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How the Adelaide Circulation Library began

The South Australian Mechanics Institute opened in 1839 and in 1844 the South Australian Subscription Library was formed and took over their book stock. By 1861, this collection of books became the Adelaide Circulating Library, the first public library in South Australia. The historical lending service underwent several name changes, including the Public Library and Adult Lending Service. The State Library is now, no longer a lending service but, a research library. Lending is now one of the many services offered by South Australia’s excellent statewide local library network.

If you have visited the Mortlock Chamber and the old Circulating Library in the past few years, you may have wondered about the origins and content of the books that line their shelves. They form the largest extant lending library collection in Australia, totalling close to 50,000 volumes. Although this State Library collection also contains reference works, it is primarily a series of snapshots into popular culture and readers’ tastes over ninety years, from 1884 to the early 1970s.

Books in the State Library SA's Circulation Library.
Books in the State Library SA's Circulation Library.

These materials would have been purchased by then Public Library Service staff acting on book reviews, publishers’ information, their own reading, and readers’ requests. In the State Library catalogue these items are marked ‘Adelaide Circulating Library’.

An unexpected discovery

Several years ago, as our staff and volunteers began transcribing catalogue card records for this collection, they made some unexpected discoveries, most of which had been published between the 1940s and 1960s. They were an unusual find because of their focus on same sex relationships and interactions at a time when conservatism and censorship ruled.

Until the latter part of the twentieth century, homosexuality was not only frowned upon, but illegal in most parts of the world. In some countries it still is. To be openly gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual carried severe consequences. Loss of reputation and livelihood were just the beginning. Social and family ostracism, blackmail, physical violence and gaol were ongoing threats. For far too many, to be different from the hetero-normative, carried the strain of living life in the shadows or trying to ‘pass for normal’.

When the human rights of LGBT people are abused, all of us are diminished.

Every human life is precious - none is worth more than another.

~ Ban Ki-moon

This being so, in the mid-twentieth century, the last place you would expect to find books featuring openly gay and lesbian characters would be on a public library’s loan shelves. There may have been many reasons for the selection of these books, especially if they portrayed positive and proud LGBTQ+ characters.

Libraries, then, as now, were relatively safe spaces. Books allow the voices of different authors and difference itself, to be considered. They open up other spaces and ways of living. They reveal the thoughts, feelings and actions of others, including those others who are ‘not like us’. In so doing, books can bestow the miracle of sight, and sometimes, understanding. For some, who prefer the status quo, that ability to open minds, and change opinions, can be very threatening. For book selectors and readers, censorship, has always been, and remains, a complex issue. Couple this with the debate between literary fiction and popular fiction, and library selectors may find themselves walking a very fine line.

Thomas Walter White was the Commonwealth Minister for Trade and Customs from 1933 to 1938. At the time, the Federal Department of Trade and Customs was responsible for imports and censorship, including books. In 1935 Minister White stood up in Federal Parliament and said that the actual list of censored books in Australia was freely available to the general public. This was not the case. Almost no one could view the entire list. Even publishers and book sellers had difficulties. This was finally rectified in 1958.

Formally banned books in the collection

Close to 1500 publications were banned at different times and for varying periods in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century. And they were not all paperbacks and pulp fiction. Some of them are, and were at the time, considered classics. Here are a few examples. The State Library holds a number of versions of Boccaccio’s Decameron which was banned in Australia from 1927 to 1936 and again from 1938 to 1973.

Title page of The Decameron
The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Richard Aldington, illustrated by Rockwell Kent, Doubleday published 1949

Droll Stories by Honore de Balzac also ran afoul of the Censor. The State Library holds several 19th century editions of this work. It was banned for obscenity from 1901 to 1923 and again, from 1928 to approximately 1973.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Another Country 

Ask Australians if they know of any book that was banned and many will answer Lady Chatterley’s lover. Partly because of its overt sex, adultery and explicit language. The fact that DH Lawrence dared to cross the sacrosanct British class barrier may well have been a contributing factor.

The State Library holds 19 items by James Baldwin. His novel, Another Country was banned in Australia by the Commonwealth Customs Department in February 1963 until May 1966. The Literature Censorship Board described it as "continually smeared with indecent, offensive and dirty epithets and allusions". It did however recommend the book still be made available to "the serious-minded student or reader." This may be why we hold this 1963 edition.


Book cover - Lady Chatterley's Lover

Book cover of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Book cover - Another Country

Book cover of Another Country by James Baldwin

Book cover - Lady Chatterley's Lover
Book cover - Another Country

Stranger on Lesbos

Another item in the Library’s collection is Stranger on Lesbos by Valerie Taylor. This was the pen name of Velma Nacella Young. She was married with children and became one of the sub-genre’s most prolific writers. At the same time she was dealing with her own coming-out journey which led her to become an activist for lesbian and gay rights in the USA.

The State Library catalogue for Stranger on Lesbos records the subjects as Lesbians-Fiction; Married Women-fiction; and Lesbianism in literature. The item is now held in basement onsite storage and can be retrieved for readers.

Lesbian pulp fiction is a genre of lesbian literature that refers to any mid-20th century paperback novel or pulp magazine with overtly lesbian themes and content. The writers were both male and female, and all generally usually used female pseudonyms. These books may have been disposable pulp fiction, but they were important to the gay community because they validated same-sex relationships. This was of course the very same thing that led to their censorship.

