Contributed by FOLMI member, Kelli Schultz
The headline could read ‘Small boy goes missing from Library; young girls under suspicion!’ if Margaret Schmidt’s memories of the Public Library, previously known as The Launceston Mechanics’ Institute, are anything to go by.
The Mechanics’ Institute was the brain child of a few prominent Launceston men, including John West, James Aikenhead and Thomas Button; beginning in 1842 and running out of the Cameron Street Primary School until a purpose built structure was erected in St John Street in 1860.(1,2) In 1929 the name was changed to Launceston Public Library and this is the venue that Margaret remembers so fondly from her childhood.3
“I used to visit the Mechanics’ Institute a lot. Well I didn’t know it as that; it was the library as a child because I loved books. I really loved reading and researching. Dad said to me once, if toilet paper had printing on it you would read it.” 4
Margaret laughs as she recalls her father’s words but agrees it was most probably true. From a young age it became a Saturday morning ritual for Margaret and her family to head into town from their Newstead home. She would go to the library; and the others would do shopping. Likening it to a treat and recalling the pride in borrowing books.
“I still remember as a child it was quite a treat on Saturday morning we all used to get in the car from when I was about ten and go into the library and do a bit of shopping.
Now that was our treat, I remember the big desks and the ladders going up and the height of the building inside and the thousands and thousands of books.
And I still sort of think of this child reaching up to the counter and proudly passing her books over and getting them stamped and her card made.” 5
Within the walls of the Public Library was a wealth of knowledge and this is where Margaret went when it was time for her to sit the Ability Test in 1957 to enter high school. She remembers the hours spent sitting at the large tables and taking notes from book after book, laughing that there were no photocopiers or scanners back then.
I prompt her for more information on the library and she remembers that you could borrow three books at a time, with a card system, where your card number and name would be recorded on the book card and kept in a drawer. She goes on further to tell me how strict the library was and that you had to be very quiet at all times, saying it was almost like going into a church. So very different to our library of today when many have cafes, meeting places and online access; all encouraging communication between visitors.
|Example of an early book card|
From its inception as a Mechanics’ Institute the library had many roles. In the early days it would have visiting lecturers and it also produced publications of some of the lectures. 6
It continued to be a meeting place and Margaret recalls being taken to the library one evening with her younger sister and mother for an evening on ‘the birds and the bees”, but laughs as neither girl took much interest in the topic. Her younger sister saying she was hungry when asked by their mother what she thought.
In 1971 further changes were to take place. A new modern building was built behind the existing library and the old building was demolished. At this time Margaret said this was very exciting as it was so modern and new, but as she has gotten older she feels sad that the beautiful old building was not kept. Fortunately the collection of books were , some dating back to pre – 1800 were stored and of the 45,000 collected over the time of the Mechanics’ Institute, 20,000 books and publications are still in existence and managed by Friends of the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute. A significance assessment was done in 2015 by Susan Marsden stating that it is a historically significant collection of high value.7
As for the missing boy, I will let Margaret tell you the story:
“And I still remember my brother, he was supposed to be with us at the library and he took off. Mum thought that dad had him and dad thought mum had him, so he ended up getting lost one Saturday morning. We found him at the police station, so we were never allowed to be in charge of him again at the library.”8
1 Henry Button, Flotsam & Jetsam: Floating Fragments of Life in England and Tasmania, Regal Press facsimile copy, 1993,p.152.
2 ‘The Governor’, The Hobart Town Daily Mercury, 14 April 1860, p.2.
3 ‘State Parliament, legislative Council’, The Mercury, 18 July 1929, p.13.
4 Margaret Schmidt, interview by Kelli Schultz, digital recording, Launceston, 6 November 2017, in author’s possession.
5 Margaret Schmidt, interview by Kelli Schultz.
6 Launceston Mechanics’ Institute, ‘Publications of the Institute’, http://launcestonmechanicsinstitute.blogspot.com.au/2015/04/publications-of-institute.html, Accessed 20 November 2017.
7 Susan Marsden,’Significance Assessment of the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute Collection’ 2015.
8 Margaret Schmidt, interview by Kelli Schultz.