Book Review: Stars In Their Eyes by Jessica Walton and Aska

Book Review: Stars In Their Eyes by Jessica Walton and Aska

Review by Ellen Coates

Stars In Their Eyes, is an utterly delightful graphic novel and one of my few five star books for this year. It follows the story of fourteen year old Maisie, going to her first fan convention to meet her hero, Kara Bufano, an amputee actor who plays her favourite character. At the con, Maisie meets Ollie, a volunteer, and there’s an instant mutual attraction. While the fact that Maisie is an amputee herself and bisexual, and Ollie is non-binary are important parts of the story they are not the point of the plot itself. It’s much more about the relationship between the two main characters, and their bonding over their shared love of fan culture. Their relationships with their parents are also key and it’s refreshing to see a teen book where the parents are very much part of it. This book is important because it tells a very everyday story about a person living with a disability, but it is also just such a lovely sweet story that celebrates difference, fan cultures and the importance of accessibility and representation in all forms. It’s unputdownable, and truly special.

You can borrow the book here:

Book Review: The Orchard Murders by Robert Gott

Book Review: The Orchard Murders by Robert Gott

Review by Wendy Eldridge

Set in Nunawading in the mid 1940’s small farming residents in the area are caught up in the world of a religious cult. Believers become victims of a murderer, Gott brings in his characters from previous title and each has a connection to the constabulary in solving the case. Each character has their own drama and become touched personally by some of the murders as the story unfolds.

Life events lead you into different twist and turns, and with a new turn in my life I have rekindled the pleasure of reading fiction. An hour’s travel each way to work for my new job has given me the opportunity to divert from my constant studying of genealogy books, where note taking is often necessary and not easily done on a swaying train. I now am enjoying the pleasure of images of scenes and characters created in novels.

I chose a murder mystery as my first book, the challenge of trying to guess correctly who did it before you turn to the last of the chapters and the author reveals the culprit is appealing. The guessing game of who done it is well hidden until the end

I can say I enjoyed this book once I finished it, and with the added bonus of it being set in a location that I am familiar with.  At times I struggled for the reasoning of the large number of characters and how were they connected to the murderer. It was only after I read a bit about the author that I realised there was a sequence to his books, I possibly would of understood the reasoning and role of the many characters if I had read Gott’s book in order of publishing.

Book Review: Boy From The Mish

Book Review: Boy From The Mish

Hello, my name is Aaron, one of the casual staff members of the PMI Victorian History Library.

I recently read a book in our fiction collection, The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough.

I don’t often go out of my way to read Young Adult fiction, and when I borrowed this novel I didn’t realise that at the time but I’m glad I picked it out.

It is a coming of age story about a seventeen year old Aboriginal boy named Jackson. He lives with his mum and younger brother in a coastal country town called the Mish.

His life changes when his Aunt comes to stay over with his cousins and one other visitor from early Christmas to New Year’s Day: Tomas, an Aboriginal seventeen year old who has been sent to live with Jackson’s aunt after time in a youth detention centre.

Jackson realises that he’s attracted to Tomas. The novel follows Jackson as he comes to terms with his sexuality and evolving relationship with Tomas.

This is a novel that I highly recommend. It is a sweet queer coming of age story of a teenage Aboriginal boy, which as far as I know is not often written about in fiction, which I hope will change in the coming years. It is a story that can be easily read in an afternoon, and has an engaging writing style.

You can see Boy From The Mish on the catalog and it is available for loan

Acquisitions in lockdown: For Love Your Book Shop Day.

Acquisitions in lockdown: For Love Your Book Shop Day.

It’s Love Your Bookshop Day this weekend so I thought I’d use the opportunity to celebrate the bookshops that have been essential to us during lockdown, and to talk about acquisitions a little more.

We order from all over Australia, from big publishers to ordinary people who have boxes of books in the garage. We form relationships with a lot of our suppliers, I have ongoing conversations with the rep at Melbourne University Press for example, though I’ve never actually met her in person.

During lockdown acquisitions have been trickier. We have to decide where they are being shipped, picking up books is very difficult and suppliers have to be able to access their stock which (especially with historical societies) hasn’t always been possible. Talking historical societies- the Royal Historical Society of Victoria has been incredible, both for providing connections and books (they run a bookshop too)

Clementine with new books.

We’ve had some interesting ways of picking up books as well. My favourite so far is finding a common bakery where my 15km crossed over with a local author who had written about the local football and netball club. He dropped the books off at the bakery and I picked them up the next day, and I bought a very nice apple pie at the same time. We adapt as best we can.

But to return to the bookshops.

Over the years we’ve ordered from hundreds of bookshops, during this lockdown I wanted to acknowledge three in particular (and I’m talking physical bookshops) Avenue in Elsternwick, Petersen’s in Hastings and Hares and Hyenas in Fitzroy.

Clementine and more new books.

