Significant Historic Australian Education Collections – Deakin University, Geelong

Entrance to Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library

One of Australia’s most extensive collections for the history of education – the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library at Deakin University, Geelong.

While working on the Teaching Reading in Australia project I had the opportunity to work in some of the best archives in Australia for the history of education.  These archives are significant repositories of Australian history.  Some don’t get the attention they deserve, others are well recognised but their education collections are little known.  In this, the first of a series of occasional posts on education archives in Australia, I share with you the delights of one of the most extensive education collections that I know of in Australia.  It is held by the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library at Deakin University in the city of Geelong, Victoria.

The Australian Schools Textbook Collection

In terms of size, the Australian School Textbooks Collection at the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library (ADPML) is large.  It houses over 20,000 volumes.  Our focus was on teaching reading in the first few years of school from until the outbreak of WWII.  This collection was a treasure trove for our project.  I was expecting to spend just one day, but ended up making several trips from Sydney in order to explore the collection for our project.

The collection includes books published as early as 1784 to as recently as 2003.  It spans material produced for every age group, from those just starting school to those preparing for university entrance, as well as texts used in teacher training.  The subject areas it encompasses are broad, including textbooks for maths, science, languages, geography and history as well as drawing and religion.

I am particularly interested in the history of the ‘long’ nineteenth century which stretched to the outbreak of World War I.  It is important to realise that federation did not make a difference to the organisation of Australia’s schools. The former colonies which had now become states of the new nation retained their responsibility for education and so the new nation had six different education systems.  There were, of course, many similarities among the curricula of the various states but there were differences.  Quite often textbooks, such as the readers used to gain literacy skills, varied from state to state.

As would be expected of a collection held in Victoria, textbooks published in that colony/state dominate the ADPML collection of Australasian books published prior to World War I.  However, as the chart below indicates, there are a good number of books published in New South Wales and South Australia.  One of the earliest Australian published texts held by the library is the first report of the Australian College released in 1832.  The college was an unsuccessful attempt to establish high school education in Sydney by the prominent but controversial Presbyterian minister, John Dunmore Lang.  [for more about the Australian College see C. Turney, ‘Henry Carmichael’, in C. Turney, ed., Pioneers of Australian Education, vol. I, (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1969), pp. 61-4.]

Pie chartWhile browsing through the catalogue for this blog post a couple of books caught my eye.  One is a book published in Hobart Town in 1849, Daily lesson book: for the use of schools and families, no. 3 edited by Henry Dunn and John Thomas Crossley. This is the earliest basic school textbook published in Australia in the collection.  The other book that piqued my interest was published in Adelaide by the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association in 1864, titled Lessons, hymns and prayers for the native school at Point Macleay: in the language of the Lake tribes of aborigines called Narrinyeri translated by George Taplin. I wonder if anyone has examined this book in their research?

Of the Australasian published books of the mid-nineteenth century held in the ADPML Australian Schools Textbook Collection geography books predominate.  In my research of Victorian school readers of the latter half of the nineteenth century I have noted that one of the concerns of colonial educators and politicians was that students should be able to relate what was said in the textbooks to their own experiences.  Those in charge of schools felt that it was important that references to the European natural environment in school readers be replaced with accounts of the flora and fauna of Australia.

There have always been strong connections between New Zealand and Australia in education. Over six hundred books ranging in dates from 1900 to 1996 are held. In my research I especially noticed the presence of textbooks produced by New Zealand publishers, Whitcombe and Tombs in Australian classrooms.  Their books are well represented in the collection, in particular those published after WWI.

While the Australian Schools Textbook Collection comprises over two thousand books published prior to World War I, 85% of the collection was published after the onset of the war.  Developments in pedagogy and materials for use in classrooms have been shared around the world for centuries and this is reflected in the ADPML collection.  Only 54% of all the books in the Australian School Textbooks Collection were published in the Australia and New Zealand.  Over eight thousand books or 35% of the collection were published in England and 7%, or approximately 1,800 books, were published in the United States. In all books from over twenty nations are in the collection.

