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‘Tis but a shadow

Betty McGeever, former head librarian, Fremantle City Library

Fremantle Herald, 8 April 2023, pp. 10, 12.

I SWORE I wouldn't, but the regrets expressed by Pam Harris and John Dowson for the demotion of the local history service in Fremantle library have led me to hit the keyboard ("History centre 'distressing', Herald, March 4, 2023).

Having nurtured its growth as library manager from the mid-70s until my retirement in 2005, I too am saddened by the reduction of space, of visibility of its rich resources and of on-the-floor service.

After some ad hoc collecting by John Birch in his office in the South Terrace building, we moved to the civic building in 1974, and local history was allocated a three-drawer filing cabinet in the workroom.

When legendary local history librarian Larraine Stevens was appointed a few years later, that is what she inherited.

Throughout the 1980s it had a modest dedicated public space, of about 20sqm, and we committed to a comprehensive program of collecting, organising for maximum accessibility (by detailed indexing and by exposure) and giving accurate and immediate response to all queries.

Community response was enthusiastic.

By 1991 demand was such that the then very supportive council approved a staff increase so customers had the services of two full-time professional librarians.

That year they satisfied over 1800 queries, that's about seven a day; some were quick and easy, some could take a day's research and retrieval.

Almost all would get on-the-spot help from the professional staff and the comprehensive onsite collection.

Success led to space problems and in 1994 we opened a federally-funded, purpose-built extension of 163sqm.

It got lots of publicity, was well-known, the whole collection was more easily accessible, and usage surged.

Users included journalists, planning officers and real estate agents who needed quick access.

Others were authors who would spend days in there.

Who could forget Ron Davidson, or David Hutchison, with masses of material, newspaper clippings, research notes, journal articles spread before them?

They and many others produced works of excellence about Fremantle.

Or Helen Kirkbride of the Fremantle Press going through the indexed photographs choosing the best for a forthcoming book ?

But most users were the wonderful diverse Fremantle residents, seeking information about their family, or house, or school, or shipping history.

Or simply sitting in the quiet and welcoming space reading about some aspect of Fremantle's history.

As a result of such usage we acquired much more unique material, as donors with a sense of community trusted us to value it and make it available.

Local shipping tragic Bruce Farrington donated his amazing collection of port photographs, over 1000; I assume they are now stored offsite and can be browsed online.

But how does a walk-in customer even know they exist?

We hosted school classes, primary and secondary, and architecture students from Curtin, and could give them a taste of the whole collection.

We had oral history classes in there.

Fremantle City Library was often chosen by conference organisers for visiting overseas and interstate librarians to showcase the range of services that a relatively small local government authority could provide.

Of course that included Fre-info, well used, accurate and up-to-date community information service, now closed (and no you cannot get everything on the net; also some people need the help of skilled and knowledgeable staff).

Visibility is the best promotion.

Thank you John Dowson for the photo of the facility in Albany.

I note that the visitor centre is getting lots of queries.

It has street frontage, banners outside proclaiming its presence and friendly staff to greet you.

There is no external indication of our library whatsoever.

Take a look at Cambridge proudly labelling its library, even though clearly visible on the street.

I want to emphasise that I am in no way criticising the current local history librarian.

But I cannot see how one person (and not housed in the library; why?) can manage to proactively collect, organise and give the public the service they deserve.

The initiative to use volunteers will surely attract some quality recruits, but why is council not employing needed library staff?

Would council recruit volunteers to help with staffing shortfalls in its infrastructure or finance or PR departments?

Many people worked hard over decades to build a loved and respected local history service and now, the collection - and staff - is largely hidden away; we are back to something like the 20sqm of the 1980s, and staffing has been halved.

The community deserves better.

And yes, for me, it's a bit personal, and very disappointing.

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