Thursday, 3 September 2015

Chasing the Albany Municipal Library.

For one small insignificant reference in my novel, I wanted to know where the Albany Library was located between the years 1900 and 1908. My secondary character needed a pre-occupation for a morning which would result in her running late for a meeting with friends. Given the character's occupation and interests, being immersed in some research at the local library seemed to be ideal.

Provided of course the library was in the centre of town. I assume it would be, but never liking to make assumptions I thought I'd discover the exact location. Just as I'd discovered all the details regarding the way to travel down to Albany from Guildford. The characters may be fictional, but the historical setting has to be historically accurate to the best of my ability.

I didn't realise searching for this simple piece of information would lead me down such a rabbit hole.

Google maps was useless. Even the oldest, most prominent Anglican church, located in the centre of town was not documented. One suggestion later...

I figured finding the location of the library wouldn't be difficult. The Albany library website would have a page on their history. Nope.

Register of historical buildings in Albany? Nope.
(Even searching Wikipedia's register of old buildings in WA was unsuccessful).

Googling the history of Albany discovered several very good websites that document Albany's history in relation to the bits that are still visit-able. And had I been studying the early years of Albany's history, or anything relating to World War I I probably would have found exactly waht I was after.
Pages on the history of Albany would contain the information? Nope.

Alas!! Next stop?

Trove... TROVE!!! Trove was always a godsend.
Trove has digital copies of all the newspapers of the day. They're scanned using OCR which means the spelling you're searching for can be a little... incorrect. But the documents are all there and you can read and fix and trawl to your heart's content.

We think of newspapers today as containing very little worth reading. However as a historical tool they are invaluable. They convey all the information that needed to be disseminated to the general public. Mail call, ships arriving and departing the various ports of importance on the journeys to and around Australia, changes to train timetables, temperature...

Trove had reference to the library being located within the Mechanics Institute. Now just to plot that building on a map.

With a library incorporated into it, this meant the Mechanics' Institute had to have a physical address as opposed to just being a body of people; after all, the books had to live somewhere. However finding it proved to be even more difficult than anticipated. I'd expected the Mechanics Institute to be a widely known building and therefore easily identifiable. This is the case for many other towns, but unfortunately this was not proving the be the case with Albany.

I figured the Post Office directory might be useful as mail has to go somewhere. Nope!
Well yes, it was listed, but the elusive bit of information, the address, was not there. I did find seven dressmakers in Albany, but that's another story.

The newspapers are full of information about a plot of land the Institute was willed and the fundraising that was done in order to afford to build, however there is no subsequent reference to the building of any building.

There is reference to them using the Octagon Church on the corner of Parade and Duke streets in the 1850s or 60s.

There is reference to the Mechanics Institute possibly building themselves a home on the corner of Vancouver and Stirling. But in 1896 building started there on the Albany Cottage Hospital; opened 1897 and now the Vancouver Art Centre. So, that's out.

Backtracking, I searched the catalogue of the historical collection at the Albany library and got a number of results. Yay!!

There was reference to the 'Albany Municipal Library: the Mechanics Institute: built 1854 on Collie St', and then a reference to the Mechanics' Institute on the corner of Collie and Vancouver.
Double yay!!

Typically, these photos were not available online.

There was also reference to demolition of the building, however it was difficult to tell from the photo information when the demolition occurred. In addition, a photo of the old library or of it's demolition in no way indicated that the Library was located within this building during the required time period. This wasn't helped as I did find some documentation indicating that the library had moved considerably in advance of its demolition.

Was it around the date of the photo (as recorded in the library catalogue) or earlier. And, was the building demolished immediately after the building ceased being used?

Additionally, these results gave me a new name to start searching for: the Albany Municipal Library.

What also didn't help was that there is an 'Albany' in America, complete with a Municipal Library and my Google searches always had to be refined to exclude these international entries. The same applies for TROVE which seems to contain a selection of American Albany photos just to confuse me.

My venting of the frustration of my search resulted in my mother (an ex-librarian) and my uncle (a museum employee) lending a hand and also having a fossick online. My research skills are rather good, so I think they were also a little stumped that it could be so difficult to discover.
My mother put her slightly-better-than-mine keyword search skills to work but only stumbled upon the same documents I'd found. My uncle also had a search before recommending that we go and talk to the Albany Museum when we went down.

It was only by pure coincidence that stumbling past a bookshop I checked the history section and the Australiana  section and discovered a book on Old Albany.  Lo and behold it contained a picture within of the Albany Municipal Library.

Between 1854 and 1917 it was located on the corner of Collie and Vancouver. The building was still standing c1945 when the photo was taken, but appears to be little more than an empty shell. It was demolished in 1968 to become a car park... or the headquarters of the Fire Brigade, depending on which photo blurb you're willing to believe.
That car park is where the Albany Farmer's Market is now held of a Saturday morning.

All in all, it does intrigue me how difficult such a small piece of information was to find. As Albany has more than one old, interesting building and played an important role in the early decades of the state, I was expecting a better composition of it's history. But I am finding that the period around Federation is one that is not focused upon in general brief histories. Aside from Federation, nothing major enough seems to have happened to be worth noting, particularly when WWI is just around the corner.

I think the other thing that hampered my search (slightly) was that I could have resorted to the resources available at the State Library, or in Albany itself when Claire and I ventured down for a long weekend. Having done all my previous research online, I suppose I refused to believe that this could possibly be a question that could not be answered through online research alone.

It probably doesn't help that I keep expecting the town's library to be a major public building at the centre of the community.

I know I'm a little unusual in my expectations, but I don't expect so few to give books and research the reverence I believe they deserve.

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