A curator’s abiding passion for books

Paul Brunton. Picture supplied by Paul Brunton.
Paul Brunton

An interview with Paul Brunton, emeritus curator at the State Library of NSW

The State Library of New South Wales is one of those places you just can’t miss.

Maybe it’s the grand sandstone architecture of the Mitchell Library, looming like an immoveable dowager beside the freeway to the eastern suburbs. Or is it the location, between the lush peace of the Botanical Gardens and the tough political arena of state parliament? It’s a large library too, with a glass-fronted contemporary wing on Macquarie Street.

Thousands of children (and more than a few adults) have looked at the Mitchell Library with awe: what is that place, alive with the vistas, whispers and magic of books? It’s the library that all libraries lead to, in New South Wales.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Photograph by Greg O’Beirne, 2006.

So it seems entirely appropriate that the person who grew up to become an emeritus curator at the State Library of New South Wales found his passion for books as a nine-year-old in his local suburban library.

‘In 1960, the new local library opened at Punchbowl – it was the era when small municipal libraries and their suburban branches were opening up,’ Paul Brunton explains. ‘We had some books at home, but for the first time I saw all these books!

‘I fell in love with them immediately – with their content, the feel of them, their shape and design. Of course, it was quite a small library, and it no longer exists, but I lived there! That was the beginning.’

Portrait of David Scott Mitchell, 1864. State Library of NSW.
Portrait of David Scott Mitchell, 1864. State Library of NSW.

He knew what he wanted. When he finished his BA degree and postgraduate study in librarianship, he immediately applied for a job at the Mitchell Library, and got it.

‘I was very fortunate to have the then Mitchell Librarian, Suzanne Mourot, as my mentor when I first arrived,’ he comments. ‘She was an inspirational figure and a towering presence in the world of Australian studies.’

He remained at the library through his 40-year career, culminating in his role as the Mitchell senior curator.

Paul knows that enormous collection of books – amassed by extraordinary collector David Scott Mitchell, and housed in the Mitchell Library – inside out. He’s also an expert on a lively group of historical figures, ranging from explorer Matthew Flinders to authors Dame Mary Gilmore and Miles Franklin.

He’s gracious and thoughtful when asked to name one or two of his favourite books.

John Cawte Beaglehole. Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23071382
John Cawte Beaglehole (Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23071382)

First, he nominates the journals of James Cook, edited by New Zealander John Cawte Beaglehole from 1955 to 1967.

‘John Beaglehole spent most of his professional life editing Cook’s journals. He immersed himself in the original documents and meticulously edited them,’ Paul says.

‘He did all the work by hand, his secretary typed it up, and sent it all off to London. The proofs came back to New Zealand, and the work continued!

‘That set of books has been an inspiration to me. Parts of my book on Matthew Flinders were influenced by them. Beaglehole’s work changed the whole scholarship on Cook’s voyages, and Pacific voyages generally.’

The second favourite is an author he discovered in his teens. On one level, she’s certainly a wildly popular YA writer, her works adapted to screen constantly, and she’s more than stood the test of time: Jane Austen.

Portrait of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen

‘I love all the works of Jane Austen, but particularly Emma. I think it’s the greatest novel ever written,’ he says.

‘But when I was young, no-one else agreed with me! My friends thought the books weren’t relevant to Australia, probably because the stories weren’t happening contemporaneously with our lives. And I’d say “but it’s about all your families!”

‘Later, I focused on 18th-century books as my professional historical era. Austen was almost an exact contemporary of Flinders, and knowing her books helped me understand Flinders’ life.’

[Interview continues in Part 2]

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