The Value of Librarians

Having an extensive collection is one thing but as I worked on the Teaching Reading in Australia project I came to realise the value of drawing on the expertise and assistance of knowledgeable librarians and archivists.  These professionals are invaluable to researchers as they can draw attention to overlooked resources and help researchers to find relevant material quicker.

Librarian in front of book trolly

Kristen Thornton with some nineteenth-century school readers she had found for me when I last visited the library.

The ADPML librarian in charge of the collection, Kristen Thornton, is wonderful to work with.  I discussed my research requirements with her before I visited. When I arrived she directed me to just the kind of material that was relevant to our project and quickly set up a space that met all my needs while I was researching.  As I worked I shared with her what interested me about the collection. On subsequent visits I would find that she had found more material that met my research interests.

Recently I asked Kristen how the collection is used. “I’m getting inquiries from Europe and the US regarding representations of indigenous populations in textbooks, the teaching of history, representations of empire – that sort of thing,” she remarked.  This demonstrates that historians recognise the importance of schools as places where a society’s attitudes are inculcated.  As the Teaching Reading in Australia research has found, school books were not just texts that helped children learn the mechanics of reading.  Students absorbed the moral messages that were conveyed in the stories they read at school.  Research of school textbooks can give greater insights into the formation of the values of the next generation of adults.

Kristen Thornton is continuing to add to the collection in a very strategic manner.  “With the massive increase in educational publishing post-WWII, the entire library could easily fill with textbooks if I let it”, she explains.  “I’m still happy to buy or accept any educational materials published in Australia that we don’t have – this generally means early, rare works, or gap-filling sets.  Post-WWII Australian works must have been used in Australian schools before I consider them; works published overseas are usually 19th century or pre-WWII and again, must contain some evidence of being used in Australian schools.”

Kristen does not mind if the books she acquires are marked through heavy use.  In terms of her criterion that post-WWII textbooks must have been used in Australian classrooms she remarks, “evidence of use can be helpful in deciding whether or not a book was used in Australia, and textbooks by their very nature tend to be well used and have evidence of use.”  Obviously books with pages cut out (a problem I have come across in a number of libraries) are not so useful but evidence of use can help historians understand more about how a student related to a book.  Kristen’s comment reminded me of Kathryn M. Rudy’s ground-breaking analysis of the use of texts in medieval times through the analysis of the dirt left on pages by fingers.  A lot can be learned from used books!

And There is More…

Researchers in the history of education might also wish to delve into the ADPML Pamphlet Collection which includes pamphlets from most states of Australia as well as New Zealand, Canada, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom etc.  The ADPML also hosts two Children Literature Research Collections and a number of interesting manuscript collections.

I am excited by the wealth of material held by the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library at Deakin University in Geelong.  I hope that more researchers avail themselves of this wonderful resource.


Postscript – Some Links

June 2017: It is now a few years since I published this post, but it is still relevant. I have checked all the links above and updated them where necessary. Since I wrote this post the Library has digitised some of their holdings:


2 thoughts on “Significant Historic Australian Education Collections – Deakin University, Geelong

  1. One of my favourites is James Bonwick’s Reader for Australian Youth (1852). I’m sure you know it, Yvonne – it is such an impressive collection of readings for its time: material only recently published, carefully selected to include each colony (including New Zealand) and there’s even something about the new scientific work on fossils and a hint towards evolutionary theory. I don’t think he ever published volume 2, and our library doesn’t have his Geography for Australian Youth.


    • James Bonwick was prolific! While our research was focussed on the learning the very basic stages of learning to read, I have enjoyed coming across James Bonwick’s work. I was fortunate enough to read his reports on education in the goldfields while he was a school inspector in Victoria (held at the Public Records Office of Victoria). The ADPML Australian Schools Textbook Collection has quite a few copies of his geography books.

      Reading these textbooks gives great insights into the thinking of society at the time and what they felt it was important children learn.


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