“We were already digitising photographs, paintings, sketches, prints and posters before Picture Australia began, and it has revitalised life for us,” says Tony Marshall, the senior librarian of heritage collections. “It has taken our images to the world and we get a lot of requests through it.”

The turn of the millennium was a big turning point for the State Library of Tasmania’s heritage collections. It was in 2000 that the National Library of Australia launched Picture Australia, and the Tasmanian institution was one of the founding participants.

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William-Thompson-475

William Thompson, convict, 1870s, by J. W. Beattie

“We were already digitising photographs, paintings, sketches, prints and posters before Picture Australia began, and it has revitalised life for us,” says Tony Marshall, the senior librarian of heritage collections. “It has taken our images to the world and we get a lot of requests through it.”

When the Tasmanian Archives Office split from the state library in 1989, many photos went with it, but the library has retained about 8,000 images of historical importance mainly from the second half of the 19th century. Although most public donations of photos now go to the archives office, it is the library that has funding to buy significant historical additions as they come up for sale in Australia or overseas.

Of particular note are the library’s Crowther and Allport collections.

Like his great-grandfather who arrived in Hobart Town in 1825, Sir William Crowther was a doctor. His keen interest in history and anthropology extended to collecting more than 15,000 printed items as well as works of art, artefacts and photos, all of which he presented to the library before his death in 1981. A highlight of the W L Crowther Library is an album of more than 200 photos of Hobart, other Tasmanian towns and parts of Victoria taken by Charles and Alfred Abbott and other photographers between 1857 and 1870.

Dating old photos and identifying their subjects and the photographers is a major problem for libraries everywhere. Although Sir William was also a writer and had documented many items in his collection, there are limitations. “Being a doctor, his handwriting was appalling. It can be very frustrating,” says Marshall.

Hobart solicitor Henry Allport bequeathed the Allport collection to the people of Tasmania when he died in 1965. In fact he bequeathed his entire Sandy Bay house and all its contents, including rare furniture, colonial paintings, silver, fine china and antiquarian books. Henry even threw in the family photos – a treasure trove because the Allport family settled in what was then Van Diemen’s Land in 1831 and members played an important role in the artistic, cultural and social development of the colony and state of Tasmania. Morton Allport, a pioneer of Tasmanian photography, went on an expedition to Lake St Clair in 1863, lugging a heavy stereoscopic camera and creating a portfolio of 24 landscapes.

The State Library of Tasmania doesn’t “clean up” its digitised photos to remove scratches, tears, stains and the like. “Our policy is to present a surrogate which is as close to the original article as possible,” says Marshall. “If someone wants to manipulate or crop a photo for publication, they must seek our permission first. Normally a bit of cleaning up wouldn’t be a problem.”

Most of the library’s collection is available for viewing at http://images.statelibrary.tas.gov.au

The Bigger Picture
Wouldn’t it be great to have a highly organised, constantly expanding library of Australia’s notable photographic collections in your own home? Imagine having easy access to millions of images dating back to the beginning of photography, for the purposes of research, education, inspiration and fun.

We can stop imagining, because they’ve done it. It’s called Picture Australia. Just visit www.pictureaustralia.org and start clicking.

The National Library of Australia launched the service in 2000. It started with photographic and other pictorial archives from the National Library, National Archives, Australian War Memorial, University of Queensland Library and state libraries of Victoria, NSW and Tasmania. It now has at least 44 institutions signed up, including many regional libraries, the Powerhouse Museum, National Portrait Gallery and CSIRO.

All of the participants’ archives can be searched at once from the Picture Australia site by subject or photographer. For example, type in something as general as “fish’ and you get nearly 200 pages of very varied thumbnails to peruse. Get specific and… well, you never know. For example, “hake” turns up a portrait of Sydney Hake, storekeeper at the Isis Downs sheep station in Queensland in 1917.

It is legal to save or print the images for research, study and other non-commercial purposes. For other uses, such as reproduction in a newsletter or book, copyright permission is required from the institution which owns the image.

Picture Australia also has subject “trails” to follow in various fields of interest. Art and Literature includes Heidelberg School, Australian Ballet and Rock’n’Roll trails. Or amuse yourself with Society trails such as Magic and Oddities, Murder and Mayhem, and Fashion.

Since January, Picture Australia has been affiliated with Yahoo! Flickr (www.flickr.com), where people from all over the world share their photographs online. Anyone can contribute to the two Picture Australia Flickr groups: People Places and Events; and Australia Day.

See Photo Review magazine Issue 29 for the print edition of this feature which includes additional images.
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