Tag Archives: libraries

The PMI Victorian History Library: a wealth of history at your fingertips

Hi I’m Ellen, the Collections Librarian at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library (PMI). Narrelle has very kindly invited me to write a guest post about the history of the PMI and how it can be useful for everyone.

We can be found at 39 St Edmonds Road Prahran and are open 930-4:30 Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and 9:30-7:00 on Thursdays.

So, to begin at the beginning.

What is a Mechanics’ Institute?

Mechanics’ Institutes date back to 1799 when Dr George Birkbeck gave a series of lectures for working men in Glasgow. The idea of providing educational opportunities to the working man and woman (known then as ‘mechanics’) spread, and the first Institute was opened in Edinburgh in 1821. They provided classes, lending libraries and other educational resources.

By the early 1900s there was over 1000 Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria. While many remain as community halls the PMI is one of only six which still provide an active lending library.

The PMI is the second oldest library in Victoria. It was founded in 1854 and was incorporated under its own act of Parliament in 1899.  It is the only Mechanics’ Institute in Victoria still governed by its own Act of Parliament.

When the PMI was founded Prahran was absolutely not an inner suburb of Melbourne. It was a remote village which was surrounded by swamp. There wasn’t a council. In fact there wasn’t much of anything, so the local community decided they wanted a Mechanics’ Institute.

The drive was led by Rev. William Moss. Moss was a local congregational minister and also played a key role in the formation of the Royal Institute for the Blind, the Victorian College for the Deaf and the Prahran Mission. All three bodies are still operational today. The PMI opened officially in Chapel Street in 1857.

The very early years at the PMI were largely trouble free, but the first real crisis came in 1868. PMI Secretary/Librarian William John Allen wrote an anonymous letter to the South Melbourne Standard, in which he was not very pleasant about one of the PMI committee members, a Reverend Potter.

Now unfortunately for Allen, the letter didn’t stay anonymous. Rev. Potter was friends with the editor of the Standard and he happily revealed the true author of the letter. Allen was summarily dismissed, but he refused to go as he believed his dismissal was unjust (and he might have had a point). What he did, though, brought the PMI to a standstill. At the time the Secretary/Librarian was a live-in position and Allen refused to leave.  He effectively squatted in the building. Ultimately the committee moved in under the cover of darkness to remove part of the roof of the PMI, thus making the building unliveable and forcing Allen out.

This wasn’t the last crisis, but the PMI has weathered all the storms to survive through to today as a thriving institute that specialises in Victorian history. The collection is nearly un-paralleled in its depth and accessibility and is vital to the preservation and promulgation of the history of Victoria.

We hold more than 30 000 items on site and it is the only for-loan collection of its type in Australia. We loan something like 90% of the collection. If an item is not for loan it is either very fragile, very old, or very valuable.

It is a growing collection, with between 100 and 200 items being added each month and we take requests from members. If the book you want fits in our collection policy, which will shortly be publicly available, we are happy to buy it in for you.

The core of the collection is made of:

  • the local histories of towns (we have information on pretty much every town in Victoria)
  • railway history
  • art and architecture
  • music, film and entertainment
  • family history
  • local history journals (we collect and index the journals of pretty much every historical society in Victoria)
  • Australian fiction.

The PMI is also the home of the special collections of the Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria, the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society and the Australian Railway Historical Society (Vic.). Their collections are available for use by PMI members.

Membership is only $15.00 a year. The collection is a vital resource for everyone from writers to family historians, architects, professional historians, guides, journalists and people who just like reading about Australian and Victorian history.

It’s also a fantastic place to work with four dedicated staff, and I love having the chance to buy and collect the history of Victoria. So, if you’d like to be part of the second oldest library in Victoria, come down and say hi. We’re always happy to show new people around the collection and we love having the chance to track down obscure bits of history.

If you have any questions or want to know more about the PMI my email address is ellen@pmi.net.au or there’s lots more information on the website www.pmi.net.au. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter.



I visited the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute recently for a talk on manuscript assessment, and discovered the PMI is full of historical reference material that I’ll need next year for a book I want to write. Then I thought that the good news should be shared. Thanks for guest blogging with me, Ellen!

‘Jane’ wins The Body in the Library category at the Scarlet Stiletto Awards

This year I entered the Sisters in Crime Australia Scarlet Stiletto Awards for the very first time. The awards, hosted by Sisters in Crime and a number of generous sponsors, are for crime stories written by Australian women and with female protagonists.

I am absolutely thrilled to have received the Body in the Library first place with my ghost story, ‘Jane’.

