Saturday, 9 June 2007

David Scott Mitchell (1836 - 1907) was the founder of the first research library in Australia, the foundation stone being laid in 1906. His 40,000 volumes and a generous bequest of 70,000 pounds, have ensured that the Mitchell Library (which is a part of the State Library of New South Wales, but is dinstinct from it) provides valuable information for researchers, filmmakers, authors, journalists and many other people.

Steve Meacham's feature on Mitchell coincides with a new exhibition at the State Library of NSW due to open on 18 June: A Grand Obsession: The D. S. Mitchell Story.

Mitchell's father was a Scott from Fifeshire who speculated successfully in Hunter Valley real estate, where coal has been mined for over a century.

Meacham's article provides a glimpse into a rich legacy of biliophilia in the fledgling nation. Mitchell "went out every Monday morning to inspect the bookshops", says Paul Brunton, who curated the new exhibition. Some of the names known to Mitchell are still with us: David Angus and George Robertson, William Dymock and James Tyrrell. Tyrrell's shut a few years ago, but the others remain solvent.

Mitchell was among the first intake of students at Sydney Uni in 1852, graduating in 1856. But he never practised law. As soon as his father died, he sold his law books then, when his mother died, he moved his residence to Kings Cross. He lived there for the rest of his life.

Today the Mitchell Library consists of 570,000 books and magazines (Sydney Uni's Fisher Library, also founded with a bequest, holds over 5 million, making it the largest library in the southern hemisphere). It also has 11,500 metres of manuscripts, over a million photographs, over 100,000 maps, 2000 paintings, 130,000 prints and drawings, and 3000 historical objects.

His fixation on Australiana is explained by aspiration, says Brunton. "[H]e knew it was an area in which he could become the world's leading collector in a way he never could in, say, Elizabethan drama (another of his great passions)." Brunton also says Mitchell was patriotic. Although rich, he never travelled overseas.

Before he died, he paid 5000 pounds for the collection of a competitor in collecting, Alfred Lee. Most of its books he already owned, but Mitchell wanted "a few items", says Brunton, which "were crucial pieces", including Sir Joseph Banks' handwritten journal, which the naturalist kept while on the Endeavour.

Apparently Mitchell read all of the books he owned. "Visitors (to Mitchell's home) said he had an intimate knowledge of all the books in his collection."

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