History of Penrith City Library

–  ‘an information service from the cradle to the grave’, Geoffrey Remington, 1949

On 22 April 1948 Penrith Municipal Library was officially opened in the front room of the School of Arts Building in Castlereagh Street Penrith. The opening ceremony was performed by the Honourable John Joseph Cahill, Minster for Local Government.

When Penrith Municipal Library opened its doors, there had already been an intermittent library service operating in Penrith since 1885. This earlier library service, poorly funded and stocked, had to rely on funding from member subscriptions, donations from the public, limited Council assistance and a small, one-off subsidy from the government for the purchase of its initial bookstock. A fee of 2 shillings and sixpence per annum was applicable to borrow from the Library. This Library was opened on 5 January 1885 in Judges building on the corner of Castlereagh and High Streets. The librarian (Edwin Bott) was also employed to clean and light the Council Chambers, all for 13 shillings a week.

In November 1889, the Library moved to the Council Chambers in Henry Street. The facilities were much better with the Library experiencing about 45 visitors and 32 books borrowed a week.

With the establishment of the Penrith School of Arts, the Council Library merged with the School of Arts in rented premises on the corner of High and Castlereagh Street. In 1904 Katie Woodriff sold the contents of her home, Rodley, after the death of her husband. The School of Arts purchased her books. By 1905, membership had risen to 150 and the books totalled 1,500. The School of Arts opened their doors in its own building in Castlereagh Street in 1910. It was opened by the Minister for Public Instruction, the Hon. George Beeby. Its library service continued until 1948. Similarly, at St Marys, the Mechanics Institute operated a lending library for members until 1949.


2019 marks the 80th anniversary of landmark legislation that was passed by the NSW Parliament on 3 November 1939 – that is The Library Act, 1939. It says a lots for the vision of those parliamentarians and the cultural activists who pushed them to enact such far reaching changes just 2 months after the start of the Second World War. The Library Act ensured the NSW Government would provide government subsidies to municipal and shire councils if they provided a free public library service to their community. As a result, joint funding of local library services would be guaranteed for the first time.

Both Penrith and St Marys Municipal Councils adopted the concept of establishing a free public library in their respective council areas. Although St Marys Council investigated funding options, amalgamation with Penrith ceased any further action by the Council.

In April 1945, the NSW Library Board visited Penrith and St Marys to provide more information on the implications of establishing a public library service in their respective council areas. Nepean Shire was also interested, but Castlereagh Council was not. The government provided training for the librarian employed, assistance in purchasing and cataloguing books. Negotiations followed between Penrith Council and the School of Arts Committee. In February 1947 Council accepted an offer of a large front room in the School of Arts for a rental fee of 1 shilling per annum. A special Library Rate levy of 1d (one penny) was imposed in 1947 to help fund this new Council service.

A Library committee comprising local community members together with Council representatives was set up in November 1947 to guide the planning for the new service to the Penrith community. Margaret Kinsella was appointed the first Librarian. The council reported that the librarian’s job would be full-time and the Library would have £500 to operate on, made up of Library rates and Government subsidies.

When opened the Library was staffed by one librarian (Margaret Kinsella), it had a bookstock of 1,500 items.  About £1,500 was spent on the Library service during that first year, and in its annual report for 1948 (covering its first eight months), 470 adults and 528 children had joined. Members had borrowed 18,029 books. When we realise that the bookstock was only a mere 1,500 items we can imagine the scramble some days to replenish the empty book shelves with returned books!

Library Hours

Mon, Thur, Fri                         10 – noon                    2 – 5pm
Tues                                           2 – 5pm                       7:30 – 8:30pm
Thurs (additional)                                                       7:30 – 8:30pm
Saturday                                   9 – 1pm                       6:30 – 7:30pm

CLOSED Wed, Sun, Public Holidays

During 1949 Story Hour sessions commenced for children 5-10 years of age. This continued with increasing success until 1950, when due to shortage of space and staff, it had to be discontinued.

After weeks of preparation, a branch library at St Marys was opened in the electricity building on Mamre Road and officially opened on 29 November 1949 by Geoffrey Remington, then the Deputy Chairman of the NSW Library Board. In the 1950s, several small ‘deposit stations’ were opened at Regentville, Cranebrook, Mulgoa and Wallacia.

1950 brought the first real problems for the Library service with increasing members and bookstock. It wasn’t until March 1958 that additional space was made available in the Penrith School of Arts building. In July 1950, a Library Bulletin had been commenced. This monthly publication gave details of adult books placed in the Library as well as general items of Library interest. In 1954 this type of service was extended by issuing a junior Bulletin ‘The Spy Book’. It was patterned on the adult bulletin and in addition gave reading with articles and reviews. The same year brought publication of the first detailed Book lists on special subjects, aimed to meet the needs of people interested in particular fields of knowledge.

An Amendment to the Library Act in 1952, provided for an increase in the Library subsidy to a £ for £ basis, giving needed financial assistance to the Library service at a critical stage in its history. Deposit stations opened in the same year at Cranebrook Post Office and Mulgoa Public School. A deposit station at Regentville closed down, being too close to the Central Library. A deposit station was opened at Wallacia Public School in 1953.

