The Beginnings of the State Library

The beginnings of the State Library of Western Australia were in a grant of £5000 by the Legislative Assembly in August 1886 to celebrate Queen Victoria's Jubilee. This sum was used to lay a foundation stone for a library in St George's Terrace on 21 June 1887. The site was never used, however, and the Victoria Public Library, as it was then known, opened on 26 January 1889 in temporary premises in a bank building on the opposite side of the street from the foundation stone site, with 1,786 volumes on its shelves.

In August 1897, the Library moved to a site in James Street, shared by the Museum and the Art Gallery and still used by the Museum today. These premises soon became very cramped, and in 1903 the Library moved a few dozen metres into the rear half of what was to become its permanent home for more than 80 years.

In 1904 the Victoria Public Library was renamed the Public Library of Western Australia to avoid confusion with its Melbourne counterpart.  Construction began in 1911 on the second half of the Library's permanent quarters. This imposing facade, known as Hackett Hall after Sir John Winthrop Hackett, opened on 18 August 1913. It is also still used by the Museum today.

On 1 August 1894 James Sykes Battye commenced duty as Librarian of the Victoria Public Library. Aged 23 he came from Victoria and was initially employed for three years, thereafter for "as long as he performs well," a provision which he interpreted to mean "for life."  He was to die in office on 15 July 1954, aged 83, having occupied the post for 60 years.

Dr Battye was a historian who wrote and compiled several books on the history of Western Australia and was an avid collector of Western Australian historical material. He ensured that both archival and printed materials were acquired and preserved, and was responsible for the formation of an Archives Branch of the Public Library in 1945.

The Library Board of Western Australia Act of 1951 established the State Library of Western Australia.  The first State Librarian, Francis Aubie (Ali) Sharr, was appointed in 1953. Plans were made to allow Dr Battye to retire from his position and a retirement package was being drawn up, but he died before it could be formalised.

After Dr Battye's death, Sharr oversaw a reorganisation of the Public Library of Western Australia into subject divisions. The State Library of Western Australia, as it was renamed, opened on 14 December 1956 with a new section devoted to Western Australian materials. This was named the J S Battye Library of West Australian History and State Archives in honour of the role played by Dr Battye in the acquisition of Western Australian heritage materials. The adjective West was deliberately chosen instead of Western to indicate that the focus of the Library went further back than 1829, when Western Australia officially came into existence. Mollie Lukis, who had been head of the Archives Branch, was appointed the first Principal Librarian of the Battye Library, followed by Margaret Medcalf in 1971.

The old State Library building had become inadequate and crowded and by the 1970s the building could not hold all the collections and staff and a series of out buildings and annexes were used. As a new building was needed, planning for the new Library began in earnest at the end of 1977 with the appointment of the Perth architects Cameron, Chisholm and Nicol, who worked in association with the Building Management Authority and consulting engineers Norman, Disney and Young Pty Ltd.

Construction of the main library frame began in January 1982.  The building was completed early in 1985 and library staff began to move in from the ten different premises and annexes around the city. The building is named after Professor Fred Alexander, Chairman of the Library Board from 1952-1982. The Battye Library and State Archives were housed on the 3rd and 4th floors of the new building. The building opened to the public on 29 April 1985, but the official opening, by then Premier Brian Burke, came on 18 June 1985.

In 1988, the State Library and the State Archives were administratively separated. The State Records Office opened its own search room in 1999 and the passing of the State Records Act in 2000 established it as a separate agency.

The JS Battye Library of West Australian History remains an integral part of the State Library and its mission is to collect, preserve and make available heritage collections of Western Australian importance.

James Sykes Battye

James Sykes Battye (1871-1954) was the first Chief Librarian of the Victoria Public Library and he remained in office for sixty years until his death in 1954. Born and educated in Victoria, he came to Western Australia in 1894 to take up the post at the library. Dr Battye made Western Australian History his area of study and, aware of the importance of preserving published and archival records, he began collecting local material for the library early in the century. The Archives Branch was established in 1945 and was given charge of all material relating to Western Australia.  Under his direction, the Library built up a large and varied bookstock.  James Sykes Battye was a leading historian, librarian and public figure of Perth.

After Dr Battye's death, responsibility for the Public Library was given to the Library Board of Western Australia (established 1951).  At this time the Archives Branch was re-named to commemorate Dr. Battye's achievements and in 1956 the renovated State Library re-opened with the J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History as one of its branches.

Professor Emeritus Fred Alexander, CBE

The building celebrates the contribution of Professor Emeritus Fred Alexander, CBE, Fellow of the Library Board of Western Australia.  Professor Alexander was Chairman of the Board from 1952-1982 and he masterminded the strategies the library service adopted in gaining acceptance of the provision of the 1951 Library Board Act by local authorities throughout the State.  Professor Alexander was a policy-maker of wisdom and integrity, who showed his respect for the library profession by leaving professional judgements to the librarians, while he concerned himself with policy direction. 

Last updated on: 27 August 2019