Source: McCormack, Terry (2009). History of the City of Sydney Library. in publication.
1791 2 December
The earliest reference to a library in Australia appears in the writing of Watkin Tench, Captain of the Marines in the First Fleet. ‘In a colony which contains only a few hundred hovels…we feel consequential enough already to talk of a treasury, an admiralty, a public library and many other similar edifices…’
1798 1 October
The country’s first library, a collection of religious tracts, was destroyed when Reverend Richard Johnson’s timber church and schoolroom were deliberately burnt down by convicts.
1827 1 December
The Australian Subscription Library & Reading Room was founded by a group of eminent Sydney gentlemen. It shared its Pitt Street premises with the Sydney Dispensary. The first appointee was a convict who combined the roles of librarian and apothecary until he was dismissed for drunkenness. It was the precursor of both the City of Sydney Library and the State Library of New South Wales.
The Australian Subscription Library was incorporated by an Act of Council in which the term ‘Public Library’ was first used officially.
1842 20 July
Sydney was incorporated as a City, the second in Australia after Adelaide. The subsequent municipal election returned a democratic Council of former convicts and convict descendants, shopkeepers, tradesmen, publicans, merchants, auctioneers, and commission agents.
1843 14 February
The foundation stone for a purpose-built home for the Australian Subscription Library was laid. It moved into its first permanent home in November 1845. It retained exclusive although ladies were admitted as subscribers in July 1846.
The Municipalities Act of 1867 empowered councils to establish municipal libraries and offered grants of £200 to buy books or to furnish a reading room in their town hall. Books were to be selected ‘with wisdom and prudence’ and to be approved by the Inspector of Public Charities.
1869 21 June
Colonial Secretary Sir Henry Parkes opened the Newtown Free Public Library. Newtown Municipal Council was the first to take up government subsidy to establish a library.
1869 30 September
The Australian Subscription Library was saved from bankruptcy when it was taken over the Colonial Government, becoming the Free Public Library of Sydney.
1877 3 July
The Free Public Library on the corner of Bent and Macquarie opened a Lending Branch in the basement, formerly a wine store and coal cellar. It did not stock books likely to encourage ‘an indolent appetite for amusement’. By the end of the year there were 1,225 registered borrowers.
The Lending Branch moved to its own premises in the Iron Church, Australia’s first prefabricated building structure that was formerly a Presbyterian Church. Intolerably hot in summer and freezing in winter, it was located beside the present State Library of NSW. The Lending Branch was to become the City of Sydney Public Library.
1899 18 June
The Lending Branch and its newspaper room moved to the second floor of the Queen Victoria Market Building (now the QVB). Penfolds Wines had a cellar in the basement, continuing the association with wine.
1908 22 December
Under the Sydney Corporation Act, Sydney Municipal Council was given statutory powers to establish a free reading and lending library for ratepayers, residents and employees within its boundaries to take effect from 6 March 1909.
1909 15 October
The Municipal Council of Sydney officially assumed responsibility for the Lending Branch. It was renamed the Sydney Municipal Library. Scholar and historian Charles Henry Bertie (1875-1952 took up the position of Librarian.
1910 18 October
Charles Bertie and his staff cleaned the neglected library and its book stock and rearranged it to provide readers with open access to the shelves. Despite warnings of uncontrolled theft, only two pamphlets went missing in the first year. City voters had free access and other users were required to provide a written guarantee from a reputable person.
Charles Bertie refused a reader’s request to stock the works of Oscar Wilde because ‘an unsavoury odour hangs round his name’.
1913 5 July
A smallpox epidemic swept Sydney and the city was declared a quarantine area. The Town Hall basement became a Vaccinating Depot and free disinfectants were issued. The Library was closed for three months until the danger passed.
1914 – 1918
The outbreak of World War 1 caused a decline in reading for several months. By the end of 1916, the library stock has risen to 27,073, annual issues totalled 175,254, and there were 19,645 registered borrowers.
1918 18 March
The Sydney Municipal Library moved to the old concert hall of the newly named Queen Victoria Building. Enlarged quarters enabled the City Librarian to introduce a Newspaper Room and expand the juvenile section into a separate Children’s Library (the first in Australia). An Inquiry Desk provided advice on library use as well as answers to general knowledge queries.
