Monday, 16 July 2018

Fifty years in Libraries - I remember when -1960s

I finished library school and began working in public libraries in Canberra in November 1967. Retiring this month after working 21 years at Whitehorse Manningham Libraies in Melbourne, it is time to reflect on changes in Australian libraries during the past fifty years.

In 2018 we cannot imagine running a library without computers and many of our patrons depend on the use of free library computers for communication and information. Patrons, at WML, can borrow up to 70 items including magazines, items in different languages and AV items. Patrons can also join multiple library systems anywhere in the state.

However when I first worked in a public library (CPLS in Canberra - now ACT Libraries) in the late 1960s, I remember when:

  • Categories of library staff were librarians, library officers or library assistants. 
  • Borrowers (not patrons) could borrow only two books at a time.
  • Magazines were for reading in the library. 
  • People could only join the library if they lived or worked or attended school locally (ballet class on a Saturday morning did not count). 
  • Card systems were used in the children’s collection for borrowing. This was a problem when we discovered that a new staff member was dyslexic. (She only worked on the adult loan’s desk after that.) 
  • Tokens were used for borrowing from the adult collection. Each adult was issued with two tokens when they joined the library. One token was exchanged for one book. (Yes, we did not know which books were out, who had borrowed them or when they should be returned) 
  • Card catalogues provided information about the adult collection.
  • All newly trained library staff spent three months cataloguing before they were released into the branches. Each book was catalogued from scratch using Dewey and L.C. subject headings. Correct punctuation was essential. After two weeks, it was decided that my time would be better spent cataloguing the children’s collection backlog. 
  • While working as a Junior Services Library Officer, the only catalogue for the children’s collection in the library system was at head office. Consequently knowledge of the Dewey decimal classification system was essential when you worked in the children’s libraries. 
  • Children’s Holiday Programs were a new feature in libraries –origami sessions, string games, picture book slide shows, native animals in the library. One year the library’s Thursday After-School Group put on a puppet show using puppets they had made. No computer booking system. The children just turned up. 
  • At that time, CPLS was part of the Commonwealth Public Service so staff members were able to travel in Commonwealth cars between libraries. 
  • As there were no computers to turn on, computer reserve lists to check, emails to answer or return chutes to empty, all staff members were responsible for shelf reading sections of the library in the morning before opening time. 
  • Each Friday afternoon staff, not working at the loans desk, covered and repaired books. 
  • Ulverscroft Large Print books were first available at this time. They were large, hard covered, heavy, volumes with white covers that had horizontal coloured stripes, top and bottom, representing genre – red for fiction, blue for romance, green for non-fiction, black for mystery. Not very exciting! 
  • Reference collections were a well-used part of the library, particularly encyclopaedias and dictionaries. 
  • People were generally quiet in libraries and no-one thought of bringing food or drink or large bags, scooters or even soccer balls to play with into the building. 
  • People could visit a library without needing to use a phone while they were there. 
  • The roster was a three week roster. Staff members worked two nights a week for two weeks – Monday and Thursday and Tuesday and Friday. On the third week they worked Wednesday night and either Saturday morning or all day Saturday depending on the branch.
  • When libraries were open at night, branches closed at 9 pm. Stand-alone children’s branches closed at 6 pm.
  • When Dickson District Library opened at the end of 1969, the library closed from 12-1 for lunch on a Saturday. 
  • We did not have a photocopier in the library. People wrote notes. (However I remember, when I was at school, Brighton Library had a photocopier in the staff area which would sometimes be used for photocopying pictures from books for school projects.)

I worked at the Canberra Public Library Service (CPLS) from November 1967 until end of January 1971. The libraries now operate as ACT Library Service

Kings Avenue Public Library was the library headquarters and administration technical services operated from the first and second floors. A library for adults operated on the ground floor. This building had been the first National Library. When closing the library at night staff were not keen on having to check the upstairs areas before leaving the building. When I first arrived in Canberra I spent three months working in this building as a cataloguer.

Kings Avenue building when National Library (Great Southern Cards)
There were a number of branch libraries. Civic, in the centre of Canberra was the largest branch, plus branches at Downer, Hughes in the Woden area and at Belconnen. There were also small libraries just for children at Lyneham, Red Hill, Narrabundah, Curtin and O'Connor. 

The central children's service was located in rooms at St Mark's Library in Barton and that was where we organised activities (including holiday programs) visits to schools and arranged for requested books to be sent to those wanting them - a children's inter-library loan scheme. All the children's library staff also met there for book discussion sessions. This was where I worked after my stint as a cataloguer.
St Mark's Library building

I was in charge of Civic Branch Library for most of 1969. It was located in Civic Square and there was a large fountain outside the library. One night in winter it began to snow and the snowflakes falling on the fountain lit with floodlights was quite a scene.
Fountain in front of Civic Library today
When Dickson District Library opened at the end of 1969 I became the Junior Services Library Officer at Dickson and was responsible for activities in children's libraries in North Canberra. As it was a new library I spent time visiting the local schools talking to teachers about the library and also reading to children in some classes. Parent groups sometimes visited the library. This was, initially, a showcase building and we had visits from representatives of other libraries in Australia wanting to view the building. It was recommended as a place of heritage significance in Canberra for its design in 2008. Downer Library closed when Dickson Library opened.
Dickson District Library (SLV)
When I last visited the building the mezzanine in the centre of the library had been removed. Although this was one of the design features of the building it was not practical for a public library. Other alterations have been made to the building over the years.

1970s - Hargrave Library at Monash University


  1. Thank you for the trip down memory lane. I was a borrower :)

  2. I am glad that you enjoyed the post, Anne. I loved my three plus years in Canberra working at CPLS - a great introduction to working in libraries.

  3. I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thank you, Chris
    You rekindled some great memories.. thanks, Vicki

    1. Thank you Chris, It is interesting to look back at how things we value have changed / evolved.