The Obsession of David Scott Mitchell

Magnificent Obsession: The Story of the Mitchell Library by Brian H. Fletcher


Since it is usual in histories
To make a contribution to research
… I went
To Ida Leeson at the Mitchell, saying:
“I don’t suppose you have a document …”
Of course she had one! Had it there for years …

                  James McAuley, “The True Discovery of Australia” (1944)

JAMES McAULEY is probably the only poet to celebrate a Mitchell Librarian in his verse, but almost every Australian historian, professional or amateur, for the past 100 years has applauded the Mitchell Library and its now 600,000 books, records and pictures documenting Australian history. It has had its critics too, some skittish like Patrick White (“The Mitchell scares me stiff”) and others more serious like M.H. Ellis, who complained of Library “obstruction”. But McAuley reflected the usual view.

It is impossible to imagine Australian historiography without David Scott Mitchell and the library that bears his name. There were many bibliophiles in nineteenth-century Sydney. The bookseller James Tyrrell thought there were proportionately more in Australia than in any other country. But none equalled Mitchell in his obsession with Australiana (the “magnificent obsession” of Professor Brian Fletcher’s compelling book, Magnificent Obsession: The Story of the Mitchell Library).

It was a late obsession. His early life in mid-nineteenth-century Sydney was that of an idle, rich young man who had no real interest in business or the professions. Born in 1836, the son of a veteran of the Napoleonic wars who had done well in New South Wales, young Mitchell had no need to earn a living. He read mathematics, science and classics at Sydney University, played cards or dominoes at the Australian Club, performed in amateur theatricals at Government House, wrote a few elegant poems, enjoyed cricket, and attended the debates at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts when gentlemen argued about philosophic or political issues of the day. He also started to buy a few rare books that took his fancy, such as the Fourth Folio of Shakespeare.

But in his early thirties this Colonial dilettante suddenly turned his back on Sydney society. He broke off his engagement to marry, sold the family home in fashionable Cumberland Street, moved to 17 Darlinghurst Road and barricaded himself behind his books.

There are two theories of this conversion. One is that it was caused by his deep depression following the death of both parents (his father in 1869, his mother in 1871) and the humiliation he endured at having to challenge in court his father’s deathbed bequests to a foreign adventurer. There is another theory recently advanced by Suzanne de Vries that Mitchell’s retreat was occasioned by his discovery that he had contracted syphilis as a young man. The evidence is weak and hearsay. It also contradicts the death certificate, which attributes the death to pernicious anaemia. A sceptical Fletcher says the theory is “far from being adequately substantiated”. It has an air of virulent feminism.

Whatever the reason, Mitchell’s new home became his redoubt and the depository of his enormous and growing collection of Australiana. Reports circulated about his meanness and rudeness. One story goes that Robert Louis Stevenson called unannounced at 17 Darlinghurst Road and loudly ordered the housekeeper “to tell her master that Robert Louis Stevenson wished to see him”. Mitchell called back from the shadows: “Tell Robert Louis Stevenson that I am David Scott Mitchell and do not wish to see him.” The details are disputed. It may not have happened. But its currency is suggestive. He bequeathed a pittance to his devoted and long-suffering housekeeper. Fletcher warns us to be “wary” of some of the adulation heaped on Mitchell.

But there is no need for wariness about the magnificence of his collection and his public bequest. Although always a bibliophile, he became obsessed with Australiana after he acquired the First Fleet journals in 1887. Two men now played a major role. One was the bookseller George Robertson, who swept the world for material to sell to Mitchell, sometimes for extravagant prices. (Mitchell himself never left New South Wales.) The other was the Principal Librarian of the Public Library, H.C.L. Anderson. Well aware that his budget could not compete with Mitchell’s deep purse, Anderson vacated the field (in contravention of the Library’s statutory obligation to collect Australiana) in return for Mitchell’s promise to bequeath the collection to the Public Library. The scheme required, as Fletcher puts it, a cool head and strong nerves. If Mitchell changed his mind (as he often talked of doing when irritated by government delays or the stupidity of some ministers), Anderson would be charged with serious dereliction.

