Rare book collection and Art Library

Dr Christopher Allen provides some fascinating background on two less-well-known libraries at College Street.


The Banjo Paterson Library at Sydney Grammar School has an impressive collection and, unlike some other school libraries today, has maintained a strong focus on the printed book, regularly acquiring works of general interest to the boys as well as scholarly volumes requested by masters. But there are two other less well-known libraries at College Street, in addition to departmental collections of texts and reference works.

The first of these is the Art and Classics Library, situated on Level Six adjacent to the new Art and Classics offices. This grew out of the old Art Library, originally situated further to the east on the same floor, at first a cramped space full of shelves, and then for the last decade a pleasant reading room with an enlarged collection. In the redesign of the staff quarters in 2020-21, the Library was moved to the western end of Level Six and furnished with new wooden shelves and a handsome reading table. Although most of the space is devoted to Art History and practical reference works, a couple of bays were made available for Greek, Latin and Sanskrit texts and dictionaries.

The Art Library has been the beneficiary of several gifts over the years and has now grown to the point where parts of the collection that do not need to be on open access have been moved to the Art Fellow’s studio, where they can be consulted by appointment. In 2021, the Library received a generous gift from the estate of the late Eva Breuer, a prominent art dealer in Sydney, whose sons had attended Grammar. These books, mostly monographs on important Australian artists of the twentieth century, have significantly enhanced our coverage of this period, and have already led to a reorganisation of the Library to give greater prominence to Australian art history.

The Library is available to boys in Forms V and VI (especially Art and Classics pupils), and as a number of senior boys have discovered, it is in fact the quietest and most comfortable environment at College Street for research or writing.

The other Library is a much more recent initiative. A school like ours has many old books, some from the original school library in the nineteenth century, and others that belonged to notable headmasters and other masters. The Banjo Paterson Library, however, has never had a rare book section, and in practice these books have mostly accumulated in the studies of the Headmaster and the Master of the Lower School, while others were scattered in the Classics Department and elsewhere. “A school like ours has many old books, some from the original school library in the nineteenth century, and others that belonged to notable headmasters and other masters.”

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In 2020 we realised that the Headmaster’s Schoolroom would be an ideal setting for a rare book collection, and during the course of 2021 – in between lockdowns – we gathered and transferred the most important volumes to this room and reorganised the shelving. In addition to the antique editions on one side of the room, there is a general browsing collection of fine literature on the opposite wall.

A third important section is devoted to Australian poetry. This originated with a commission by a former headmaster, Dr Ralph Townsend, who in 1992 asked the antiquarian bookseller Louella Kerr and the author Gerard Windsor to put together a research collection for the School. In 2020, this specialist library was almost doubled in size when my brother, the poet and Old Sydneian Richard James Allen (OS 1978) generously donated his own considerable collection of Australian poetry. The augmented collection now offers a comprehensive coverage of this subject and is a valuable resource for senior pupils, staff and even outside scholars.

The Headmaster’s Schoolroom is occasionally used for school business, including meetings of the Trustees, and has been closed during the COVID-19 period, but it is intended, when conditions permit, to serve as another quiet and studious haven for reading, writing and research.

Photographs by Nicola Jane Allen, May 2021