The Subscription Library Movement, Reading Cultures and the Early History of the State Library of New South Wales

The State Library of New South Wales began life in 1826 as ‘The Australian Subscription Library’. It was then only the latest of a long line of subscription libraries around the English-speaking world, the earliest of which, the Library Company of Philadelphia, was founded almost a century earlier in 1731. The key characteristic of these libraries was that they were self-governing associations whose members paid an annual fee for membership and played a role in deciding acquisitions and policies.

In this symposium we will explore the subscription library movement and cultures of reading in Australia, Britain and North America, as well as the role of the Australian Subscription Library in the early life of New South Wales. We will consider readers, rules and library collections, as well as the roles they played in community formation, cultural life, and politics. In the case of the Australian Subscription Library this final question remains particularly intriguing, since the library soon became embedded in colonial politics to such an extent that it formed the nucleus around which the new State Library was eventually formed.

In addressing such issues, the Symposium will also explore, discuss and showcase the tools and outputs of new digitally-empowered research into Library history, showing how ‘digital humanities’ and digitally empowered ‘distant’ and ‘close’ reading techniques are transforming historical understanding of past cultures.


When: Tuesday 18 February 2020, 9am – 5pm
Where: State Library of New South Wales, Metcalfe Auditorium, Ground Floor, Macquarie Street Sydney, NSW 2000
Cost: General Admission $50 | SLNSW Friends $40

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