Soldiers returning from the Great War brought with them the deadly Spanish flu. The pandemic lasted until June, causing nearly 12,000 Australian deaths and closing cinemas, theatres, racecourses and schools. People were required to wear masks in public. The library closed for fifteen days but there was only a small decrease in the number of books issued.
The task began to convert the book stock to the Dewey Decimal System of classification, recognised as the most scientific and efficient by overseas libraries. By 1920, only 5,419 from a total of 36,656 volumes had been converted. The conversion of the whole library to Dewey was not finished until 1933.
Wicket gates were installed to reduce the theft of books. It created long queues of customers waiting to borrow books and the thefts continued.
1926 3 February
A Bindery was installed on the top floor of the library. All the books had to be carried up a narrow wooden stairway. The first foreman bookbinder was sacked for illegal betting at work.
This year marked fifty years since the Lending Branch was established as a separate department of the Free Public Library. The Jubilee was commemorated with Charles Bertie’s Short History of the Sydney Municipal Library, 1877-1927. This was one of his many publications on Sydney’s history. He believed that ‘a taste for reading must be implanted in the masses if they are to be greatly improved’.
1928 8 March
Since 1909, the library had been a department in its own right. The Libraries Sub-Committee was abolished and the library came under the Town Clerk’s Department where it remained until 1960. Charles Bertie retained his title of City Librarian if not his powers as a departmental head.
The Newspaper Room moved to more commodious premises on the first floor of the QVB. The third floor was then used for a stack room and the Main and Children’s Libraries remained on the second floor. The extra space was needed because of increased usage during the economic depression. Unemployed people used their enforced leisure time to ‘turn towards books as a means of recreation and instruction’. In 1932 a record 919,297 books were borrowed.
As families moved out of the city to the suburbs, the number of children’s books issued declined. The Library set up deposit stations of children’s books at the Moore Park Recreation Centre and at other playgrounds. South Sydney residents later said these facilities saved them from a lot of the crime in their area.
The Munn-Pitt Report highlighted the deficiencies in Australian public libraries compared with the rest of the English-speaking world. It criticised the antiquated and cramped premises of the Sydney Municipal Library and acknowledged the library was struggling to provide services way beyond ‘the apathetic financial support it received’.
The Customs Department confiscated Stalin’s Socialism Victorious from the Municipal Library as a prohibited import but later returned it on a legal technicality.
The Free Public Library Movement, initiated by George Remington, mobilised public opinion and lobbied the government for support for free circulating libraries to provide education, information and recreation.
1939 31 July
Charles Bertie retired, having turned the moribund Lending Branch into a thriving public library. He was succeeded by the Deputy Librarian and noted anthropologist Francis Lancelot Sutherland Bell. In 1948, Bell was awarded the U.S. Bronze Star for his service in the Royal Australian Navy from 1942 to 1945.
1939 22 December
The far-reaching Library Act was passed, empowering local councils to levy a rate for free library services, matched by a State Government subsidy. When it came into effect in 1944, the only public libraries in NSW were Sydney Municipal Library, Broken Hill and Inverell.
Frank Bell created a furore in the press by banning books on astrology – ‘all preposterous quackery’ as far as he was concerned.
Blackout regulations closed the Municipal Library at 6.30 pm until June 1942 when all sixty-four windows openings in the QVB premises had been screened.
There was increased demand for light fiction to relieve wartime stress. As the Japanese advanced on Australia in early 1942, there was a noticeable decrease in loans.
In post-war years, library loans dropped as people had more disposable income for paperbacks, cinema, and radios.
1947 1 August
Newtown was once again provided with a library service when Newtown Municipal Library was opened in the Newtown Town Hall. It passed to Sydney Council when Newtown Municipal Council was abolished in 1949.
The Local Government (Areas) Act 1948 expanded the city’s boundaries. The municipalities of Alexandria, Darlington, Erskineville, Glebe, Newtown, Paddington, Redfern and Waterloo were abolished and brought into Sydney Council. Most of these inner-city municipalities were shed again in 1968.
1949 7 February
Sydney Municipal Council was reconstituted as the Council of the City of Sydney. The Sydney Municipal Library became the City of Sydney Public Library. Council resolved to use an available government subsidy to establish branch libraries in the vacated town halls they inherited from the defunct municipal councils.
