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Sir Josiah Symon's Library

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by Kat May (subscribe)
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Published June 17th 2016
Dear Sir, we are still taking care of your books
This is a unique small library based on one man's private collection. It is housed within the heritage Mortlock Library within the State Library of SA on North Terrace in Adelaide.

Josiah Symon Library, Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia, Rose books,
Josiah Symon circa 1901. Image from

Josiah Symon was born in Scotland and emigrated to Victorian era Australia at age 20 in 1866. He soon made Adelaide his home and became a revered and respected citizen. He made a successful career as a barrister and later entered politics. His name goes down in history as one of the Federationists of Australia. He worked on the Australian constitution and was one of the delegates from this State in the legal act of this country separating from England and becoming a Federation in 1901. Even though he was offered lucrative work in England when he visited there, he declined and lived in Adelaide his death in 1934 at age 87.

Josiah Symon Library, Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia, Rose books,
The collection grew by the thousands over many years. Image by Out and About.

Symon was a man who had an interest in literature and cherished books. Over time he built a vast personal library at his home "Manoah", a mansion he built at Upper Sturt in the Adelaide Hills. The house is still there but privately owned by a religious order. He and his wife has 12 children. For most people in early days to own some books was a rare thing. Also books were limited as the poorer immigrants had little space for them in their luggage.

Another reason books were few was they were costly. Many people didn't not read and of those who could, reading was limited to perhaps a newspaper, the family bible or a borrowed book. There was not the great number of bookstores and newsagents we have today. Printing a book was a labour intensive process as each letter on the page was hand set with small rubber stamps. The books were then hand bound and covered with a linen and sometimes leatherette fabric.

But Josiah Symon was a wealthy man, and thus his passion for collecting the best books he could grew over time. But he didn't just buy a few books on a topic that interested him. He wanted to collect books on every subject. Looking at his collection you realise he was a man who sought knowledge and was interested in the world. He collected books from the sciences such botany, astronomy and of zoology. He sought books about lands afar, of sociology and geography. And he did this with the help of one of his daughters who left Australia to live in England. He wrote to her and requested what types of books he was seeking and she sourced them, wrapped them well and sent them by sea to Adelaide, arriving some nine months later.

Josiah Symon Library, Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia, Rose books,
One of the beautiful linen covered books in the collection. Image by Out and About.

Here in Australia we did not have the publishing houses that made such high quality books. London Fleet Street publishers had the best books in the world, covering all topics and the latest written works of the day. One such book I discovered at the library was a fabulous work on the latest roses of the era. I was thrilled to view this book, being a collector of gardening books myself. Inside the title page announced it was written by Ellen Willmott dated 1910. And next there was a dedication to Queen Alexandria by the author. Seated at the large old desk I read every word of the dedication pictured here, and glanced at the botanical drawings of each of these long forgotten roses, almost all of them now dead and gone.

Josiah Symon Library, State Library of South Australia, Rose books,
A heritage rose book by Ellen Willmott dated 1910 Image by Out and About.

After so many years acquiring these magnificent and many rare books and volumes, the collection had grown to over 10,000. He was determined as an old man, that the collection not be split apart. Sir Josiah Symon left the books in his will to the people of South Australia on one condition. And this was that the collection be forever kept as one and never split up and dispersed into another library or partly sold off. The bequest also included all the antique shelving and fittings of his library at home and sundry items such as pictures. He also left many of his law books to the Barr Smith Library. So that is why, even though they are part of the State Library, they are housed here on the second floor of the Mortlock Wing, behind a locked door. They have been here since his passing in 1934 and will always be kept as per his wishes.

Josiah Symon Library, Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia, Rose books,
The Victorian era Mortlock Library is considered one of the top 20 libraries of the world. And Sir Josiah Symon contributed a great part. Image by Out and About.

This door opens on weekdays when the public is allowed to come and sit and read the books or use them for research purposes. None of the books can be borrowed or removed from this room. I like the way this room looks so old with an antique desk and chairs to sit at. It is like sitting in a time warp from 100 years ago. There are far too many titles and subjects here for me to mention. Small group tours are available if requested run by the State Library ambassadors by emailing Jo Chesser at the State Library tours here. You will need to ask for The Josiah Symon's collection to be included. Or visit on your own during opening hours and the staff can direct you to the books of your interest or browse and be surprised and delighted as to what you lay your hands upon.

Josiah Symon Library, Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia, Rose books,
These vintage and rare books include single titles and volumes on a wide range of subjects. Image by Out and About.

The collection is valuable as the books are from over hundred years ago and into the twentieth century, with many titles possibly the only copy in Australia. If you appreciate books then do visit to see this marvellous collection and as you hold each book in your hands feel its history. Admire the linen covers with hand stitched bookbinding and the old style language of the content. Consider the long sea voyage from England, and finally to be held by Sir Josiah Symon himself. I imagine him as he savoured every word, perhaps reading to his children. Or perhaps reading alone at night after a hectic day at court as he sat by his fireside awaiting the next ship to arrive at Port Adelaide with a new package of books.

Do remember to thank him for his generous gift as you leave.

Josiah Symon Library, Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia, Rose books,
Leave your bags at the clock room and go up to the second floor on the northern end to find the library. Ask at the clock room for security to take you if you require wheelchair access. Image by Out and About.

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Why? Because you appreciate books
When: open weekdays 12- 2pm
Phone: 82077250
Where: 2nd Floor, Northern Stairs,The Mortlock Wing at The State Library
Cost: Free
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