We’ve been ordering from Avenue and Petersen’s for years. During lockdown both bookshops have been amazing, really pulling together to run click and collect services. They’ve enabled us to continue to have easy access to new books for the collection, without the concerns of Australia Post being the primary delivery method. So we’d love to celebrate both of them for Love Your Book Shop Day. We really appreciate the hard work all their staff put in to sourcing oftentimes obscure books for us and their flexibility with letting me add things to orders later, and holding books until we can collect them. They have both been and continue to be invaluable sources for books and for connection during these difficult times. Avenue’s newsletter is also an excellent source of new books.

The other bookshop I wanted to highlight is one I have actually never visited in person (I will do so once lockdowns lift) Hares and Hyenas in Fitzroy. Hares and Hyenas is Melbourne’s queer bookshop. We have been working to expand the PMI’s collection of queer history to ensure that voices of LGBTQIA+ Victorian’s are part of the story of Victoria we are protecting and telling. Hares and Hyena’s newsletter, has allowed me to find some books I would not have otherwise come across, and their stock of obscure titles has been invaluable. So thank you.

Clementine and more new books

When the Recent Additions come out each month you see all these new books that have been added to the collection. I just wanted to give you some insight into where some of the books are coming from. I also wanted to say local bookstores are incredibly important, which I think has been proven without a doubt during lockdowns, they are an essential community service. They and their hard working staff (I’ve worked in a book shop and while it was great it’s not sitting round reading books all day) need to be celebrated but also supported. So go out and buy books from your local #LoveYourBookshopDay

I thought I’d finish with a video of Clementine and some of the new books covered- just click on the link to watch:

Ellen- PMI Collections Librarian.



Hares and Hyenas:

The life and times of Edward Dyason

The life and times of Edward Dyason

PMI member Cecily Hunter is working on a biography of Edward Dyason using the PMI’s collection for research. We’re delighted that she’s written a short synopsis of her work for the blog and look forward to having the book in the collection once she completes it.

Edward on the SS Queen Mary.

This book will bring to light the life and times of Edward Dyason, a major public figure and intellectual in interwar Australia. A mining engineer and self-made economist, he established the firm of Edward Dyason & Co. as a financial house providing services that were highly innovative at the time in the conservative financial circles of Melbourne and Sydney.

At the same time, desiring to serve his country, and greatly disturbed by the social conflict generated during WWI, nationally and internationally, he devoted significant time and resources in establishing and supporting organisations to inform debate in Australia on economic matters and international relations. He contributed frequently to government policy.

Dyason’s public service and private life were informed by the materialist philosophy he adopted as a student and later expanded through reading. His belief in the potential of human rationality and the power of ideas led him to promote social change through knowledge and organisation. The same impetus shaped his money-making activity, a combination that has elicited the description, the ‘businessman ideologue’.

An archive of diaries and correspondence reveals how this self-made man was formed by the tension he experienced when young, between a desire to be a good man and an inclination to profligacy and libertinage, and the reluctance to master one particular field of knowledge, electing instead familiarity with many. The outcome was a dynamic, tolerant individual with wide interests, a gift for friendship, versatility of mind, and a grasp of current economic problems that drew men in public life to consult him.

In 1940 Dyason left wife and country for America, subsequently choosing to see out the war in Buenos Aries. Here, while pursuing business interests, he continued his public service in promoting knowledge and organisation, in part through his own project, stimulated by Einstein’s notion of relativity, exploring possibilities for ways of thinking that incorporated social and natural sciences.

Dyason’s turbulent career as a public intellectual offers a model both propitious and flawed for the critical engagement of Australians with our contemporary predicaments.

Thanks Cecily.

Book Review: Underground: Marsupial outlaws and other rebels of Australia’s war in Vietnam by Mirranda Burton.

Book Review: Underground: Marsupial outlaws and other rebels of Australia’s war in Vietnam by Mirranda Burton.

The PMI collects Victorian history in all its forms and voices and I was delighted to be able to add our first graphic novel to the collection. And what a first addition!

Underground is the story of the Vietnam war told from the perspectives of activist Jean McLean and her work with Save Our Sons, Vietnam Veteran Bill Cantwell, Mai Ho a refugee from Vietnam and later Mayor of Maribyrnong, artists Clif and Marlene Pugh and their wombat Hooper- who is registered for the draft, but goes underground.

Underground presents a multi-faceted and incredibly beautiful and engrossing look at the world of the anti-conscription movement, and the impact of the war both in Vietnam and in Australia (primarily in Melbourne). It also is quite emotional with some very stark images that draw the reader in and, at the risk of sounding cliche, tell a thousand words. This is not say that it is a depressing book, far from it, there’s a lot of joy and hope as well, and anything featuring a draft resisting wombat, can’t help being lighthearted.

A note on the wombat. This is a graphic novel based on real peoples’ lives and interviews with them, though parts are combined for the sake of the narrative (these are clearly noted). So at first sight I thought the wombat was a fun narrative device. Hooper was very real though, he was a wombat that had been hand raised by Marlene and Cliff Pugh. One of the tactics of the anti-conscription movement was the ‘fill in a falsie’ campaign. The idea was to waste the National Service Office’s time by effectively spamming them with false registrations. Hooper shared registration with some illustrious names including, philosophers, pets, actors, American presidents and Australian politicians. In Hooper’s case he made it through the system as Hooper Algernon Pugh. His marble was pulled out in March 1972 and he was sent a letter summoning him for his medical exam. His journey in ‘going underground’ is emblematic of the real draft resistors who changed houses and identities year after year.

