Friday 24 March 2023

Eighteenth-Century Books in Australian Libraries, revisited

Almost twelve years ago now, I did a post on “Collecting Eighteenth Century Literature” (here). In that post, I mentioned that the “ESTC code-finder” (now here)—maintained by the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research at the University of California—“provides a count of ESTC records as well as providing ESTC codes.”

This count of ESTC items—books printed in English or in English-speaking countries before 1801—can be used as a crude yardstick to compare the rare book holdings in various libraries in Australia.

Although more than a decade has passed, there is remarkably little change to the figures I provided in my 2011 post—with one notable exception. Can you pick it?

The top ten libraries remain the same, and in the same order of size:

1. University of Sydney Library (NU) 7529 (up 18)
2. National Library of Australia (ANL) 7455 (up 3)
3. Monash University (VMoU) 4842 (up 5)
4. State Library of Victoria (VSL) 4656 (up 596)
5. State Library of SA (SSL) 2876 (up 3)
6. University of Adelaide (SUA) 2595 (up 2)
7. University of Melbourne (VU) 2294 (up 22)
8. State Library of NSW, Rare Books (NSL-RB) 1199 (no change)
9. Private collection, SA (PC-S) 1175 (up 4)
10. State Library of NSW (NSL) 1009 (up 1)

It is still the case that roughly one third of the 304 (was 303) Australian ESTC codes are recorded as holding nothing (101 libraries), a further one third have five or fewer listings (200 libraries), only eleven percent (34 of 304) have one hundred or more works.

I know for a fact that Monash has added a lot more than five ESTC items to its collection in the last decade—I have personally seen to that!—but I also know that they have been slack with informing ESTC of these new holdings. The State Library of Victoria count has, by comparison, increased by almost six hundred items, which is likely much more in line with their actual acquisitions. (On this, they seem to be particularly active in the area of early women writers; as a recent article explains here.)

It is unclear how many institutions might have stopped updating ESTC (like Monash), rather than stopped making acquisitions (State Library of NSW?), but I suspect that Monash’s cataloguing backlog is the norm, and that VSL’s professionalism is the exception. This suggests, in turn, that the specific figures recorded here for each institution are less important that the proportions between institutions etc.

* * * * *

Looking at the 2023 data, with this in mind, a few more things strike me.

The total count for all ESTC items in all Australian libraries is 47289—95% of these are held by the thirty largest libraries, so I looked at these thirty in particular. Breaking down the figures by State and Territory:

13800 items, or 29.2%, are held in VIC
12138 items, or 25.7%, are held in NSW
8162 items, or 17.3%, are held in ACT
7579 items, or 16.0%, are held in SA
1999 items, or 4.2%, are held in QLD
567 items, or 1.2%, are held in TAS
469 items, or 1.0%, are held in WA
0 items, or 0.0% are held in NT

Since NSW is Australia’s most populous State, I wondered about the relative proportions of ESTC holdings per State and Territory. On a per capita basis (actually ESTC items per 1000 people), the leagues table is as follows:

ACT is 17.8 per 1000 people
SA is 4.1 per 1000 people
VIC is 2.1 per 1000 people
NSW is 1.5 per 1000 people
TAS is 1.0 per 1000 people
QLD is 0.4 per 1000 people
WA is 0.2 per 1000 people
NT is 0.0 per 1000 people

ACT is an anomaly here, since the National Library of Australia (in Canberra) is not really an ACT institution—but the ACT itself is an anomaly, and the National Library is physically situated in Canberra, so perhaps this does not matter. The National average is 1.7 per 1000 people, so NSW is below the National average, but the ACT is in NSW, so—again with the ACT anomaly.

As for the type of institutions holding almost all of Australia’s ESTC items:

22081 items, or 46.7%, are held by twelve Universities
17720 items, or 37.5%, are held by six National and State Libraries
1751 items, or 3.7%, are held by five Religious institutions
1175 items, or 2.5%, are held by one Private individual
961 items, or 2.0%, are held by three Courts
668 items, or 1.4%, are held by one Parliament
385 items, or 0.8%, are held by two Medical Colleges

The number of ESTC items in Religious institutions, Courts and Parliamentary libraries surprised me a little.

* * * * *

A final thought, as a collector of 18C books—most institutions in Australia are doing a woeful job. In terms of new acquisitions, the only library in Australia that is doing it right—on the evidence of the ESTC code-finder—is the State Library of Victoria. But in absolute terms, no one is.

Below are—selected more or less at random, and ignoring most of the most obvious first-tier institutions in the States—ten points of reference for Australian rare book librarians:

Newberry Library 38087
Library Company of Philadelphia 31053
University of Chicago 25093
Boston Public 21233
Cornell University 18189
Columbia University 16426
Boston Athenaeum 12816
Rice University 8529
Free Library of Philadelphia 6109
Haverford College Library 5583

The entire ESTC book stock of Australia is weak when compared to the Newberry alone—which probably has fewer duplicates, and a wider coverage than Australia as a whole. The “Friends Historical Society of Swarthmore College”—which I have never heard of—has 2573 ESTC items! This is more than either the State Library of NSW or the University of Melbourne; indeed, more than all of Queensland and Tasmania combined.

It would also seem that even I now have more ESTC items than 292 of 304 Australian libraries—more than the whole of Tasmania (or Western Australia)—despite the fact that my budget is certainly a lot smaller than that of University of NSW, the University of Western Australia, State Library of Queensland and so forth. I do not know what they are spending their money on, but it isn’t (it seems) books printed before 1801.

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