Mitchell finally drew up his will in 1901 leaving his collection and 70,000 pounds to the Trustees of the Public Library. (He would not trust governments.) He also required the collection to be housed separately from the general library and to be called the Mitchell Library.

After a “battle of the sites” (Macquarie Street won)—and overcoming those bushwhackers who demanded an end to squandering taxpayers’ money on Sydney monuments while country towns lacked schools and hospitals—the state parliament finally passed the National Library Act of 1905.

The new building for the Mitchell Library was completed in 1908, after Mitchell’s death in 1907. The Governor officially declared it open in 1910. (Although it was one of the finest buildings in Sydney, neither the Premier nor the Lord Mayor attended the ceremony.) There at last—“peaceful, serene, intimate and scholarly”—it faced the overcrowded and dusty Public Library at the top of Bent Street which looked (and felt) like a poor relation, until the splendid new Public Library was opened on June 22, 1942 (three weeks after a Japanese submarine torpedoed the Kuttabul in Sydney Harbour).

One of the main themes of Fletcher’s chronicle now emerges: the tension between the two libraries. One specialist, open only to authorised scholars, generously subsidised by private donors, beautifully housed, and conscious of its separate and perhaps superior culture. The other generalist, open to the public, funded by government, neglected although in charge of “the Mitchell wing”.

The librarians of the Mitchell mixed with the Sydney grandees who ran the learned societies, concert halls, galleries, museums and the university. They knew they represented the genteel tradition in Australia. The Public Library, as one of its principal librarians complained, was made to sound like the Public Lavatory.

Yet the librarians in both were interchangeable “officers” of the Public (or State) Library, subject to the Public Service Board and the state government.

FLETCHER ILLUSTRATES these tensions in his sketches of two brilliant librarians who both made enormous contributions to the State Library but could not hit it off—John Wallace Metcalfe, Principal Librarian for seventeen years (1942–59) and Ida Leeson, Mitchell Librarian for fourteen years (1932–46). Metcalfe was a highly principled ideas-man, manipulative and abrasive. (One Principal Librarian said: “I could wish his manners were better.”) Leeson was scholarly and totally dedicated if sometimes petty—fussing about biscuits stolen from the common room. She did not always command trust. (One colleague said “she lies so completely and so convincingly that you are left without a case”.) The two “officers” were destined to clash. Metcalfe was determined to tighten the Principal Librarian’s control over the Mitchell, however many years it took.

One of his complaints about Leeson was that she was a feminist. The Public Library actively recruited women. The men considered them good at that sort of work. They were also cheaper. But there was a well-polished glass ceiling. Leeson reached it in 1932.

A large part of that year was devoted to whether or not to appoint her as Mitchell Librarian. Some of the Trustees, the Undersecretary, the Public Service Board, the Minister and many librarians opposed the appointment of a woman. If a woman were appointed, she would have a strong claim to be the next State Librarian—an unthinkable proposition. Yet Leeson was the best candidate.

The “compromise” reached was to appoint Leeson as Mitchell Librarian but to create a new position of Deputy Principal Librarian to be filled by a man (Metcalfe). So Leeson was relegated to third position in the hierarchy with no real possibility of becoming Principal Librarian. The National Council of Women campaigned against what the Australian Women’s Weekly called “the high wall of prejudice” against women in the public service. Their consolation was that, despite all the prejudices, a woman did become Mitchell Librarian—an intimation of changes to come.