In 1953 the library appointed its first trained assistant, Miss Joan Pearson. She later became Chief Librarian. In the following years other trained assistants were appointed. This of course, allowed for a greater development in the Library service. Until 1953 the Library had been staffed with temporary and untrained assistants, and the Library owes much to their valuable and faithful service, for without them the Library service would have been much curtailed. A particular debt is owed to two such members of staff – Phyl Mellor, A.D. Tyler and P. Hore.

No children under 13 years were allowed to use the library in the evening opening times. Non-residents were charged a subscription rate. Margaret Trask (nee Kinsella) resigned as Chief Librarian, replaced by Joan Pearson.

In March 1955, due to the generosity of the Penrith School of Arts, came the first opportunity for much needed expansion space at the space at the Central Library at Penrith. The acquisition of a second room made it possible to separate the junior and adult sections, and with a coat of paint and purchase of new furniture, a much more attractive and accessible lay-out was possible.

The following year saw a marked improvement in the library service as a result of the extensive activity of 1955. Bookstock and membership figures rose at both the Central and Branch Libraries. The Opening of a Youth Collection in 1955 at St Marys helped fill a very pressing need in that area. The Reference collection at the Central Library was expanded, and the acquisition of a new set of Encyclopaedia Britannica aided this.

In 1956 a special effort was made to interest the public in Children’s Book Week. Displays were held both at Penrith and St Marys. At Penrith the children’s author Eve Pownall came to talk to adults and children. Classes from most of the schools in the district visited the displays and heard book reviews and illustrated talks.

On 26 October 1956 the Chief Librarian, Margaret Trask, resigned to take up duties as a Librarian to the A.M.P. Society, Sydney. Her resignation was received with regret by all who were associated with the library, for through her efforts a strong foundation has been laid for the Penrith Municipal Library Services. Miss Joan Pearson, who had commenced her training with the Penrith Library was appointed by the Council to fill the position of Chief Librarian.

In 1957, the deposit station at Cranebrook closed. By 1958, the bookstock had increased to 12,885, and loans had increased to 84,873 per annum. The Library was staffed by 5 staff.

Better borrowing conditions were introduced, allowing fiction books to be retained for longer periods and permitting unrestricted borrowing of non-fiction books for the same period. By the late 1950s there were 3 adult and 4 junior deposit stations.

In November 1959, Penrith municipality was declared a city, and so, Penrith City Library was born. On 1 June 1960, the Library opened in a refurbished old Council Chambers in Henry Street vacated by the Council by its moved further down Henry Street. Library staff made use of the Boy Scouts and local police officers to help with the move to Henry Street. In May 1961 Penrith Library is believed to have been the first Library in NSW to celebrate Library Week. The theme was ‘Tt’s time to read’. Local shops displays books and everyone was encouraged to join the Library. They also had books on the Indonesian language ‘to make the collection complete’, stated Margaret Trask. The Library hours at that time was 10am to 9pm week days, and 9am-12 noon on Saturdays. 

Deposit stations began to close in 1962 in anticipation of a bookmobile service to outer lying areas which commenced in March 1963. Also in 1963, the Sydney Subject Specialisation Scheme was introduced. Each public library was assigned subjects areas to collect. Penrith was given Asian history, geography and literature.

After returning for a brief period as Chief Librarian, Margaret Trask resigned in December 1963 in protest at Councils ‘unrealistic decision’ on the salary for appointment of Deputy Librarian. Thomas Dash was appointed Chief Librarian on 29 January 1964. On 6 March 1964 a new central library building on the corner of Henry and Evan Streets was opened by the Minster for Education, Ernest Wetherell. A month later the old Library (Council Chambers) was demolished to make way for a Library carpark.

In 1965, St Marys Branch Library moved into the former St Marys Council Chambers building on Mamre Road. Following Thomas Dash’s resignation, Rex Whalan was appointed Chief Librarian on 6 December 1968. In 1970 extensions were made to the Library in Henry Street to accommodate adult lending books. On 1 January 1974, Rex Whalan resigned. He was followed by Robyn Allen in July 1974. A new mobile Library vehicle commenced operation in September 1974.

On 11 March 1977, Robyn Allen resigned and Alan Flores was appointed Chief Librarian.  With funding support from the State Government a toy library service was introduced in the 1970s. In March 1979 a new St Marys branch Library opened alongside the Senior Citizens centre.

1980 snapshot
Library budget – $761,125
Stock – 102,844 items
Loans – 451,442
Staff – 33
Ratio staff/population – 1/3015

During the 1980s a new Central Library was planned as part of a planned Civic Centre and Library on the corner of High and Castlereagh Roads. In 1980 Penrith Library appointed its first Local Studies Librarian, Colin Stevenson, who established, managed and continued through his efforts a unique library service point and Research Room. He was also responsible for a number of local histories. Colin later went on to be appointed Reader Services Librarian and Library Services Manager. In April 1980, Emu Plains Branch Library opened in the Lennox Shopping Centre and in May 1981, it reopened in a new section of the shopping centre. In 1982 a Toyota Mini-Bus commenced as the new Library Bus. In February 1983, Londonderry Branch opened in the Londonderry Public School. In April 1983, South Penrith Branch Library opened in Southlands Shopping Centre, Evan Street, South Penrith. In May 1984 Braddock deposit station opened in the Braddock Public School, Cranebrook.