Underground actually tells fascinating historical stories, it is aimed up upper Young Adults but I learnt a lot as well. I’d heard of Save Our Sons but not of the complexity and far reaching nature of their work, and especially the fundamental changes they wrought on a number of levels. Underground is inspiring in many ways, highlighting what can be achieved with activism. It is also very much about all sides of the war, including what Vietnam veterans went through, the ongoing impact of the war for them individually and how they were treated when they came home, and in some cases continue to be treated. It is also the story of the immense damage wrought in Vietnam, and the lives of the refugees who fled and built new lives in Australia. Ultimately Underground is a story of hope. This narrative is told through the individual stories of Jean McLean, Mai Ho and Bill Cantwell, but it is also the story of Australia at this moment in time. I wasn’t alive then, but with her artwork and narrative to me it feels like Burton evokes the time beautifully. And the message of peace, and the ongoing fight for justice stretching through to Australia’s treatment of refugees today remains incredibly relevant.

These are stories that need to be told, and need to be read and while the images add new and interesting layers, the format will also make these stories more accessible for many readers. Which means that more of Australia’s complex history, which Burton definitely doesn’t shy away from, will reach broader audiences. If nothing else it’s a completely absorbing read. The images below, give you a snapshot of artwork, just click on them to enlarge them.



Another continued lockdown, time for some more collections exploration. It is Children’s Book Week so I wanted to talk a bit more about our fiction collection. I can’t access the fiction collection at the moment, so the photos are from the archive. I’ve written in more depth about the history of children’s book illustration before- you can see that post here-and I’ve done a collection spotlight on the fiction before you can see that here.

It’s been two years since I talked about the fiction collection, so I thought it was worth revisiting. Also as we are running click and collect, or click and post if you’re outside the 5km, I thought it’d be a good reminder. So remember, if you’d like a good Australian story just jump on the catalog and have a look. Search for Australian Fiction and email us at

So why do we collect fiction? We are a Victorian History Library, so fiction might seem like an odd choice.

We see it as a crucial part of the social history of Victoria. We only collect Australian fiction set in Australia and written by Australians. This is Australians telling their own stories, which is vitally important to the broad narrative that makes up the history of Victoria. The fiction collection can often fill gaps that you won’t find in the broader non fiction collection. Minorities are more likely to be writing their stories in fiction before there’ll be lengthy non fiction books that can be bought.

It can also be an interesting area to collect in. We mainly collect the prize winners, Miles Franklin, Premiers’ Literary Awards, Stella Prize, that sort of thing. But you need to stay out in front of it, otherwise there is a mad scramble to buy the books once the prize is announced. Usually you’ll see a lot of common titles among all the prizes, so by the time the mid year prizes come round we usually hold most of the books on the lists.

We don’t collect all Australian fiction, largely because it would be impossible, so we try to limit to prize nominees, representative fiction and fiction that fills gaps in the collection. Our overall rule is that we don’t collect children’s or young adult fiction. We do have some of the classics and if the book helps fill a broader gap in the collection, then we’ll collect it. The key example is First Nations stories. There isn’t a lot of material actually written in First Nations languages, but one of the areas that does have material is children’s fiction so we collect children’s books written in language.

Fiction is also one of our higher use areas, with some of our members joining just to use the collection. I’d like to give a special shout out to our oldest member, Mrs Rees. She’s been a member longer than I’ve been alive, and she gets first dibs at any new fiction that I think she’ll be interested in. She’s also great for recconmendations.

The other core reason we collect fiction is because an accessible collection of purely Australian fiction, is surprisingly difficult to find. It’s amazing how many Australian stories are out of print and unaccessible. Public libraries weed on circulation, which is absolutely essential for them, but being able to preserve a non weeded representative collection of Australian fiction is incredibly important.

So, to circle back to where I began, Children’s Book Week. As I said we don’t really collect children’s fiction, but you might have seen Sir Yackalot and Clementine looking at some of their favourite books on our social media this week. So in the sprit of our fiction collection telling stories that haven’t been written in non fiction yet, I thought I’d finish with a story from Clementine, our stalwart Highland Cow, about lockdown. I hope you enjoy. Ellen

Lockdown with Clementine

Clementine here is a Highland Cow

She helps, as well as her hooves allow.

When lockdown looms, up she pops,

To look after all the important spots.

She obseves the books every day,

To make sure they don’t run away.

She watches for danger with pride,

And mostly she doesn’t hide.

She builds houses out of books,

Sometimes, she sulks in their nooks.

She takes up hobbies like us all,

Climbing, to banking she answers the call.

She inspects coconut for lamingtons with Sir Yack,

And loves when he sends marshmallows back.

But apart from making tea, her true grace,

Is her skill to put a smile upon your face.

The End.