1951 16 February
Alexandria Branch Library was opened in the refurbished Alexandria Town Hall by Lord Mayor Alderman Ernest Charles O’Dea. It became the headquarters of the Bookmobile Service. Due to its poor location and inadequate patronage, Alexandria Branch Library was closed in 1969.
1952 19 December
On 19 December 1952, Lord Mayor Alderman P.D. Hills opened the Paddington Branch Library in the rear of Paddington Town Hall. It was named in honour of former Lord Mayor Frank Green. From 1 January 1989, Paddington Library fell within the newly-created South Sydney area. It became jointly managed by Woollahra Council and South Sydney and, from 2004, by Woollahra and the City of Sydney Councils.
The penny fine for overdue books was doubled to twopence per day and the number of overdue loans fell by half. The punitive effect had worn off by 1956 when a record sum of £4,457.13.10 was paid in fines.
1955 7 December
Council inaugurated a Home Library Service to those too infirm or aged to visit a library. A well equipped van made fortnightly visits to housebound persons. It was later renamed the Mobile Library Service (Housebound) and continues to operate out of Town Hall House.
1956 19 May
Surry Hills Branch Library was opened at the new Anthony Doherty Community Centre in Crown Street by Lord Mayor Patrick Darcy Hills.
1956 15 September
Lord Mayor P. D. Hills opened Glebe Branch Library in the old School of Arts building on Bridge Road. It was the sixth and largest of the Branch Libraries established by Sydney Council since its expansion program began in 1949.
1956 30 November
The Royal Consort, His Royal Highness Prince Phillip, visited Glebe Library with the Lord Mayor and City Librarian. According to Officer-in-charge Shirley Parsons, he was particularly interested in a book called How to avoid work.
1957 14 January
In 1957, a large Bookmobile of 5,000 books began operating for those who lived beyond a reasonable distance from other branch libraries. It was based at Alexandria and later Waterloo Library and could accommodate thirty people.
Sydney Council assumed control of the Sydney Information Centre and the City Librarian became responsible for its administration. Staffed from the Central Library, the Centre provided information about Sydney for tourists and residents. In 1998 it came under the control of Council’s Public Affairs Unit.
1959 6 February
The opening of the Florence Bartley Library at Kings Cross on 6 February 1959 by Lord Mayor Harry Jensen completed the City’s map of branch libraries. Frank Bell asserted that no one in the City of Sydney needed to walk more than half-a-mile to obtain free library service.
1959 6 June
The Florence Bartley Library was awarded the John Sulman Medal for Architecture by the NSW Chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects as the best building in the ‘public and monumental’ class completed during 1958. The innovative aluminium and glass design featured parquet flooring, suspended ceiling lights, concealed fluorescent and wall bracket lighting, and a book lift.
The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Bernard Waley-Cohen, visited the Florence Bartley Library at Kings Cross and was most impressed by the building and its park-like setting.
1963 21 December
The City Librarian, Frank Lancelot Sutherland Bell, died suddenly in office. He was succeeded by the Deputy Librarian John (Jack) Lyons who had been with the library since 1930.
1963 14 June
Lord Mayor Harry Jensen officially opened the Woolloomooloo Branch Library at 130 Dowling Street. Despite vehement community opposition, it was closed on 12 September 1988 because of under-utilisation and Council rationalisation.
The Local Government (City of Sydney) Boundaries Act 1967 substantially reduced Council’s area and its libraries. Alexandria Branch and its Bookmobile Service were transferred to the Northcott Municipality (later South Sydney), & Glebe Branch Library went to Leichhardt Municipal Council. Newtown Library went to Marrickville Council who closed it down on 28 June 1985. The remaining City Branches were Kings Cross, Paddington, Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo.
1970 23 February
After 60 years at the Market Street end of the Queen Victoria Building, the City Library moved to more spacious premises at the southern (Town Hall) end. It officially opened at the start of National Book Week in June.
Mrs Sarah Walters, formerly Margaret Brolly, became the first woman to be appointed City Librarian. The first woman alderman, Joan Pilone, was elected in 1965 and five years later some members of Council were still uneasy about females holding executive positions.
