Stanley’s Hidden Treasure

Did you know about this?

I didn’t.


A place of orchards, peaceful countryside, lush gardens.

courtesy of Charlie Harris at Chestnut Gardens






But as well as pastoral beauty …

hidden away behind some modest glass doors …

Stanley has a rare cultural treasure.


The Stanley Athenaeum


The Stanley Athenaeum houses a collection of books that dates back to the earliest days of the settlement of Victoria, to the days of gold rush and timber cutting and rough dirt tracks.

It was first opened in 1856 as the Stanley Public Room, with the Stanley Athenaeum formed by a small committee of men in 1863. It still holds books purchased then. In fact, the earliest book in the collection, four volumes of Plutarch’s Lives, translated by John and William Langhorne, was published in 1821.


In this Historic Books Collection, the Athenaeum has around 3000 volumes of fiction (for adults and children) and many shelves of nonfiction. (Details of the collection will be covered in a future post.)

As well as this, the Athenaeum also holds the complete works of Stanley resident, Geoff Craig (1935 – 2003), who wrote many volumes covering the history of the local area. Geoff also bequeathed the Athenaeum his extensive collection of books about local history.

There are also records for several community organisations and vintage photographs of Stanley and surrounds.

An interstate visitor conducting family research in the Athenaeum.

Highly Significant

The Athenaeum gives us access to some beautiful old books, but also, importantly, it provides a unique insight into the past.

“Stanley’s Athenaeum is highly significant for a number of reasons. As a result of the integrity and the intactness of the collection, the library provides an opportunity to see how an athenaeum looked and operated for nearly 150 years while also revealing the evolving community it continually served. The rareness of some of the books further highlights its significance and importance … throughout Victoria.” Laura Donati, Significance Assessment Report 2010 (See below*).


A Moment in Time

“The point of the collection is that it represents what was here at a particular point in time. It shows you what people were reading. It provides a picture of a community, what they read, what they were interested in” (Chris Dormer, Friends of the Stanley Athenaeum, private communication).

Unfortunately, for this reason, the collection is now “closed”.

“From time to time people offer us beautiful old books, but we can’t take them. We have to say no” (Chris Dormer).

Three Fires, Another Serious Peril and Some Unlikely Heroes

We are lucky this unique and invaluable collection is still with us. It has been saved from destruction at least four times.

On 17th December 1865 a fire destroyed two shops in the Stanley township and damaged the Athenaeum roof. In the late 1860s another fire destroyed the building. In 1901 fire damaged the interior of the new building, but most of the collection was rescued by residents (Craig, 1986).

In 1966 the libraries of country Victoria were regionalised and the books from the smaller libraries were moved to central storage in Wangaratta. If, during this process, the Stanley books had been transferred, the collection would likely have been dispersed. Also, because public libraries often divest themselves of older and unpopular books, it’s possible that some of the collection might have been culled from libraries altogether (Chris Dormer).

The Stanley Athenaeum Committee of the time knew the value of what they held and they felt keenly their responsibility to protect it. They insisted on keeping the collection intact and in place, in the Athenaeum.

POOO55 Stanley Library Committee 1966003
The Stanley Athenaeum Committee, 1966.

Because of their foresight and their courageous stand, the collection remains complete, a unique window into our past.

The Friends of the Athenaeum

A collection like this doesn’t just happen. It has taken years of painstaking work in collection and preservation, and a constant effort by dedicated people, applying for or raising funds. Over the years this work has been undertaken by committees, paid librarians and councils. In recent years it has been done by The Friends of the Athenaeum.

Today the Friends has around twenty members, Stanley residents and others, who help in different capacities. There are eight regulars who work on the collection.



The Friends know what a treasure they have on their hands.

“I can’t believe what a gold mine this place is.” Ros Woods.

They are passionate volunteers, devoted to maintaining an important resource for historians and family historians from all over the country.

Chris Dormer from the Friends of the Athenaeum (in blue) assisting a family researcher.

The Friends look after and promote the collection, encouraging people to (carefully) read and use the books and resources. The Athenaeum is open to visitors on Friday mornings from 10:00 to 12 and on the fourth Saturday of every month.


The friends are also locals, working for the benefit of their own community.

“Alice Hill lived in the pink house just over there. Eileen Davis lived just around the corner. Annie Kelly was a teacher in the area here for many years” (Chris Dormer).

The Athenaeum is still a place where people will drop in to share stories of the past and discuss the old families.

“That old bloke who used to spray the weeds. What was his name? … Oh I know who you mean. Yeah, he liked a beer … They weren’t really Italian. They all came from the same tiny Austrian valley… she had it all in old suitcases … full of letters and photos from the 1880s … The boundary might be a bit out. If we moved the grevillea it would have died — so we moved the fence.”

A Complex Catalogue

There is a considerable amount of work involved in cataloguing the collection. The books are double shelved, meaning there are two rows of books, one hidden behind another. Because the collection is “closed”, with no books leaving and no new books being added, it is possible for each book to be assigned a permanent position on the shelves.


In around the year 2000, the Upper Murray Regional Library performed a stock-take, developing a list of all books held and an alpha-numerical system for specifying the location of each one. Currently, the positioning of books is being revised and checked by volunteers during the Friday morning sessions. (For anyone who asks, the Friends will explain the cataloguing system … in head-spinning detail.)

Preserving the Collection

The valuable old books need to be protected. Some are faded from past exposure to sunlight. Now there is a UV filter in the glass of the windows, and many are stored in inert polypropylene zip-lock bags which are left open.