Collections Under COVID 2021- snap lock down three edition (or overall lockdown 5-depending on how you count)

Collections Under COVID 2021- snap lock down three edition (or overall lockdown 5-depending on how you count)

Well it’s been another lockdown, which we are hopefully coming out of next week. So I thought I’d finish up the week with a quick summary of Collections under COVID for July 2021.

I’ve been working my way through a wide range of cataloging and indexing, at least lockdowns give us a bit of a chance to catch up with some of the backlog. You can see my neatly packed up boxes of cataloged books in the photo below. You’ll notice one is ex-library. We’ve had an ongoing large donation from Moreland Libraries, and smaller donations from Bayside Libraries. The PMI remains an important library of last resort.

I also wanted to highlight Taxi in the image below. This is one of the books that I track down with detective work. The National Library puts out a list of all the new books added to their collection each month. I go through it to find books for the PMI. In the case of Taxi, I emailed Euroa Health who had published a previous book by the same author, and they passed on my contact details, the author got in touch and sold us the book.

You’ll also see one book on Zoroastrians. Pre lockdown I have been working to expand the PMI’s religious collection as it is predominantly Christian. I am working with a number of other religious peak bodies to either collect or write histories. The Zoroastrians, have donated two books on their world conference held in Ballarat in 2007 as well as working to compile a history of their community in Victoria, which is wonderful.

I’ve also been helping orchestrate a love story on social media between my working from home companion- Clementine the Highland Cow- and Riannon’s (the PMI’s Library Officer- Grants and Events) working from home companion- Sir Yackalot. You can see Clementine’s antics (I always try to tie them back to the collection) and the discourse with Sir Yackalot below.

Clementine has an admirer. Sir Yackalot tried to make her lamingtons for #NationalLamingtonDay but sadly got distracted by the marshmallows. He did write her a poem though
Roses are red
lamingtons are black
I like you even though
you’re not a yak.

Clementine is very touched that Sir Yackalot tried to make lamingtons for her, and she would definitely have been distracted by the marshmallows too. She also very much loved the poem and wanted to write one back, but being a librarian’s working from home companion she decided to do some research first. So you can see her trying to absorb some poetry by osmosis while looking up love letters on our catalog. But she got distracted by finding that the Tivoli Road Baker had a recipe for lamington doughnuts. In the end though she decided to keep it simple.
Lamingtons are distracting
But maybe drinks are the key
So I have one question?
Do some yaks like tea?
We await developments…..

We’re hoping to continue the story. This is the lighthearted side of lockdown- and it’s been really nice to be able to be a bit frivolously creative when a lot of over avenues for expression are closed.

I’ve continued my usual round of emails, answering reference queries (including a while spent trying to decipher a scan of a Prahran rate book from 1859). I am also talking to a number of councils about donating ephemera to the PMI, so I’ve been fielding emails in regards to that. I’ve had the time to do some ordering too, from: Melbourne Books, Wilkinson Publishing (a new find) and Tom Putt Artworks. I’ve also collected 10 electronic garden histories from the Australian Garden History Society and had a Twitter conversation with Melbourne City of Literature about donating their new walking tour brochure. So keep an eye out for all that in the collection soon.

With my other hat as Volunteer Coordintor, I’ve been keeping in touch with PMI volunteers and I’ve had a Zoom chat with the Friends of the PMI as they near the end of one region of their database of what’s where in Victoria.

Finally back on the more frivolous side, I’ve also been writing riddles and picture quizzes to try and stay connected with the PMI members on social media.

You can see this week’s selection below

We’re hoping to reopen Wednesday next week- fingers crossed anyway. And that’s all from me really I just wanted to give you snapshot of what happens in collections during snap lockdowns.


PMI Collections Librarian and Volunteer Coordinator.

An Exploration of Three Beautiful New Victorian Garden Books.

An Exploration of Three Beautiful New Victorian Garden Books.

Reviews by Penny Woodward

I love the fact that beautiful garden books are still being written, photographed and published. As a garden book writer I know how much of your life is poured into producing a book. In the last twelve months three wonderful ‘labour’s of love’ have been written about Victorian gardens. They are all works of art and surprisingly different in their style and approach. 

Perhaps the most traditional is the glorious The Garden State, Inside Victoria’s private gardens by Richard Allen. With vivid pictures by Kimbal Baker taken over four seasons, Allen describes 24 of Victoria’s best gardens divided into chapters that include Grand Rural Estates, Coastal Retreats, Old Curiosities, Hill Stations and Climate Conscious.

Much of Victoria is blessed by temperate climates, cool winters, hot summers and reasonable rainfall (although this is all now much more unpredictable with climate change). With commitment, passion, imagination, patience and time, beautiful gardens can be created almost anywhere. But many of these, especially those in the Grand Rural Estates and Hill Stations chapters, benefit from fabulous volcanic soils and more benign climate, some even have reliable water. However coastal gardens and those established with a nod to changing climate show dramatically what can be achieved in more marginal soils and climates as well. Some of my favourites are the more majestic and traditional Mawallok with its William Guilfoyle designed garden and plenteous water, Bolobek in Mount Macedon that covers 10 hectares with fabulous old trees and the Native Garden in Dunkeld at the foot of Mount Sturgeon. Then there are the newer gardens that have been established over the last 20 years including in Mildura a garden with 370 rose species, in Bellbrae a 2 hectare garden full of native and indigenous plants and finally for me the water efficient garden filled with drought tolerant plants at Illangi Farm in the Barrabool Hills.