An Australian Literature research student meets a ghost in a state-of-the-art private library on a remote bush property. She tries to unravel the mystery of the ghost’s origins while the dangers of the present, both human and natural, loom.

The awards night was fabulous! Most of the 26 shortlisted authors (out of 186 entrants) were there, some coming from interstate. Jane Clifton was a marvellous MC, and did a fantastic interview with the ever-lovely Sigrid Thornton (with whom she co-starred in the iconic TV series Prisoner).

Congratulations to all my fellow short-listed authors, and category winners! Huge thanks to Sisters in Crime and the award sponsors, especially the fabulous Athenaeum Library!

A big thank you too to Lindy Cameron, who looked me in the eye when I told her I’d never written for the awards and instructed me, in no uncertain terms, that this year I had to enter.

Books and Publishing has a full list of the winning entries.

If you’d like to read ‘Jane’ and the other award-winning stories, you can pick up Scarlet Stiletto: The Ninth Cut 2017:

You can also find out more about the awards at Sisters in Crime.

Give me your tales of library loss woe

I once left a library book on  a train. I was terribly upset for two reasons. One. It was a library book, not my book, and it felt almost like stealing through negligence. Two. I hadn’t finished reading it!

And, actually, three. It was a library book. I know that’s just One again, but I felt really bad about it.

Losing library books feels like stealing food from the starving poor. Or being mean to puppies. Or something.

The book was Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, so it wasn’t like I was waiting to find out whodunnit, or whether the secret plans were recovered, or if Frodo really got to Mordor. But it was a damned good book.

Lost and Found never found it, so I duly called the library and paid for the replacement, and because I couldn’t wait, I also bought my own copy of the book and finished it.  *aaaaah, the literary relief of it*

I thought of this incident at the beginning of the year when I read about the anonymous return of an overdue library book 27 years after the fact.

I was impressed that someone wanted to do the right thing after all that time, and the financial cunning they showed in doing it anonymously.  Even though I know the library would not have charged them the nearly $3000 in overdue fees, because libraries don’t actually work like that.

Sadly, when I was a teenager, I met someone who confessed that they stole books from the local library. I can’t even remember now whether or not she read them, or just nicked them for the fun of it. I remember being horrified and we stopped being friends shortly afterwards.

The weird thing is that I was mortified partly because, you know, theft, but mostly because, you know, theft from a library. I don’t know why that makes it worse, except, of course, that libraries are sacrosanct.

I’m assuming I’m not the only one with an intense quasi-sacred regard for library books. So please, share your library-book-pain stories with me, and we can all go seek therapy together.

Authors Suing Libraries. Part Three—The rest of the interview with Sophie Masson

This post follows on from Parts One and Two of Authors Suing Libraries.

In the first blog I gave a precis and some opinions about Google Books, the Hathi Trust and whether writers are tacky for suing libraries. The second post was part one of my interview with Sophie Masson, writer and Chair of the Australian Society of Authors, to find out more about the relevant issues.

This is Part Three of the series, the rest of the interview with Sophie Masson. I hope you find it useful

* *

Narrelle: I see that already there are cases of books labelled as ‘orphaned’ that are not orphaned at all, and the writers are in fact still alive and fairly easy to find. What are the real, practical consequences for the authors of ‘orphaned’ books if they and their books are not reunited in the relevant database?

Sophie Masson: It is rare indeed that there are real ‘orphan works’. Books are either in copyright or they are not. Clearly, when authors are alive, they own the copyright, unless they have assigned the copyright to someone else, ie by way of contract or agreement, as a gift or to a publisher or institution as part of their contract.

In Australia, works come into the public domain 70 years after an author’s death. Thus an author’s estate (whoever are the author’s beneficiaries of the works) own the copyright after the author’s death. That can be family, friends, organisations, whoever you’ve left your copyright to. So even when authors have died, people wishing to do such things as quote from, extract or digitise their works must seek permission from the rights holders. This can be paid or provided free, with acknowledgement, but it must still be requested.

Of course it could be said that sometimes it’s very hard to track down who owns the rights in a book published long ago. But it is still incumbent on whoever wants to use it to identify the rights holder. Out of print doesn’t mean out of copyright. But where an author is alive, easily identified and is clearly the owner of the copyright, there is simply no excuse that can be made.

What it means for authors if works are abducted in the way those in the Hathi Trust case were, is that not only are you not remunerated for the use of your work, but you have no control over how it is presented. You will get no lending rights if these apply, no reproduction rights payments (CAL), and future legal digitisation of that work will be in jeopardy. And if respectable bodies like university libraries engage in this kind of behaviour, and are allowed to get away with it, what hope is there for any of us to protect our rights as creators?