The Indigo Shire Council has maintained the outside of the building, but in 2007, when the Friends took over management, the Athenaeum had chrome chairs from the 1950s and tables topped in cracked vinyl. The building underwent a major restoration in 2010. The interior was painted, some new furniture acquired and the floors were sanded.

When the lino was removed from the lovely old pine and cedar tables, workers found the odd playing card secreted there — evidence from some …  ummm … flexible morals among past generations of Euchre players. (For several years, Euchre games were held every Friday as a way of raising funds for the Athenaeum.)

For the interior to be painted, all the books had to be removed.

“Putting them back took much longer, because we started looking inside. Some of them have the most beautiful illustrations. You get completely side-tracked” (Janet Sutherland).



Exhibitions, Events, Lectures

As well as being open on Friday mornings, from 10:00 to 12, and on the fourth Saturday of each month, the Athenaeum holds public events and exhibitions, both as fund-raisers and to contribute to the cultural life of the area.

The building is used regularly as a meeting place for community organisations, such as the Stanley Cemetery Trust, Hall and Athenaeum Committee, Stanley Artists and Stanley LandCare. In 2010 and 2011 the Friends conducted open days.

There are exhibitions in the Library. The main exhibition changes each year and the smaller ones change more often. The current exhibition is “Water and Mining: Water Management on the Nine Mile Goldfields”.



In 2014, as part of the Family Album initiative of the Beechworth Arts Council, the Athenaeum exhibited photographs depicting Stanley’s New Year’s Day Sports. January 2017 saw an exhibition called Minutiae to Grandeur, featuring some of the botanical books in the collection. In conjunction with this there was an art exhibition next door in the Stanley Memorial Hall, in which 29 artists from around the region displayed works centred around plants, gardens and natural landscapes. It drew an audience from far and wide.

The Geoff Craig Memorial Lecture

The Geoff Craig Memorial Lecture is held biennially, in odd numbered years, usually in September. On 10th September 2017 industrial archaeologist Susan Lawrence, gave the third lecture in the series, about the use of water in the gold mining era, particularly around Beechworth and Stanley. Around 70 people attended, testament to the growing appreciation of the Athenaeum and growing interest in the history of the area.


Indigo Shire supports the Athenaeum with an annual maintenance grant.

Recently the Victorian Government awarded the Athenaeum a stipend of $10,000 p a, under the Public Libraries Funding Program, set up to recognise the role of Victorian Mechanics’ Institutes in the cultural life of Victoria.

*Significance Assessment Project

In 2009 Stanley Athenaeum was one of 75 community organisations awarded a $3,300 federal Community Heritage Grant to fund a “Significance Assessment Project”. These focussed on the identification and preservation of community-owned but nationally significant collections.

Historian Laura Donati stayed in Stanley in March 2010 for four days examining, investigating and researching the Athenaeum collection before writing her report, which detailed the importance of the cultural heritage of the collection, for the Stanley community and the nation. The project was coordinated by Chris Dormer with support from the members of the Friends of the Stanley Athenaeum and the Stanley Hall and Athenaeum Committee. It was managed by the National Library.


References and further reading

Anderson, Noel ‘Those institutes called mechanics’ Australian journal of adult education 6 (4),june 1962.

Baragwanath, Pam and James, Ken (1976), These Walls Speak Volumes: A History of Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria. Ringwood North, Vic: Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria Inc.

Barker, Donald (2002), “Funding communal culture: opportunism and standardisation of funding for mechanics’ institutes in colonial Victoria. The Australian Library Journal, 51:3, 247-257,

Craig, Geoff F. (1986), History of the Stanley Public Room and Athenaeum. Stanley, Vic: G.F. Craig.

Craig, Geoff F. (1999), The Stanley Athenaeum. Stanley, Vic: G.F. Craig.

Cusack, Frank (1973), Canvas to Campus: A history of the Bendigo Institute of Technology. Melbourne: Hawthorn Press.

Donati, Laura (2010), “Significance Assessment Report 2010” quoted in Culture Victoria.

Eggert, Paul (2003), “Robbery Under Arms: The Colonial Market, Imperial Publishers, and the Demise of the Three-Decker Novel”. Book History (Pennsylvania State University Press). Vol. 6, p127-146. 20p.

Haigh, Gideon (2016), “Mechanics’ institutes, athenaeums revived as historians preserve the past” The Australian 30th July, 2016.

Landow, George P. (1972), “Review of Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel by Guinevere L. Griest” Modern Philology, Vol. 69, No. 4 (May, 1972), pp. 367-369 Chicago: The University of Chicago

Lowden, Jim (2012), “The unveiling of Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria plaque no. 29; &, Opening of the Charles Dickens’ 200th anniversary exhibition.” Stanley, Vic. : Stanley Athenaeum & Public Room

McKenzie, D.M.W. (1943), Looking back: the early days of Stanley. Beechworth [Vic.] : The Ovens and Murray Advertiser. http:/​/​​10381/​185389 

Maroske, Sara (2007), “Educational exsiccatae: Ferdinand von Mueller’s botanical lessons in colonial Victoria”. reCollections: Journal of National Museum of Australia. March 2007, v. 2, n. 1, pp 37-47.

National Library of Australia (2009) “Community Heritage Grants ‘09”. Canberra: National Library of Australia.

Wesson, Alfred (1971), ‘Mechanics institutes in Victoria’ Victorian Historical Magazine 42(3) August 1971.

Whitworth, Robert P. (1865), Bailliere’s Victorian gazetteer and road guide : containing the most recent and accurate information as to every place in the colony : with map. Melbourne: F.F. Bailliere.



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