In each of the 24 gardens Richard Allen charts the garden’s history, both the people and plants, detailing their most notable design features as well as explaining how they have passed from one generation to the next, or to new people with a passion for gardening. He also looks at how each works within the landscape and what measures have been taken to adjust to or cope with changing  environmental conditions. 

This is a beautiful book, full of inspiration and ideas, well worth borrowing or buying to learn more about the garden treasures of our garden state.

The Maranoa Botanic Gardens Florilegium is a compendium of vivid and beautiful illustrations of plants grown in the Maranoa Botanic Gardens. These are accompanied by a biography of each plant from Margaret Castle (Margaret is also one of the illustrators). Cynthia Watson, the mayor of Boroondara, says of this florilegium that it, “documents many of the fascinating plants that grow in the Maranoa Botanic Gardens through these intricate and exquisite botanical paintings.” 

These gardens were first established when John Watson bought 3.5 acres in Balwyn in 1901. Watson was a mercantile broker by trade, but also a botanist, naturalist and horticulturalist. He didn’t build a house but immediately started to establish a private garden of native Australian plants on his land. This was purchased from Watson in 1921 by what is now the City of Boroondara. They continued to plant native Australian plants and remove weeds and non-native species. I remember walking in these gardens as a young woman and marvelling at the diversity and number of plants. Today the gardens cover 7.5 acres and contain an estimated 5,000 plants. Some 100 of these are illustrated in the florilegium. 

I was initially surprised to find that the plants are not in alphabetical order of the genera or family, or even of the common name. But as Professor Tim Entwisle explains, ‘It’s a delightfully eclectic mix of plants, in a delightfully eclectic order. Not a matter of chance but – like everything else Margaret has done – a carefully considered construct. The result is very much the product of an artists eye. Why sort alphabetically by species or plant family when these are portraits, not mugshots?” Designed and printed in Melbourne, the work is the product of 16 botanical artists and is published by the local council. To go back to Prof Entwisle again, ‘This book is more than a celebration of Australian Plants and the Maranoa Botanic Gardens, it is a celebration of a community drawn together through a love of nature and art. All power to them and this book.’ I wholeheartedly agree.

Our final book is Rogue. Art of a garden by renowned garden designer Rick Eckersley with sublime photographs by Will Slater. This book is the epitome of a ‘work of art’ in fact many works of art. Eckersley discusses his philosophy and the art of gardening. But the book focuses on his garden Musk, his own personal garden, and features the work of numerous artists who were inspired by the landscapes he shaped. Eckersley explains that these artists, in turn, inspired him to produce this book. He says, ‘Reflecting on my life in garden design, it’s clear to me now that my greatest pleasure never was in the making of gardens, but rather in people’s response to them. I’m fascinated by how people become caught up in the experience of being in the garden, how they’re moved in some way, even if it’s hard to interpret or articulate.’

Andrew Laidlaw, landscape architect at RBG Melbourne, writes in the foreword, ‘The book gives us and insight into the design mastery of Rick Eckersley and the deep connection to place of his own rural garden, Musk’. He adds that ‘there is a deep calm at Musk that is all pervasive.’ And ‘whatever it is, it changes you.’ I think the same can be said about the book. This is not a book you quickly flick though, every page takes time, immerses you in one part of the garden. There are some words but it’s really the images and art works interspersed through the pages that make you stop and think about gardens, about life, about environments and our natural world. 

Unfortunately Musk has recently been sold and it is not known if the new owners will maintain and continue the garden and Rick’s design. This means that this astounding book may be the only way you will now be able to see Musk. As Eckersley says in his introduction, ‘While you, the reader, might not have had the opportunity to visit Musk, my hope is that this book works to take you there, that you’re able to lose yourself in the garden’s shifting textures, colours and moods, as captured by the photographs and artworks within these pages.’ I was lucky to see Musk a few years ago. It is breathtaking and breath giving, as is this glorious book.

You can borrow all three books from the PMI.

The Garden State:



History of the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute

History of the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute

With a lot of new members joining the library, I thought it was time for an introduction to the history of the PMI (or a reintroduction for some of our longer term members) and the history of the PMI is always fun to write about. I hope you enjoy.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. The Prahran Mechanics’ Institute declared itself into existence on the 1st of May 1854. You can read more about that meeting and the speeches made in this post about our 165th anniversary

Although we didn’t have a building until 1857 this foundation date makes us the second oldest library in Victoria. The oldest is the Athenaeum Library in Collins Street, which was founded in 1839. You can see it in the photo below.