* *

Narrelle: Many people think a digital repository of all books is a good and noble thing. Is there a model of doing this which the ASA would consider supporting? (One that does not have a commercial aspect, for example? One that was run by the Australian National Library or the Library of Congress in the US?)

Sophie Masson: The ASA is not at all against digitisation per se or a digital respository of books per se, properly constituted. It would be worth investigating whether a national scheme could be devised, perhaps co-ordinated through our own National Library, but with proper consultation with creators, publishers, libraries and readers.

This would also work to ensure that, just as in the ‘physical library’, authors would be eligible for PLR and ELR on the books in such digital libraries. This is something that would not occur if the standard digital library was based outside Australia, incidentally, as would have been the case with both Google and Hathi Trust.

Readers would not be disadvantaged by such a scheme. Quite the opposite, because it would ensure equity of access throughout the country. Libraries—which have always worked in a happy partnership with creators and publishers—would have a unified system suitable for Australian conditions. And of course it could also be part of an international network of such properly-constituted digital libraries.

What the ASA is dead against is the attempt by some parties to attempt to destroy or dilute copyright. Authors and illustrators depend on copyright for our living. Without it, we would have no royalties, no lending rights, no copying payments, and no way of earning subsidiary rights. Frankly we could not earn a living from our work. And we could not protect its artistic integrity either.

Besides, intellectual property rights are the same as any other property rights. No-one can simply walk into your house and take it over, unless you live in a dictatorship. No-one should be allowed to simply help themselves to your books, either. Whether that is for ‘commercial’ purposes, as was the case for Google, or supposedly for high-flown ‘noble’ purposes of access, as was the case with Hathi Trust, doesn’t matter. Our rights as creators should be respected, in the world of paper books and in the world of digital books. As I said before, the format makes no difference whatsoever to that. And why on earth should it?

There’s this iconoclastic Internet-based movement which claims that ‘copyright is theft’, rather like the old slogan of ‘property is theft’. Authors and publishers have even been characterized as villains for defending rights that these people think shouldn’t exist (though of course if it was a question of their own rights it would be a different story!)

Much of this is simply to do with the idea that some people think everything digital ought to be free, because they associate it with the Internet, where things have very often been free. But some of it may also be due to a simple misunderstanding of copyright of books. I think some people may confuse it with a ‘patent’, whereby you can register an idea as belonging to you and no-one is allowed to even try that idea for at least innovation patent 8 years, standard patent 20 years, unless of course you sell your patent in the meantime.

Patents protect inventors from being ripped off, but they can also lead to situations whereby a company may buy a patent from an inventor and sit on an idea without doing anything about it, purely to stop others developing that particular idea, or to sell it on the highest bidder. This has been claimed by some people to slow progress on worthwhile ideas or to make a grab for things that aren’t actually anyone’s brainchild (like a wild plant occurring in nature, for instance.)

But copyright such as occurs with literary works isn’t about squatting on an idea; it’s about protecting the integrity of a creative work. To use a personal example, I have no copyright on the idea of the manhunt for Ned Kelly, and I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to stop anyone else who wanted to write a novel set against that background. Where I do have copyright is in my actual novel, The Hunt for Ned Kelly, and it is protected by law from piracy, plagiarism and any other unauthorised use.

I mentioned France earlier in regards to these issues. Personally, I think it offers a good model for possible solutions to these issues. The French have always strongly defended their national culture, and literature is a very important part of that. What is less well known is how much they’ve been anticipating these digital literary issues and working collaboratively with the book industry on solutions for present and future problems.

The successful Google case in France resulted in the Government expanding its already evolving national digitisation program, Gallica, which is run within the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (National Library–http://gallica.bnf.fr/ )

The French Ministry of Culture has been working extensively with authors, publishers, and libraries to make this national scheme into a digital repository of works. They are also working on solutions to the problem of the so-called ‘orphan works’ by proper research and documentation and by dealing with what they call ‘the grey zone’—that is, books published before 1995 where rights holders may or may not be known but where digital rights clauses were not included in contracts.

Digital rights for these books will be established by the Government and Gallica will digitise them—with the permission of authors. Commercial exploitation can remain with the writers, with the publishers if they wish, or instead go to Gallica.

This is potentially a very big and important intervention as it could set the model for e-book commercialisation in France and set national formatting standards, as well as lay the ground for a genuinely collaborative and useful digital repository of books.


So there we are. I hope between Part one’s summary and opinions and Sophie Masson’s detailed responses to my questions, you are no longer as confused as I used to be about Google Books, the Hathi Trust and who, exactly, looks bad when authors feel they have to sue libraries in order to protect their ability to make a living.