JSBattyeI’m researching James Sykes Battye (1871-1954) for my novel. He was the first state librarian in Western Australia, establishing what was then called the Victoria Public Libary, now the State Library of Western Australia.

He was only 23 when he was appointed state librarian in 1894, and incredibly he was appointed for life. He stayed on in this role – also in control of the museum and art gallery – for more than half a century, dying on the job in 1954 at age 82.

At the time of his death, the state cabinet was trying to negotiate his retirement; he apparently wanted to stay on. In her thesis on him, Celia Chesney mentions intriguingly that the cabinet was prepared to let him live on in the house attached to the library after his retirement. I am fascinated by this image of an octogenarian librarian clinging to his position, living in the library itself, having ruled the library and the cultural life of the state for the first half of the century, through two world wars and a depression.

Born into a working class Victorian family, he worked his way up the ladder of society. He was heavily involved in the freemasons, an intriguing and disturbing – though commonplace – link for men in high places in Australian society in the early twentieth century. He is best remembered today because the collection of Westraliana in the state library is named after him and because of the cyclopedia of Western Australia he compiled. (I am fascinated by the polymathic nature of prominent people in the early twentieth century; this man having his finger in so many pies is something that’s going to inform one of my characters.)

The picture I’ve got of him from my reading is an ambitious man who started the library well, building an impressive collection and engaging the interest of the public. But a long decay set in as funding dropped during the Depression and the library atrophied. He came to obstinately cling to his position, unable to relinquish the role, unable to admit to himself that his time had passed.

There are two significant sources of information on him. Firstly, the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, written by historian Fred Alexander. Alexander and Battye were not, apparently, always on good terms and one can see evidence of conflict in Alexander’s assessment of Battye’s contribution to UWA:

he rarely revealed constructive imagination and, despite a certain skill and finesse in negotiation, was no match for the subtler academic minds. Partly because of his relatively low public service standing, his achievements as ambassador for the university were limited.

Secondly, an unpublished thesis of 15000 words written for a diploma of history at UWA by Celia Chesney. Called “A man of progress : Dr James Sykes Battye”, it includes a helpful annotated bibliography and is available, of course, in the Battye Library.