1971 8 March
The Libraries Department, a separate agency since 1960, was amalgamated with three other departments to become the Administration Department under the aegis of the Deputy Town Clerk. Here it remained until 1979 when it became part of the Parks and Recreations Departments.
1971 15 March
An Advice Bureau in Sydney Town Hall, staffed by the library, was introduced. Odd requests included one from someone urgently needing to hire a helicopter and another from a Belgian visitor seeking work as a tightrope walker but there were also more mundane queries about services available through Council, government and voluntary agencies.
South Sydney Council established a public library in Waterloo Town Hall after closing nearby Alexandria Library in 1969 because of poor patronage.
1974 3 May
Lord Mayor Alderman Nicholas Shehadie officially opened Haymarket Library at 730 George Street, on the corner of Campbell Street. It catered especially for the Chinese community in the southern CBD, an area being revitalised after a long period of stagnation. It was the first branch to be established by the City of Sydney Library since Kings Cross in 1959.
A Committee of Inquiry into Public Libraries chaired by Alan Horton reported that the small percentage of ratepayers in the city should not have to subsidise the much larger numbers of non-residents using the Sydney City Library. Grants from the State Government were subsequently increased.
Circulation and cataloguing processes were computerised using a batch mode system. The dictionary card catalogue was closed off at the end of 1975. A microfiche union catalogue for the entire library stock was produced. In 1986, it was updated to OPAC (online public access catalogues).
The Centenary of free public lending library services in Australia was celebrated with a dinner at the Queen Victoria Building. The Palm Orchestra played as guests were wafted up the spiral staircase and library staff officiated in period costume.
The Sydney Subject Specialisation Scheme was established to share subject allocations between public libraries in the metropolitan area. Sydney Public Library was responsible for collecting anthropology and electrical engineering.
Sarah Walters set up LOGOS, a daily current awareness bulletin of items of local government interest. It was circulated to Council aldermen, metropolitan and interstate authorities, and even overseas subscribers. It became a victim of financial cutbacks in 1993.
1981 23 March
The City of Sydney Public Library was separated from the Parks and Recreation Department, once again becoming a department in its own right. It was renamed the City of Sydney Public Library & Information Centre. Sarah Walters yet again became Head of Department.
South Sydney Municipality was absorbed by the City of Sydney Council, resulting in the amalgamation of the two library services under the City of Sydney Library. Waterloo and Newtown joined Haymarket, Kings Cross, Paddington, Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo as branch libraries. The South Sydney collection was integrated with the City of Sydney’s computerised cataloguing and loan systems.
The Sydney Information Desk (SID) opened on the ground floor of the Queen Victoria Building as a shopfront showcase for Council’s activities, providing information about concerts and entertainment in the city. With the restoration of the Queen Victoria Building in 1983, SID moved to Town Hall House.
1982 6 December
The library at the Queen Victoria Building closed on 27 October and re-opened on 6 December in new rented premises at 321 Pitt Street (known to some as ‘The Pits’) on 6 December. The City Librarian hoped to return to the QVB but it was not an appropriate place for a library after it was restored by Ipoh Garden Berhad.
As the QVB closed for renovation, the Bindery and Stack were relocated to the former Sussex Hotel, corner of Sussex & Goulburn St. In 1986, they were again moved, to 12-13 Larkin Street at Camperdown.
A new Newtown Library was opened by the Council of the City of Sydney on the first floor of the Harry Burland Community Hall in King Street.
The City of Sydney Act 1988 divided the city between two authorities – Sydney City Council and South Sydney City Council – and reduced the city to its smallest size since incorporation in 1842. Under a cross-servicing arrangement, the former South Sydney Libraries at Kings Cross, Paddington, Newtown, Waterloo and Surry Hills remained under the management of Sydney City Council and differing processing systems had to be integrated.
1988 28 June
A resolution of Council changed the name of the City Library to City Libraries Department but a later resolution of 25 March 1991 changed it back again to Sydney City Library.
1988 12 July
In a rationalisation of library services, Council resolved to close the Woolloomooloo Branch Library at 130 Dowling Street despite protests from residents.
