It took more than 50 years of debate and struggle to establish Wonthaggi’s first public library. CAROL COX looks back at that struggle in a series to mark the library’s move to
new premises in Murray Street.
new premises in Murray Street.
Chapters in the life of a library
November 16, 2013
Chapter 1: A lot of "hot air"
It wasn’t until 1970 that the first municipal library opened in Wonthaggi, but residents of the district had identified the need for such a service many decades earlier.
In 1915, it was the subject of lively discussion at a meeting of the borough council which had received a “chaser” from the local A.N.A. (Australian Natives Association) regarding a library.
The Powlett Express of March 19 1915 reported: “Cr. Nelson said a library was necessary for the young people particularly. They had no place to spend their evenings except at the picture shows and gambling dens of Wonthaggi.”
“On the motion of Crs. Wishart and Bird it was decided to inform the A.N.A. that action would be taken to establish a library when council had a municipal building.”
After more discussion, some of it heated, the mayor promised the matter would be resolved within 12 weeks.
Six years later, not much had changed. A charming example of the community's ongoing desire for a library came in the form of a letter to the editor of the Powlett Express on June 24 1921 from a lady who signed herself “Tired Mother” of Glen Forbes South. It reads:
“Sir – will you allow me space in your valuable paper to suggest to the council that there should be some place of recreation in your most progressive town. I will state my case, out of one of many: I work hard on a farm, and have to go to Wonthaggi occasionally – a drive of 12 miles – and after doing my shopping have had to stand waiting in the street as long as three hours, waiting for horses to be shod, or other repairs to be done. Now, if there were a public library or other such place where one could take a book or some knitting, it would be a rest, instead of collapsing in the street from exhaustion.
Even in those early days a library was seen not just as a source of borrowed books but as a place where residents of the district could meet or rest while in town. Surely it's not so different today. Substitute “waiting for our car to be serviced”, for example, for “horses to be shod”.
Those who struggled so long for a library would feel very proud if they could see what today's library offers the community: not just books, CDs and DVDs, but internet facilities, storytelling sessions and many other services.
Initially, however, getting majority community support for the project all those years ago proved surprisingly difficult …
November 22. 2013
Chapter 2: The struggle continues
ALTHOUGH complaints on the lack of a public library and reading room were common, actual support from a majority of local residents seemed to be sadly lacking. In September 1927 the Powlett Express reported that a well-publicised meeting to address the issue attracted fewer than 20 people.
Two local organisations, Returned Soldiers and A.N.A (Australian Natives Association), had supported the establishment of a library but, due to the perceived lack of strong community backing, concluded a public library was not wanted by the people.
The council also discussed the establishment of a library on many occasions but felt the public should do the work. The council indicated the main drawbacks were the lack of a suitable site and finance.
In an attempt to get over the financial hurdle, two referenda were held on the question of an extra rate of threepence.
However, both were turned down as it was felt that rates were already at their limit. There was therefore no prospect of raising the funds necessary to establish a library directly from ratepayers.
It must be remembered that these were the years after World War I and led into the great depression of the 1930s when financial resources, both personal and government, were directed to more basic needs.
However, those who understood the importance of a library to the community kept up the push.
In 1968 a Wonthaggi library committee was formed: dedicated members, including Joe and Lyn Chambers, Bill and Barbara Robertson, Arthur and Nell Quilford, Barbara Hallett, Margaret Berry, Bill Thomas, Peter and Alison Brooks, worked in official and unofficial capacities towards the establishment of a library.
Their goal would finally be reached in 1970 ...
To be continued.
November 30, 2013
Chapter 3: Once more into the breech
In an article in The Express in December 1967, Wonthaggi Borough councillor and popular schoolteacher Joe Chambers asked the question: “Why is there not a public library in Wonthaggi?”
Wonthaggi answered: “We can't afford one”, “Our licensed clubs have libraries”, “There are libraries in the schools”, “No one reads now; they all watch television”.
In an effort to sway opinion Cr. Chambers went on to point out: “A library is much more than a collection of thrillers, westerns, romances and travelogues. … (it) is also a reading room, a meeting place, a discussion centre – a very important focal point in the life of a town. “Everybody benefits from a library. Education is a never-ending process. The most important part of the child's education at primary school is the acquisition of the reading habit. … The habit is fostered by access to a wide range of books and other materials.”
Over the next two years, various proposals and cost estimates were considered and discarded. The Library Council of Victoria recommended a site beside the town hall and that the building cost at least $20,000. The council decided to investigate the possibility of borrowing $40,000, which could also provide for a baby health centre and offices for the borough engineer and health officer. Some felt the expense unnecessary as vacant or alternative premises were available to serve the purpose.
A cheaper $24,000 design was submitted to the council, which also entailed an extension to the administrative section of the town hall and incorporating a baby health centre. None of these proposals gained unanimous approval.