Both the PMI and the Melbourne Athenaeum are mechanics’ institutes, so I thought it was worth pausing the PMI’s story here, to briefly explain what a mechanics’ institute is. Firstly, they have nothing to do with cars, mechanics is essentially a 19th century term for blue collar worker. The concept of the institutes originated with Dr George Birkbeck in c.1800 when he gave a series of lectures to a group of skilled labourers about the science behind the tools they used. Dr Birkbeck offered the lectures at a time after normal working hours so workers could attend. This was a period when there really weren’t many educational opportunities, unless you had money. You can see Dr Birkbeck in the image below

These lectures proved to be so popular, that they became the foundation for mechanics’ institutes, the first opened in Edinburgh in 1821 and the second in London in 1823. They were founded by communities to provide educational opportunities for members through facilities such as lectures, concerts, museums, pianos, recreational activities and, most importantly for the PMI, libraries. The concept spread with colonisation in Victoria and by 1900 there were over 1000 mechanics’ institutes across the state. They are also known as school of arts and athenaeums, among other names. You’ll see mechanics’ halls all over Victoria even now. Today a couple of hundred remain in Victoria that are still running as mechanics’ institutes, mainly using the halls for community connection, but only 8 have active lending libraries, the PMI is one of them.

So, to return to the PMI. On the first of May 1854 we declared ourselves into existence at a public meeting. The original aims of the PMI were the Mental and Moral Improvement and Rational Recreation of its Members, by means of Lectures, Discussions, Library, Reading Rooms, Classes, Museum, Philosophical Apparatus &c. At the time Prahran was a village in a swamp, we predate the Town Council.

You can see Chapel Street in 1864 below, so you can only imagine how remote it would have been ten years earlier.

It is essentially important to acknowledge that the PMI was not founded on unoccupied land, the PMI stands on the lands of the Boon wurrung and Wurundjeri people. Indigenous Australians were here thousands of years before colonization and had been protecting and recording their own histories and knowledge long before the arrival of western colonial institutions such as libraries.

The driver behind the foundation of the PMI, and one of the original trustees, was Rev William Moss, a local congregational minister. He also played a key founding role in the Institute for the Blind, the Victorian College for the Deaf and Prahran Mission. Additionally he was the possessor of a very excellent beard, you can see him in the photo below.

The other original trustees were local educationist George William Rusden, local politician Frederick James Sargood (the father of the Sargood who built Rippon Lea) and Dr James Stokes. You can see Rusden and Sargood below, unfortunately we don’t have a picture of Stokes.

So, it’s 1854, the PMI has declared itself into existence, now we needed a patron. We are lucky enough to hold the original letter which states that Governer and Lady Hotham would be pleased to be patrons of the PMI, you can see it below.

So the PMI had an organisation, and patrons now we needed some land for a building. The physical foundation of a mechanics’ institutes was not a simple process, there was a lot of back and forthing with the Colonial Secretary to obtain land, and discussions about who was going to pay for it. Then James Mason enters the picture. Mason was a local publican and one of the first life members of the PMI. He donated land he owned next to his pub for the first PMI building in Chapel Street, and the committee bought some adjoining land. You can see Mason in the photo below.

Now, at the time, there was a lot of discussion as to why he’d donated the land? Some people said it was because it would bring more people and thus money into his pub. Whatever his reasoning, the PMI had the land, and now we needed a building. It took a couple of years to get it out of the ground and you can see some of the receipts and letters for its construction below.

But built it got, and by 1857 the PMI were the proud owners of 259-261 Chapel Street (a site which we still own though the current buildings are more modern).

The building was officially opened on the 26th of January 1857. There was in fact, a Grand Concert to celebrate the opening. We are lucky enough to hold one of the invitations to this event. Its survival is somewhat miraculous, it’s printed on silk so is very fragile. We had no idea of its existence until roughly 2014 when we received a call from a New Zealand engineering firm saying they had found it in a drawer and would we like it. We were absolutely delighted to receive it! As I said it’s very fragile, so it was in pieces when it arrived. Then in 2019 we managed to crowdfund to have it repaired and restored and housed in a custom made box, as the one of the most fascinating pieces of the PMI’s history. You can see the invitation both pre and post restoration below and it illustrates the wide variety of entertainment at the Grand Concert.

So the PMI was open with its new building. The first few years were fairly quiet (we’re also missing our original minute book so we don’t have all the detail- it reappeared in a locked cupboard in the 1980s and then vanished again), the title deeds were lost for a couple of months but they eventually turned up in the possession of a Mr Paige. The first real crisis came in 1868.

The Secretary Librarian at the time was a man called William John Allen. He wrote an anonymous letter to the South Melbourne Standard in which he was most impolite about Reverend Potter who was one of the PMI’s committee members. Now the letter was supposed to be anonymous, but unfortunately for Allen, the editor was a friend of Reverend Potter’s and told him who had written the letter. Allen was dismissed from his position as Secretary, but refused to accept that it was a legal dismissal. This is interesting because the position at time was live in and he refused to vacate the accommodation at the library.

So the committee took the roof off.