Book cover - Stranger on Lesbos

Women’s Barracks

Another item in this genre is Women’s Barracks. It was written by French writer Tereska Torres and soon became a best seller. Torres served in World War Two with the women’s arm of the Free French forces, based in London. The book is a fictionalised account of the liaisons of the women in her unit with other resistance members, both female and male. The book was translated into more than a dozen languages. It caused a scandal in America in the 1950s and promptly sold over four million copies.

The Feminist Press reprinted it in 2005 as part of its Femmes Fatales series. The series concentrates on women writers of pulp, noir and mystery of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

Book cover - Women's Barracks


The Price of Salt

The Price of Salt was published in 1952 by Claire Morgan. This was the pseudonym of Patricia Highsmith who wrote twenty-one novels, mainly crime fiction. These included Strangers on a Train and the Mr Ripley series. The book was re-titled Carol in 2015 after the release of the film of the same name. It is a love story about an aspiring young set designer, Therese, and Carol, an older married woman in the middle of divorce and a custody battle for her daughter. It ends on a note of hope and has been described as the first gay book with a happy ending.

Book cover - The Price of Salt

The Well of Loneliness

The Well of Loneliness is an extremely influential work that was banned from 1928 to 1949 after a court case in Great Britain. Its author Radclyffe Hall, also known by her nickname John, was initially a published poet who then turned to novel writing. Her third published novel was The Well of Loneliness which appeared in 1928. It met with huge controversy because of its unambiguous revelations about lesbian relationships. The novel was probably the first modern work to explore the strength of feeling between same-sex-attracted women.

Book cover - The Well of Loneliness


The State Library's Blue cover edition 

The State Library’s catalogued copy is a 1951 edition, marked as a former public loan volume, and clearly very well-used. The book contains a rare formal disclaimer notice pasted into the front.

A well used edition of the 'The Well of Loneliness'

Public Library notification

Although its literary merit may be debated, the influence of The Well of Loneliness is indisputable. It was powerful in its depiction of deep love between women and became widely read, especially after 1949 when the censorship ban was lifted. By then Radclyffe/John Hall had been dead for 6 years.

Public Library notification
Public library notification in the State Library's version of The Well of Loneliness.


The Fall of Valour and The Sixth Man

A number of other books relating to LGBTQ+ were located in the former loans collection. American Charles Jackson, had already found great success with the Lost Weekend which was made into an Academy Award winning film. The Fall of Valour was less successful.

Jess Stearn produced The Sixth Man in 1962. Stearn was an American reporter who claimed to have research that proved that every sixth male in America was actually gay, though probably repressing their feelings. Given that Stearn gave everything a sensational spin, including reincarnation and prostitution, it is hoped that his research was thoroughly checked and verified before publication.

Book covers - The Fall of Valour and The Sixth Man

Of Those Alone

Robert Hutton’s Of Those Alone published in 1958 may be the earliest memoir of a gay alcoholic writer.

Of Those Alone was written in the wake of the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (1957) — familiarly known as the Wolfenden Report.

Hutton writes about two related questions. Is homosexuality congenital or acquired? Nature or Nurture? Or both? The term homosexuality was invented and implemented by sexologists during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Of Those Alone, also looks at the belief prevalent in the early to mid-twentieth century, that alcoholism and homesexuality were intrinsically related.

Book cover - Of Those Alone

A Way of Love

A Way of Love, published in 1959 by New Zealand writer James Courage, was another item recently found. Six of his novels, originally in the Adelaide Circulating Library loans collection have now been located and catalogued.

James Courage was born in 1903 and died in 1963. He was at various times, a novelist, short story writer, poet, bookseller. During the Second World War, he also served as a fire warden in England. He moved from the UK to New Zealand where most of his books are set. 

A Way of Love, is an examination of a young man’s homosexual relationship with an older man. The novel was banned under New Zealand’s censorship provisions. Very few New Zealanders were able to access it. Recent commentators have seen this work as a major influence in gay literature. James Courage was the first New Zealand writer to directly address same-sex relationships. Given that the book was published only two years after the UK’s Wolfenden Report was released, this was a brave book to put into the arena of conservative public opinion.

Book cover - A way of love

The Wolfenden Report cover

The Wolfenden Report was a government-commissioned study published in 1957 by the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in Great Britain. It recommended that legislation should only apply to sexual acts that offended public decency or disrupted order.

In particular, the report recommended that private homosexual relations between consenting adults be removed from criminal law.

It took ten years for this to be enacted in Britain’s Sexual Offences Act (1967) and far longer for non-heterosexuals to feel in any way safe.

Book cover - The Wolfenden Report

Hiding in the closet is not a comfortable way to live a life. And it takes courage to come out. For many, this remains as true now as it was in the mid-twentieth century. It was not until 1975 that South Australia became the first state in Australia to decriminalise homosexual relations between consenting adults. It took some time for other jurisdictions to follow.

The State Library’s historic popular fiction collection holds books by writers who spoke their truths about a range of sexual identities. Even as fiction writers this carried risk, and took a degree of courage.


Written by Isabel Story, Engagement librarian