The drama was re-enacted or at least revived in 1958 when G.D. Richardson was appointed Mitchell Librarian while also remaining Deputy Principal Librarian. Scholarly, “pleasant, diplomatic” (Tom Mutch) with “a high sense of duty” (Fletcher) and a deeply impressive war record (including a spell in Changi), his appointment was widely welcomed—but not by the unsuccessful candidate, the Acting Mitchell Librarian, Jean Arnot. “I didn’t get the job. A man did,” she wrote thirty-six years later, her wound still festering.

Fletcher traces the gradual change from the Leeson case to today when women occupy all the top positions. The present and the two preceding State Librarians are women. The present and three of the four preceding Mitchell Librarians are women.

The rivalry between the two libraries continued over the decades until the 1980s when the State Library clearly triumphed. It was part of the transformation—or bureaucratisation—of libraries throughout the world. Over the past twenty years the Library has become, in Fletcher’s summary, “more corporate, managerial, technological and outward-looking”. An MBA and a background in business have become compelling qualifications for appointment. Readers and staff have been rebranded (clients, stakeholders, human resources). A more relaxed dress code now prevails, along with the use of first names. But there has been a price for the abandonment of the old library spirit of collegiality—and the Mitchell paid it in full.

The idea was banished that Mitchell Librarians be scholars who would read and assess their collection and be able to advise the public on it in some detail. They are now to be “players in the information industry”. The Library has become part of a corporate body, to be judged at least as much by its popular appeal as by its contribution to learning. Some of its collection has been sold off. It has lost control of the content and format of exhibitions. In one advertisement for the position of head librarian the very words “Mitchell Librarian” were dropped. Finally, with the building of the new State Library (partly on the site of the old parliamentary tennis court and bowling green), the Mitchell itself was closed and moved into the old State Library. Its new reading room is now the old Public Library reading room—huge, spacious, stately, but hardly suitable for a small specialist library. The old Mitchell reading room is now a common room.

Who can observe these changes without some regret? Fletcher traces their developments in a judicious and balanced way. He accepts the inevitable and acknowledges the public demands with which the innovators are coping. He also stresses the librarians’ continuing contributions in scholarly publications and public exhibitions as well as in newer departments ranging from oral history to indigenous history.

But he ends with a warning. In this new business-like age, young recruits in libraries, universities, galleries or museums are unwilling to make that old-fashioned, lifelong commitment to an institution of culture. They expect to move several times in a career. Yet the Mitchell requires many years of immersion in its collections if a librarian is to master them. When the senior members retire and younger members move on, who will be left to keep the faith?

AS I PEER BACK through the murk of time to the postwar 1940s, it is impossible to recall the libraries of those lost days without some gratitude and nostalgia. There was a grandeur about the splendid architecture of the Public Library that stirred the soul of a boy from nowhere. The Library—along with the nearby coffee shops—was a random meeting place for literary bohemians and intellectuals (not to mention sundry old codgers and vagrants). It was the outer edge of Sydney’s old arts quarter—that sweep of cultural life that ran down the hill to the Conservatorium, through the galleries, little theatres, publishers and pubs (all now demolished) and across to the unrestored Rocks.

Many liked to boast that they got their education in the Public Library (and the City of Sydney Library) rather than at the University. The Mitchell was less bohemian. You had to have a pass even to enter it (but at least one schoolboy, researching the history of his suburb, was allowed in). Great names were whispered in its precincts—the librarians Ida Leeson or Phyllis Mander-Jones, the awesome scholars M.H. Ellis or Tom Mutch. That era is vanished and forgotten. No one today complains like Patrick White that the Mitchell scares you stiff. No poet, like Jim McAuley, is going to celebrate a Mitchell Librarian in his verse. Yet the Mitchell continues efficiently and patiently to welcome and serve its demanding public.

Brian Fletcher has captured the innerness of its history, life, librarians, readers, donors, friends and critics. He tells the story, warts and all, with a judicious and sensitive touch. It is an indispensable chronicle of David Scott Mitchell’s obsession and its sometimes unintended consequences.

Peter Coleman will be taking a short break from his position as our chief reviewer of books.

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