Legislative Council: Wednesday, June 28, 2023


Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

The Hon. R.B. MARTIN (15:47): Last month, it was my privilege and my genuine pleasure to be given a tour of the library of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia. In the rooms of the Royal Geographical Society, which you will find perched above the main floor of the State Library's iconic and enchanting Mortlock Wing, there are a number of glass display cases. When you go there, in one of those display cases you will find a very old looking set of wooden and brass instruments whose purpose might not be immediately apparent to a layperson. But if you ask, you will find that what you are looking at is the actual surveying equipment that Colonel William Light used to survey the City of Adelaide.

That gives you a sense of the sort of unique and historically important items that are kept and preserved by the office bearers and volunteers of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia: an astonishing collection of books, artefacts, manuscripts and curiosities. It is no exaggeration to say that if you ever wanted to feel like Indiana Jones without leaving Adelaide then look no further than a browse of the society's library. It feels like you are discovering special secret things that have not been touched in centuries—an illusion of course, but a potent one.

It was founded in Adelaide on 10 July 1885 for 'the advancement of geographical science, discovering the past, describing the present and promoting the future'. The focus of the collection is Australian geography and exploration, but it includes books about every corner of the world on historical geography, colonial history, anthropology and travel.

As you may imagine, not all the attitudes one encounters among the works in the library are comfortable to the modern observer, but they represent a true history of British thought and, for a litany of reasons, it is important for us to own and remember that history. It is a remarkable experience to immerse yourself in it by browsing a few of the primary sources in the Royal Geographical Society's collection.

The library includes over 25,000 volumes. It is one of the most significant collections of rare geographical books and manuscripts in Australia, and I will give you an idea of the sorts of things you will find there. The oldest book in the collection is a beautifully bound version of Ptolemy's Geographia, published in 1482. There are 26 other volumes published before the end of the 1500s, including a number of rare atlases.

The manuscript collection contains many items of significant historical note, including three of Sir Joseph Banks' manuscripts, John McDouall Stuart's diary of his fifth expedition, and letters written by Colonel William Light. The society's library is largely built around four substantial private collections, most notably the collection known as the York Gate Library, which was acquired in 1905 following the death of its collector, Stephen William Silver of London.

His family wanted his beloved library to remain in one piece, rather than being split up. The Royal Geographical Society was ecstatic to receive the approximately 7,500 volumes that Silver had collected. This is strictly anecdotal but during the London Blitz damage to Silver's family home would have meant that if the York Gate Library had stayed put many of its very significant and rare books likely would have been destroyed.

I strongly encourage every member here to visit the Royal Geographical Society. It was in fact the member for Morialta in the other place who alerted me to the opportunity, and I am thankful that he did. The society and its volunteers are always happy to offer guided tours to any members wishing to learn about this extraordinary collection.

It was the first Labor Premier of South Australia, Tom Price, who in 1906 set up the agreement for the society's library to be housed within the State Library of South Australia. It was a decision that has greatly aided in the preservation of what has grown to become a highly important collection of books, objects, manuscripts and the stories that they tell.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Royal Geographical Society, particularly President Leigh Radford OAM and the very knowledgeable Nona Verco, for their generosity in accommodating my first visit to view their impressive collection—I do not believe it will be my last.