of the reading-room could be devoted exclusively to a representative collection of them, even if such an arrangement meant interfering with the present harmony of design. Most readers would be glad to have easy access to some of them; the visitor would be made aware of their existence. At the very least a catalogue might be printed that would give clear and intelligible guidance to both visitor and student.

The buying and arrangement of books in an Australian library must always be a difficult matter. There are books of absolute and books of relative value, and most Australian books fall into the latter class. But they should have at least as much prominence in our lĂ­braries, as Australian pictures in our galleries. No one can feel much satisfaction in the perfunctory way in which they are treated at present.

First published in The Argus, 23 November 1929

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 24, 2009 9:56 AM.

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