Allen, tried to sue the person who took the roof off and the whole matter ended up in court, I’ve included a link to the one of the newspaper articles in the references. Eventually, Allen was awarded damages for lost wages of fourteen pounds, but he didn’t get his job or residence back. This was the first of some ongoing damage to the building. The PMI weathered the crisis and things chugged along reasonably well, but by the 1890s things had fallen into disreapir again. The Secretary Librarian was George Cross, you can see his employment contract below

Unfortunately by the 1890s Cross was getting on in years and wasn’t maintaining either the library or the building. We have several letters in the archives detailing members attempts to contact him, so it’s clear joining was becoming difficult. By 1899 the PMI had 10 members and an almost useless collection. Once Cross was dismissed, with some difficulty but without removing the roof, most of the remaining collection was wet and or moldy and had to be destroyed, the building was also knocked down and rebuilt on the site in the early 1900s. What you see today, is this ‘new’ building, which we still own.

But, by the turn of the century the PMI was on the road to recovery, and the key to that recovery was a person and an Act of Parliament. The person was new Secretary Librarian John Henry Furneaux and the Act of Parliament was the 1899 Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Act no.1617.

The PMI was incorporated under its own Act of Parliament, which at the time protected it because any changes to the rules or governance had to be passed through parliament. This Act propped up the PMI, and it also mandated that a Town Council member must be on the committee, which helped to keep the Council invested and involved in the PMI. The PMI is still incorporated under this Act, and while it has served us well through time, it has become a hindrance rather than a help as we try to adapt and keep up with the ever changing world. You can see the current Act in the references. But to return to John Henry Furneaux. He spearheaded rebuilding the library, both the physical building and the collection and the membership base. He was a dapper gentleman, as you can see below.

He was also very successful. Classes had resumed by 1908 and soon the PMI outgrew its Chapel Street premises, as the PMI established the Prahran Technical School. The Chapel Street building was mortgaged to buy land on High Street (it took them 32 years to pay it off) and a new building was built at 140 High Street, which we occupied from 1915 to 2015, when we moved to our current building.

The foundation stone of 140 High Street was laid in 1915 by Sir Andrew Peacock, when the PMI relocated to their new premises. For his trouble Sir Andrew was presented with a silver trowel. The trowel has quite an interesting story. In 1995 there was a discussion about it’s ownership. At that point Deakin was occupying the High Street Campus of what had been Prahran Technical School, they held all the records of the Tech including the trowel, which they wanted to keep, but we saw it as an important part of our history, so in the end we had a replica made for Deakin and kept the original.

The original was placed in the safe at the Prahran Town Hall until a safe display case could be decided on.

Now this is where the trowel’s story gets really interesting. We didn’t attempt to retrieve it until the 150th anniversary celebrations in 2004. Unfortunately over this nearly ten year period there had been a large number of council amalgamations and the trowel had vanished off the face of the earth.  So sadly the celebration had to go ahead with just a photo of the trowel.

But it doesn’t stop there; in 2005 Di Foster, the local history officer for Malvern, found a key to a safe that she hadn’t been able to open. The safe had come from the Malvern Town Hall clerk’s office. When Di opened the safe, miraculously inside was trowel. You can see it in all its glory below

But to return to the chronological narrative. We left the PMI with a new building and founding a tech school. With the new building open the Chapel Street buildings were leased out raising much needed money for the PMI, as they still are today. Under Furneaux the PMI revived and went from strength to strength with classes and lectures and the lending library. When Furneaux retired in 1938 he left an institute that was as far as it could be thriving.

Even before the new building was opened though it was clear that the PMI didn’t have the funds to run the technical school as well as their library and the other resources that the PMI provided, so they leased the parts of the buildings set aside for the technical school to the Minister for Education for only 20 shillings a year, with the understanding that the Education Department would run the school and leave the PMI enough space on the ground floor to run the library. This lease expired in 1947 and a new lease for 99 years was drawn up with a peppercorn rent (one shilling a year) again with the proviso that the Department of Education would run the technical school. This lease would go on to cause the PMI problems by the late 90s and early 2000s, but I’ll return to that story in a moment.

Essentially through most of the 20th century nothing really remarkable happened. The PMI enjoyed a bit of a resurgence during World War Two, with a lot of new members helping raise money for the war effort. There were also talks over the years about possibly amalgamating with Prahran Council Library, which ultimately came to nothing. Essentially, the PMI continued to continue. The archives are a trove of the minutiae of running a small library, and the small scale history of what was involved. We continued to lease out the Chapel Street shops to raise money for the library, to a series of tenants. Long term tenants included Portmans and Wittner, with a lot of letters back and forth about balconies, awnings etc, you can see some of Wittner plans for redevelopment in the image below.

As for the technical school? The junior part operated until 1971 on the site and the senior design section of the school operated until 1990 when it amalgamated with the VCA. The archives of Prahran Tech became part of Deakin and ultimately Swinburne came to occupy the High Street campus.

The PMI itself was in decline by the 1980s, the library was competing with other forms of entertainment and other lending libraries, including the Prahran Library which was always just around the corner. Membership was well down and the relevance of the PMI was up for debate. Thankfully, the Committee acted. Under Laurie McCalman, who joined the PMI committee in 1980, assessments of future direction were taken and a decision was reached to specialize in Victorian History especially in local histories of places in Victoria. The new direction began with a small collection of local histories and grew to what would ultimately become the Victorian History Library.

