Townsville celebrates 85 years of libraries

Date published: 2 May 2023

Eighty-five years ago, Orson Welles’ 1938 adaptation of War of the Worlds was first broadcast on radio, Superman made his first appearance in comics and Townsville’s first free library service was founded.

Before the days of free books, DVDs, CDs, learning programs and community hubs, Townsville locals had to spend more than a week’s salary to access the city’s only reading subscription.

The collection that would later become the Townsville Municipal Library started as a private service in 1866, with Robert Townsend and John Melton Black on the Townsville Library and Reading Room committee.

Subscriptions to the Townsville Library and Reading Room cost £1 at a time when the average labourer was paid £38 a year – the equivalent of an average Australian spending $2500 a year on a book subscription today.

Mayor Jenny Hill said she was proud to reflect on how far the service had come on Townsville Citylibraries’ 85th anniversary.

“Council purchased the building on the corner of Walker and Stanley streets in mid-1938, which was occupied by the School of Arts at the time. The building had been devastated by two major cyclones, giving Council the opportunity to fix it and transform it into the Townsville Municipal Library in August that year. This was the first free public book service for Townsville,” Cr Hill said.

“Mabel Classen served as the secretary librarian at the School of Arts from 1921, and as the head librarian at Townsville Municipal Library from 1938 to 1964, dedicating 43 years of her life to the library.”

Cr Hill said the library was extremely popular with Townsville residents, with its operation expanding to include a children’s library in 1953.

“The children’s library was so popular that by the time it had been open for six months more than half of the city’s children were signed up as members, with lines extending far past the doors on weekends. This was the first move towards modern library service, with the space becoming a hub for children and families to enjoy,” she said.

“The children’s library was helmed by librarians Miss MacKenzie and Mrs West, who championed children’s learning through giving children joy and fun, not just structured education.

“As well as books for children, the library also offered photography clubs, puppet shows and stamp collecting clubs.”

In 1954 Mrs West said: “Children need an ample supply of carefully selected books if they are to enjoy childhood thoroughly and grow up able to make full use of their abilities and opportunities for service and happiness.”

But it wasn’t until 1971 that first custom-built library space at Aitkenvale Library was opened, with The Philip Leong Building named for one of Townsville’s most influential and philanthropic pioneers. The building included the first accessibility ramps for wheelchair users and parents with prams at a Townsville library, making the service more accessible for residents.

Since bringing a free public library service to Townsville, Council has had libraries at the School of Arts, the old Market Reserve City Building, Commonwealth Building on Flinders Street, Northtown on Flinders St, Aitkenvale, Thuringowa, the mobile library, and now at Riverway.

Cr Hill said the growth of Townsville’s library service during the past 85 years showed Council’s enduring commitment to providing equitable access to community services.

“In the 85 years since Council started providing free library access, we’ve grown from having 9577 books to more than 163,000 physical items available to our community, including books, DVDs, CDs, Xbox controllers and ukuleles,” she said.

“We also have more than 94,000 digital books, magazines and audiobooks to borrow online, as well as movies and other media that locals can stream for free using their library card.

“This is a far cry from the 30 volumes available to wealthy male residents in 1866. We have reimagined the library as a community hub, a safe place for families, students, small children and people from all other walks of life to congregate, learn, and connect.

“We are thrilled to be able to open our newest and most modern, state of the art library at Riverway, designed in conjunction with our community to deliver a high-quality, accessible and diverse space for residents and visitors to work, play and learn.

“This includes the children’s reading area, study spaces for young people, our brand new creative studio, bookable meeting rooms, and a lounge area for residents to enjoy.”

Townsville City Council has now proudly opened Riverway Library, with crowds gathering at Riverway for the grand opening on Saturday. For more information on Townsville Citylibraries, including the full list of events and workshops to celebrate Townsville Citylibraries’ 85th Birthweek, visit Council's Programs and Activities page.

Mrs West, one of Townsville’s founding librarians, pictured at the Bookman’s Brigade at Townsville Municipal Children’s Library.
Caption: Mrs West, one of Townsville’s founding librarians, pictured at the Bookman’s Brigade at Townsville Municipal Children’s Library.