1989 13 April
Lord Mayor Alderman Jeremy Bingham opened the Beatrice Suleau library on the corner of William Henry Street and Bulwara Road, Ultimo. Some of the books and equipment from Woolloomooloo Library were transferred to Ultimo.
City Librarian Sarah Walters retired. After forty years with the library, she was almost a legend in her ubiquitous hat and gloves. She had promoted the library’s interests at Council and through the many professional bodies on which she served.
In a break with tradition, the next in line did not automatically become Librarian. Nora Hinchen, former Director of Stanton Library at North Sydney, was appointed City Librarian.
The premises at 321 Pitt Street were refurbished to provide a more comfortable environment while the search for a permanent home continued.
Library restructuring resulted in several new positions. Carol Yuen was appointed Manager, Reader Services, and Simon Eade, became Manager, Technical Services, both responsible to the Manager, Library Services (formerly known as the City Librarian).
While the Town Hall was being refurbished, the Information Bureau was transferred to the Central Library.
1991 25 March
The name of the City of Sydney Public Library and Information Centre reverted to the Sydney City Library.
The Traitor’s Gate by Edgar Wallace was returned by a descendant of the Bondi man who had borrowed it in August 1932.
The Sesquicentenary of Sydney’s Incorporation in 1842 was celebrated by the restoration of Sydney Town Hall and the launch of Dr Shirley Fitzgerald’s book Sydney 1842-1992.
1992 1 July
Lord Mayor Frank Sartor opened the new Haymarket Library at 744 George Street in Sydney’s Chinatown. The sandstone heritage building was faithfully restored to house one of Australia’s largest collections of Asian titles.
Katie Lahey became Council’s first female General Manager. Council administration was restructured into four Divisions with the library being placed in Cultural and Community Services under the Corporate Manager, Kerry Nash.
The Bookmobile Service that had operated out of Alexandria and later Waterloo Library since 1957 ceased.
When it was incorporated in 1842, the new body was called the Municipal Council of Sydney. From 1949, it was the Council of the City of Sydney or Sydney City Council. Since 1993, the preferred title has been City of Sydney. Since this time also, Sydney’s aldermen have been called councillors
Despite local protests, Ultimo Branch Library closed and the library book vote was halved.
1993 30 October
The cross-servicing relationship with South Sydney Council was costing Council too much and was terminated. Kings Cross, Newtown, Paddington, Surry Hills and Waterloo Branch Libraries returned to the management of South Sydney Council, along with forty-three per cent of the book stock and twenty-five staff.
This left the City with the main Pitt Street Library and Haymarket.
1994 1 February
To save money on rented premises, the City Library was moved to Level 3 at Town Hall House, 456 Kent Street. The administration and technical services were on Level 15 and the stack was in the basement. A Sound Lounge of audio-visual material and a Computer Room were set up. A Local Studies Librarian was appointed to oversee the new Sydney Room. A morning tea and a dinner at which the Lord Mayor officiated marked the opening.
South Sydney Council opened Newtown Library in the renovated Salvation Army Hall at 8-10 Brown Street.
The City and branch libraries set up a new Windows based computer library system (Dynix Horizon).
Ultimo branch library reopened on the first floor of the new Community Recreation Centre at 40 William Henry Street. The focus was on children’s activities, story time and providing public Internet access.
Council administration was restructured to reflect its new commercial role. Cultural and Community Services was abolished and the Library Services Unit was amalgamated with other community services as a responsibility of Living City Services.
Nora Hinchen’s contract as Library Manager expired and she moved on to direct Rockdale Public Library. She had brought the outmoded City Library up to par with other late twentieth century public libraries.
Marianne Rajkovic, a systems consultant, was appointed temporary Library Manager. In line with contemporary library philosophy, her aim was to market the library’s business information services and specialised products and create a digital library with fewer books and more computer terminals. Staff with traditional library skills started to feel uneasy.
The Sydney Room was closed and the Local Studies Collection – and Local Studies Librarian – were transferred to the City of Sydney Archives to be merged with the Sydney Reference Collection.
1997 19 April
The Member for Port Jackson, Sandra Nori, officially opened the new Glebe Library in the refurbished Benledi House at 184-186 Glebe Point Road. It was established by Leichhardt Council and followed years of community action by groups like the Glebe Fighting Fund for a better local library.