In 1984 Bruce Turner became the Secretary/Librarian and it was under Bruce’s leadership that the Victorian History Library really began to take shape. He sourced books from all over the country, even going to far as to write to the Danish consulate about a book about bikes. Our archives are a treasure trove of Bruce’s letters as he chased down obscure titles and promoted the PMI. You can see Laurie and Bruce in the photos below.

Bruce was Secretary/Librarian until 1996 and the new millennium was ushered in by Secretary/Librarians Catherine Milward-Bason and then Tim McKenna.

By the early 2010s the library was desperate for more space in the High Street building.

Swinburne was now occupying the old Prahran Tech site under the original 1947 peppercorn lease to the Minster for Education. As the PMI needed the space and Swinburne were not occupying it under the original terms of the lease we launched a campaign to get our buildings back. After much wrangling, the Minister for Education agreed to vacate the lease under the proviso that the PMI sold the buildings at High Street to Swinburne. The membership of the PMI was consulted and it was ultimately agreed to sell the buildings. So, under Tim McKenna as Secretary/Librarian and Cr John Chandler as President, in 2012 we undertook our biggest change in nearly 100 years, we bought a new building just around the corner at 39 St Edmonds Rd. You can see what it looked like when we bought it below

It took three years, but we moved into the new premises in 2015, 100 years after we’d moved into 140 High Street.

The new building has given us much needed new space as our specialized Victorian history collection continues to grow and adapt. We also have three Associated Groups in the building: The Victorian Railway History Library, The Cinema and Theatre Historical Society and Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria. The library houses a 30 000 plus collection of books, ephemera, journals, electronic resources and more. We currently have three staff. If you haven’t had the chance to visit, and you should we love showing new people around, you can see the library below. We kept the original doors.

So, we’ve actually almost caught up caught up to the present. I started work at the PMI as Collections Librarian in 2016. The last five years have had a few ups and downs for the organisation. I did say this was a post about the history of the PMI, and I think you will probably all agree that we are living in historic times (though I’m sure everyone is as sick of hearing that, as they are of the word unprecedented), so I will talk a little about the last few years, and yes a bit about 2020 and COVID.

The end of 2016 saw a new Secretary Librarian, with Tim McKenna retiring and Steven Haby taking over the roll. There was also some shift in the committee with Steve Stefanopoulos becoming President in 2016, and then Dr Judith Buckrich in 2018, and Dr Michelle Negus Cleary in 2020. Some of the highlights of the last few years were our trip to Clunes BookTown in 2018, a wide ranging events program, regular booksales, running outreach to Gippsland, representing the PMI at conferences, the Victorian History Showcase, writing a new collection policy when we had to move the whole upstairs library to replace the carpet, and just trying to ensure that the PMI continued to go from strength to strength as we worked to preserve and promote the history of Victoria. The staff have been ably supported by the PMI Committee, our dedicated volunteers and the Friends of the PMI.

And then we reach 2020. I won’t dwell on last year for long except to say that we survived it, with the help and enthusiasm from members, volunteers and the Committee. The PMI came through COVID as we’d come through the 1919 pandemic, it hasn’t been easy but we made it work. We managed to pivot to working from home, and still provided an important service to our members, you’ll find a lot material from 2020 on this blog, so scroll back and have a look. We ran online events, provided click and collect as soon as we were able to and reopened the library in November. Despite being closed for a large portion of the year, our members stayed in touch and rejoined, which just highlights how much of a community the PMI is. You can see some photos from our 2020 activities below: my working from home set up, my car packed up to take all the too be cataloged material home, Clementine the Highland Cow (my working from home companion and injection of humour in our newsletters) and some of the volunteers back in the library.

And that brings us up to date. The PMI is dedicated to promulgating and protecting the history of Victoria. A task that becomes even more important as local council libraries under pressure from funding cuts and the desire to keep up with the ever shifting technology jettison some of their nonfiction collections. We exist as a largely print library in a very technology heavy world and stand by our principles that not all information is available on the internet. Our collection is about the small scale of history, it is about tracking down those little stories, tracking down the books that might have had fifty copies printed which reside in someone’s garage. The PMI’s collection is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Victorian and Australian History. Our members include everyone from architects, to archaeologists, from fiction writers to professional historians, from family historians to film and television producers and researchers and in some ways most important of all people who just love reading about history. We have weathered many storms in our 167 year history and with the support of our members, volunteers, Friends, staff and committee we will hopefully still be around in another 167 years. If you ever want to know more about the PMI feel free to email us at

I hope you’ve found this history interesting,



Original PMI rules:

William John Allen dispute:

Act of Parliament:

Pioneer and Hard Survivor:

PMI Archives.

Image sources:

Reverend Wiliam Moss:

Frederick James Sargood:

Melbourne Athenaeum: Ellen Coates

Chapel Street:

Dr George Birkbeck: (c) Birkbeck, University of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

George Rusden:

James Mason:,17?FMT=IMG

JH Furneaux:,3?FMT=IMG

Original PMI building:,1?FMT=IMG

Bruce Turner outside Prahran Mechanics Institute, published 17 April 1994 -Pic by Robert Banks

All other images from the PMI’s collection