The power of prose

• Retired Fremantle librarian and innovator Betty McGeever.

PAM HARRIS is a retired Fremantle history librarian who was a treasure to those who treasured the city’s unique local history collection. During this year’s Fremantle Studies Day, she had a look back at the history of Fremantle’s library and it’s many innovations. From card catalogue to eBooks is one of a swag of scholarly pieces to make their way into Fremantle Studies Volume 10, 2019, which is published by the Fremantle History Society. This is an excerpt from Ms Harris’s contribution, so if you want the full version plus more, purchase a copy of Fremantle Studies via

ENJOYING coffee at The Dome on South Terrace is something many residents and visitors to Fremantle experience.

It would be interesting to know how many of these people are aware that the building was built as the Fremantle Literary Institute in 1899, which later went on to become the first free lending library in Western Australia in 1949.

Prior to this a subscription was required to borrow books and use the facilities.

Most libraries evolved from mechanics’ institutes which were established to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men.

The Working Men’s Associations was also set up to provide this service and in 1868 a meeting was held between the two associations and it was decided that they should amalgamate, and they subsequently became the Fremantle Literary Institute.

The building in South Terrace was opened in 1899 to accommodate the service.

The library operated from this building until 1974 when it moved to the council offices at Kings Square.

The Fremantle Library has a history of firsts in library services in this state.

These services were largely developed under the leadership of John Birch, 1952-1972 and Betty McGeever, 1972-2015.

These innovative services included the appointment of Jean Best (Ryding) as the first specialist children’s librarian in the state in 1959, the development in 1960 of the Ships’ Libraries Scheme, a service that was unique in Australia.

Two years later deliveries commenced to older people residing in hospitals or nursing homes and in 1966 the Ships’ Libraries Scheme was extended to include lighthouses at Cape Don, Cape Leveque and Troughton Island.

Other services also emerged such as the Fre-info service and the expansion of the Local History Collection (now the Fremantle History Centre) and assisting the Fremantle Prison to develop a library.

The way information is provided and accessed by individuals has changed dramatically since the 1850s, when the concept of the library emerged in Fremantle.

With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s and the rapid development of technology, it may well be that libraries may be limited to benefitting the privileged in the population as they once did when libraries first emerged as institutions which could only be used if you could afford to pay.

State government funding is being continually cut back, putting the responsibility on the local government authority.

But as with all public services there is an increasing expectation to provide more with less, both in terms of staff and resources.

Added to this is the constant need to adapt and reinvent the services to remain relevant and current to a society who expects more instantly and at no apparent financial cost.

In contrast to this is the common catch cry – “We don’t need libraries for information, we can just Google it”.

This creates an environment which further marginalises those individuals without the money or wherewithal to access the information they need.

It requires the constant vigilance of librarians and the community to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Congratulations to the Fremantle Library which celebrated its 70th anniversary in September this year.

It has truly been 70 years of excellent and relevant service to the community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s