The Central Library at Town Hall House was given a facelift. Additional computer terminals were introduced and reference services were restructured to accommodate new electronic media. The State Library objected when fees were introduced for PC usage.
Despite protests, the award-winning Florence Bartley Library was demolished and South Sydney Council relocated Kings Cross Library to the Rex Hotel building.
1998 17 May
Patrick Condon, from the University of Adelaide was appointed Library Manager.
Free and remote access became available for a range of major international databases. An automated telephone renewal system was available 24 hours a day. Internet courses in English and Chinese were provided. The music CD collection was expanded and DVDs were introduced
2003 19 February
Following recommendations in the Sproats Report, the city’s borders were expanded to take in Glebe and Forest Lodge from Leichhardt Council and Woolloomooloo, Kings Cross, Potts Point, Rushcutters Bay, Elizabeth Bay and Darlinghurst from South Sydney Council. Kings Cross and Glebe became part of the City of Sydney Library Network.
In another administrative change, responsibility for management of Library and Community Services was moved to the new Division of Library and Community Services, renamed Community Living in early 2004.
Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull opened Kings Cross Library in temporary shopfront premises at 61 Darlinghurst Road.
2004 27 March
Independent and Member for Bligh Clover Moore became Sydney’s first popularly-elected female Lord Mayor.
Due to the merger of the two Councils, the City inherited branch libraries at Newtown, Surry Hills, Waterloo and Paddington, the latter jointly managed with Woollahra Council. It was a stressful time as the South Sydney library staff were absorbed into the City’s library network and lost much of their autonomy.
2005 16 May
A Town Hall Library Link opened on Level 1 as a convenient and centralised loan and collection point for borrowers unable to get to the newly relocated library at Circular Quay. It provided a model for the Library Link set up at Surry Hills while that library was being renovated.
2005 6 June
Customs House Library opened after the Town Hall House Library moved to the refurbished heritage building at Circular Quay. It had been vacated by the Australian Customs Service in 1990 and leased to Council by the Commonwealth Government from 1993. It was an award-winning state-of-the-art refurbishment but limited space meant only part of the collection could be transferred. Administration and processing staff remained at Town Hall House.
After inhabiting several temporary premises, the new Kings Cross Library was officially opened by Lord Mayor Clover Moore in the refurbished Woolworths building at 50-52 Darlinghurst Road.
A Programs Team was established at Town Hall House to promote the library and centralise the organisation of functions and events held at Branch Libraries.
In response to local demand, a rudimentary Library Link and Book Exchange were installed at Pyrmont.
The Friends of Benledi and Glebe Library held a 10th anniversary cocktail party. Celebrations were held all year with jazz performers, book sales, an exhibition of historic photos, and guest speakers.
Koori Collection officially launched at Waterloo Library after many years of development.
The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (GLBTIQ) Collection was launched at Newtown Library. The expanding collection is spread across three libraries – Kings Cross, Surry Hills, and Newtown.
Free wireless internet access was offered for laptops and digital devices at Glebe, Customs House, Newtown, Ultimo and Haymarket libraries and was immediately popular.
The position of Library Manager was sub-divided into Library Manager (David Sharman) and Library Operations Manager (Melissa Smith)
Kings Cross Library celebrated its fiftieth birthday with exhibitions and functions where staff and customers recalled the earlier history of the library.
The City of Sydney Library Network came within the portfolio of the Cultural and Community Services Committee, chaired by the Lord Mayor. The City of Sydney Library Network has its administrative headquarters at Town Hall House and a total of nine branches located at Circular Quay, Glebe, Haymarket, Kings Cross, Newtown, Paddington, Surry Hills, Ultimo and Waterloo.
2009 13 June
Official opening of the environmentally sustainable purpose-built Surry Hills Library, Child Care and Community Facility at 405 Crown Street.
2009 15 October
The City of Sydney celebrates its 100th Anniversary with a Centenary History of the Library, Historical Timeline and a range of events.
Council has endorsed the design development for the new Green Square community facilities to include a Library, Cultural and Community Centre and Aquatic Centre. This is the largest urban renewal project in Australia and is expected to bring up to 30,000 new residents to this expanding South Sydney area.