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The Spec Blog with Richard Beks

Libraries quite often preceded newspapers

The Spectator’s opening issue was published in 1859, five months before the first Hamilton Municipal Council was elected in December that year.
A basic book lending library had been proposed at a town public meeting even earlier.
This followed regular get-togethers of various public bodies to discuss matters of great local importance and how the community’s social life could be enhanced.
At one such meeting 40 people set up a Hamilton Library and Mutual Improvement Society.
A small quantity of library of books was subsequently acquired but then the organisation petered out.
As early as August 1857 a Hamilton Mechanics Institute committee made plans for a free Library.
In December 1860 the Spec started publishing the full agenda of Hamilton Mechanics Institute annual meetings.
This particular meeting discussed whether the library should be free, but kicked that can down the road until more information was available.
The Mechanics Institute headquarters we know today was erected in 1865.
In 1872 the building was extended to better provide for a bigger library within the Gray Street structure, set between the Post Office and the Hamilton Club.
Soon the library was made “free”, subject to books being accessible to subscribers only and being locked up.
Most surrounding towns had something similar with variations of scale.
Hamilton’s membership rules were strictly policed – usually – with access being denied to subscribers two months in arrears.
In 1873 there were accusations in the Spec about rules applying to some and not others.
Evidently a published list of library members included several serving office-bearers in default, who should have been required to vacate their seats.
During this era the Spec printed a pocket-size booklet listing all the books available.
Presumably this was given out when subscribers joined or renewed.
Forward a century, in 1957 Hamilton City Council discussed building a gallery/museum and regional library.
The concept was quickly accepted in principle as a joint venture with the shires of Dundas, Glenelg and Wannon.
This resulted in the Mechanics Institute winding up book lending in December 1958 and handing over its assets to council.
The new regional library format was opened in August 1960 but temporarily was still housed in the Mechanics Institute until the new building became available.
New premises were to be shared by gallery and library.
Council then purchased and quickly demolished the old Foresters Hall beside the town hall in Brown Steet to provide for the new multi-purpose building.
The stone was laid in August 1960 and the building officially opened late 1961.
In October that year the Hamilton library service moved from the Mechanics Institute to its present site.
At the changeover regional librarian Miss F. Robertson said some 10,000 books plus a similar number of periodicals were rehoused.
Staff were helped by secondary school students: Geoff Darling, Malcolm Eales, Robert Mengler, Neil Manson, Geoff Roberts, Adrian Clark, Don Riley, Ron Brown, Ewen Cameron, Graham Annett, Peter Menzel and Ronald Marshall.
Over more than a century and a half Hamilton’s library service has changed operators, book volume and layout many times.
The driver, presumably, was cost control.
In the modern era, from around the 1950s, libraries here in the deep south-west were usually run by a partnership of local government bodies.
Before that, at the turn of last century, several small townships in the district had their own libraries. Merino with a population of only 500 had 1600 volumes, Penshurst boasted 1276 and Dunkeld 700.
From 1959 to 1995 the Hamilton shingle said Glenelg Regional Library.
That was replaced in January 1960 under local government legislation by Glenelg Regional Library Corporation, requiring a diverse new board to oversee branches at Hamilton, Portland, Heywood and Casterton – and a new bookmobile service for smaller communities.
From the early 1980s, the Hamilton Library in conjunction with the Victorian Institute for the Blind and the Spec distributed “Talking Newspaper” audio cassettes to people in the district who struggled to read.
This involved a number of volunteers, including Fay Aarons, Paula Chamberlain and others selecting interesting articles from the Spec and reading them on to multiple tapes.
As the years went by this service was superseded by computerised audio technology and, later still, to a limited degree by podcasts.
More volunteers helped contain costs by placing returned books on correct shelves.
Today our library services are under an even wider umbrella.
We operate within the Central Highlands Libraries, formed in 2011.
This regional model allied to the City of Ballarat supports services to the following councils – Ararat Rural, Central Goldfields, Hepburn, Moorabool, Pyrenees and Southern Grampians.
The new overarching body controls 14 static libraries and outreach services over 20,000 square kilometres and a population of approximately 182,000.
Besides books, newspapers and periodicals, today’s Hamilton library is a bit of a community hub.
There are audio books and DVDs, access to the internet, photocopying, storytime for kids, gaming consoles, visiting JP and job advice services - and more – all in a quality calming environment.
In keeping with the times there’s also a self-service check-out.

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