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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walker, Robert Cooper (1833–1897)

by G. D. Richardson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Robert Cooper Walker (1833-1897), librarian, was baptized on 17 August 1833 at St Mary's, Charlton Kings, Gloucestershire, England, fourth son of Rev. James Walker and his wife Fanny, née Billingsley. He arrived at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, with his family in the Arabian on 27 August 1841 and moved to New South Wales in 1843. He was educated at The King's School, Parramatta, where his father was headmaster. After office experience in Sydney, Walker became a clerk in the colonial architect's branch of the Department of Lands and Public Works on 1 April 1855, transferring to the roads branch in 1857 where he was promoted chief clerk in 1860. In 1861-67 he was accountant in the railway branch of the Department of Public works. Despite no evidence of inefficiency, he was charged with neglect of duty over the defalcations of a subordinate and was required to resign on 31 May 1867.

Walker was selected as parliamentary librarian but the colonial secretary (Sir) Henry Parkes demurred at his lack of literary attainments and knowledge of books and provoked a debate on parliamentary privilege. Disappointed, Walker wrote to Parkes on 11 April 1868, stressing his business habits and knowledge of official duties and asked for the new position of inspector of public charities; appointed on 17 April, at his former salary of £500 a year, he held the position until 30 September 1869. One of his duties was to approve the books ordered on a government grant by free libraries under the Municipalities Act of 1867, which he did with some discernment.

In 1869 the government bought the Australian Library and Literary Institution and reopened it on 30 September as the Free Public Library, Sydney. Walker was appointed librarian on 1 October, with a salary of £400 and free quarters, fuel and light. With characteristic energy he immediately began the pioneering work of systematic organization and management, including cataloguing and classifying, acquiring new stock, drafting regulations and devising statistical records for what became the State Library of New South Wales in 1975. The first trustees, led by Professor Charles Badham until 1883, recognized Walker's capacity and worked harmoniously with him in transforming 16,057 mixed volumes into a substantial reference library, with strong emphasis on its educational role as a 'store-house of learning' and on ready access to its resources.

Walker showed considerable ingenuity, judgment and administrative skill in overcoming the library's problems of lack of statutory foundation, meagre funds and an inadequate building. His enthusiasm, kindliness, and urbanity helped. A lending branch, which later became the Sydney Municipal Library, was opened in 1877 and Walker became principal librarian. A service for country libraries followed in 1883, while the dilapidated building was added to and substantially rebuilt in the succeeding years, necessitating a rearrangement and relabelling of most of the reference library. Meanwhile, Walker strove to make effective the deposit provisions of the Copyright Act, 1879, and served as a member and from 1890 as chairman of the Board of International Exchanges. In twenty-four years he fostered the library to its first 100,000 volumes and to 200,000 visitors a year. He produced the printed catalogues and developed the Australasian collection, compiling periodic lists that led to the delayed publication in 1893 of a full catalogue to 1888, under the title Australasian Bibliography in Three Parts … This remained the greatest work of its kind for many years, while the strength of the collection was one of the influences in the bequest to the library by David Scott Mitchell.

Walker retired on 31 August 1893 on a pension of £587 and was appointed a trustee on 7 October. He acted as honorary principal librarian when his successor Henry Charles Lennox Anderson was abroad. He died of chronic disease of the bladder at Guildford, New South Wales, on 25 July 1897 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife Grace (d.1931), née Brown, two sons and three daughters, to whom he left an estate valued for probate at £3407.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1867-68, 1, 949, 3, 807, 829, Royal Commission on Public Charities, 2nd Report, 1873-74, 2, 244
  • F. M. Bladen, ‘Biographical and historical notes’, Journal and Proceedings (Australian Historical Society), vol 2, 1907-08
  • Sydney Mail, 28 Aug 1897
  • Colonial Secretary's letters (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

G. D. Richardson, 'Walker, Robert Cooper (1833–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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