At the time the Borough of Wonthaggi and the Shire of Bass were separate entities. As Wonthaggi was the largest town in the area, people came from a wide area into Wonthaggi for shopping and other services. The Borough Council was reluctant to spend major ratepayers’ funds on a public facility for the benefit of people from outside the borough who did not pay rates in Wonthaggi.
When the library was finally opened, non-borough residents were charged to use the library except if a family member worked in the town!
Concerns regarding the high cost of providing a library were eventually overcome when an innovative and inexpensive option appeared on the horizon ...
December 6, 2013
Chapter 4: At Last
AFTER decades of debate over a public library, in June 1970 the Borough of Wonthaggi considered a new one: to convert the town’s comfort station to incorporate the new library.
The brick building, at the intersection of Watt Street and McBride Avenue (opposite the current library) might not have been custom-built but you couldn’t have found a better situation.
The Wonthaggi Library Committee voted unanimously to support the plan and the Wonthaggi Borough Council approved the immediate spending of $750 to convert the building.
It was not yet smooth sailing, however, with a deputation and a “huge petition” to the council against the plan. The Wonthaggi Sentinel reported on its front page on July 16 1970 that they “failed to change the decision of the Wonthaggi Borough Council to convert the comfort station in Wishart Reserve into a public library.”
Mayor Cr. C. Osborne assured the deputation that elderly people could use the comfortable library as a resting place when out walking, arrangements would be made in the Town Hall for alternative facilities to allow mothers to feed their babies, and the comfort station toilets would not be closed as the building was big enough to accommodate both them and the library. (Consequently the ambience of the library suffered in hot weather!)
Four months later, in October, Cr Osborne officially opened Wonthaggi’s first municipal library.
The West Gippsland Regional Library Corporation supplied the books to stock the new library from its collection of 20,000 to 25,000 books available to share among the five municipalities in the region. Each week, a library car travelled around delivering books to libraries in the area – Warragul, Korumburra, Poowong, Longwarry and Wonthaggi.
Members of the library committee had raised funds to fit out the library. They also made shelves and curtains and everything required to make the library suitable to open for business.
As the borough's first librarian, Georgie McRae was allowed to enter the men-only Gentlemen’s Club to sort the books in their reading room.
The council also presumed Georgie would handle the cleaning of the new library as part of her duties but she soon set them straight on that score and the Town Hall cleaners were engaged to clean the library premises as well.
At the official opening in October 1970, Cr Joe Chambers acknowledged that the establishment of the library had been a long, hard road that had reached a happy conclusion.
It would have been better housed in larger quarters, he added, but that was to come later ….
December 13, 2013
Chapter 5: Growing, growing, growing ...
IN 1982, during Georgie McRae's 20-year tenure as Wonthaggi’s first librarian, the municipal library was relocated from the converted comfort station into the foyer of the new Wonthaggi Arts Centre in an effort to gain more usable space. Staff from other libraries in the region came to help with this move.
An interesting feature of this new venue was a storytelling pit for children – they would sit around the sunken pit with an adult who read to them. This pit was later covered over to avoid untoward falls by patrons of the cinema or theatrical performances.
Due to the library's ever-increasing popularity, a direct reflection of Georgie's skills, the Arts Centre foyer also became overcrowded and too small to house the number of books needed to meet local demand. This started to affect the library’s popularity as there was insufficient space for new books, to do research, or to accommodate necessary equipment.
In 1992, the Wonthaggi Borough Council accepted a recommendation that the library be transferred to the recently vacated old post office building on the corner of Watt Street and McBride Avenue, opposite the library's original comfort station site. The building, which has a National Heritage listing, had opened to the public in 1911 and ceased postal operations 80 years later when the post office moved to its current location in Billson Street.
A federal government grant funded an extensive heritage-sensitive conversion and refurbishment project, which was undertaken by a local contractor. The rooms upstairs were occupied by a team of detectives. The library was allocated the first floor, which doubled its space and provided a comfortable and workable library.
This venue afforded more space for display and additional shelving, plus room for chairs so users could read newspapers and books in comfort. One disadvantage, according to the librarian, was the difficulty of observing the behaviour of borrowers, particularly youngsters, as the juvenile literature section was not visible from the desk.
In 2002-03, passions ran high among both councillors and the community when the council considered plans to build a new library on council land between the Wonthaggi Town Hall and the police station. The federal and state governments promised $1 million towards the cost, with the balance of the $3 million-plus project to be picked up by the council.
Councillors approved the project, but just a few months later a new council backed away from the project, partly on account of the cost, and partly because of a very vocal community campaign to save the town hall stage, which would have had to be demolished as part of the project.
Although the decision caused considerable angst at the time, in hindsight it may have been fortuitous as the town centre has since moved north.
Last year, following a long campaign by a group called the OWLS (Official Wonthaggi Library Supporters), councillors voted to rent the old Target Country store in Murray Street as the site of the new regional library.
After 20 years in the old post office building, the library this week moved to its new home, a central and accessible location that should cater for the library and its users for decades to come.