Denis O’Donovan’s library

Saturday 30 August 2003

In 1874 Denis O’Donovan became Queensland Parliamentary Librarian. He was an unlikely arrival in the colonial frontier town of Brisbane — capital of the state of Queensland, separated from New South Wales 15 years before. O’Donovan was a cultivated man, educated in Ireland and France.

Bookshelves in the library

When he came to the job in Brisbane, the library had 8,000 books and magazines. He resigned exhausted in 1902, leaving a collection of 32,000 items that represented the knowledge and culture of the European nineteenth century. It ranged from the complete works of Voltaire (70 volumes), through works of literature, history and science, to the journals of Cook, Darwin, Mitchell, Flinders, Oxley, Leichhardt, Jardine and La Perouse. A visitor gave it a good review:

The Parliamentary Library in Brisbane is one of the best of its size I have ever seen, with a catalogue which is the model catalogue of all catalogues. [A J Duffield, Re­col­lec­tions of Travel Abroad, (London: Remington, 1889)].

O’Donovan invented a catalogue that anticipated the twentieth century card catalogue. By 1900 this encylopaedic dictionary catalogue filled three large volumes and had annotated subject headings and biographical notes on authors. Librarians from the British Museum, the House of Commons and the Bodleian Lib­rary in Oxford applauded O’Donovan’s catalog as a world-​class work of scholarship.

After 1902, without Denis O’Donovan’s collecting and organising zeal, the library stagnated. I’m pleased that in the 1980s the books were restored to their shelves in the spacious room above the entrance to Parliament House. There they remain, now called the O’Donovan Library, arranged on the numbered shelves in accordance with the printed catalogue of 1900. It is a time-​cap­sule of nineteenth century knowledge.

The library is open to members of the Parliament of Queensland, and to scholars by special arrangement. I saw it on a rare open day, and took some snapshots.

filed under Collecting + History + Words

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