In September 1984, a new book security system was installed in the Central Library. In October 1985 the Library introduced a computer system ‘Opal’ that would lead to the end of the much loved card catalogue. In March 1986, Alan Flores resigned and in July 1986, Graeme Pattingale was appointed City Librarian.His appointment heralded an era of great technological change for the Library and under his leadership, the Library introduced a computerised library catalogue (Opal) and functions in September 1986. Pattingale also introduced Apple Macs for use by Library staff. In September 1986, St Clair Branch Library opened and in January 1988, a new Emu Plains Library opens in a new purpose built building, sharing with the Disabilities Resource Centre. By December 1989 the Library was circulating 700,000 items per annum. The library’s bookmobile service ceased operating in 1991 through a combination of budget restrictions and operational problems.

1991 snapshot
Library budget – $2 million
Stock – 224,683 items
Loans – 751,699
Staff – 41.6
Ratio staff/population – 1/3744

In the early 1990’s a collaborative research and development team of Library staff and a computer development firm went on to create their own new library system, ‘AXCIS’. It came into operation on 13 March 1993 and continued to operate and develop until the Library phased out AXCIS, replaced by Spydus in February 2016.

On 5 December 1993 the old library on the corner of Henry and Evan Streets closed. The Library was set to move into Council’s new Civic Centre at 601 High Street. The following day, staff began the huge task of moving and setting up in the new Civic Centre Library. Covering an area of approximately 3,000 square metres, the new Library takes up at least one third of the Civic Centre and opened its doors to the public on a hot, windy and firey 8 January 1994. The Civic Centre and Library was officially opened on Saturday 28 May, 1994. The move to the new building afforded opportunities to expand the technological capabilities and range of services available to the public (e.g. self serve checkout, the creation of a computer training room, an integrated PC/Internet/CD-ROM environment for Library staff, Internet and CD-ROM terminals for the public, the creation of a Council/Library Home Page on the World Wide Web and public use PCs with laser printers). These major technological achievements have been partially self-funded by fee based activities in the Library.

In January 1995, the Library’s Local Studies and Technical Library Research Room was officially opened by Margaret Cox, a descendant of Captain Daniel Woodriff, the original land grantee. Research into the local area became more accessible through the opening of the Research Room. A specialist Librarian manned the Research Room service desk and it was open 7 days a week. The Research Room staff took advantage of the Internet, creating web pages on the history of Penrith and its suburbs. Between 2001 and 2016, Research Services staff hosted an annual history conference which attracted on average 140 delegates each year.

Since moving into the Civic Centre Library, an annual booksale was held, raising much needs funds for the purchase of Library bookstock. During 1997-98 two booksales raised $12,000.

The ‘Penrith City’ Home Page on the World Wide Web was initially created by Library staff, and has become a major local area reference tool for locals as well as for Library staff, answering enquiries from the public. In June 1997, Penrith became the first public library in Australia, and only the third in the Southern Hemisphere, to have its library’s catalogue available over the World Wide Web. Remote access to the site is growing rapidly. The rise of the Internet also was the death knell for the Library’s huge Project File.

By 1998, the use of the internet for information and social networking was ever increasing and the Library was at the forefront in providing the community with easy access to this new facility. By June 1998, over 800 Library customers had spent over 5,000 Internet hours using the Library’s new Paynets service since it was launched in September 1997. Along with the Paynet service, Freenet was set up to provide free access for the community of essential websites such as educational and government sites. On 12 December 1998, St Marys Branch Library opened in the former Commonwealth Bank building in Queen Street.

2000 snapshot

Library budget – $3.6 million
Stock – 303,419 items
Loans – 713,473
Staff – 40.25
Ratio staff/population – 1/4308

Probably the most extravagant, exciting and fun event that has ever been held was the Harry Potter Extravaganza on 16 July 2005. This event tied in with the worldwide release of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. It was a great marketing event for the Library with many children, parents and staff attending. The result was a great increase in loans in the children’s collections.

Under the project management of the Library Services manager Colin Stevenson, Lorraine Stacker was seconded to write the History of Penrith for the Council. This project culminated in March 2014 with the publication, Penrith: the Makings of a City.

Library staff experienced a number of major changes in technological advances during the latter half of the 2010s. These changes also coincided with the closure of two smaller branches at South Penrith and later Emu Plains. On 9 February 2016 the Library’s Axcis Management System was converted to Spydus Library Management System. During 2017, the Library contracted FE Technologies to supply an RFID tagging system that will revolutionise the way the Library keeps control over the circulation of its collections. It will also empower customers to not only check out their items quicker and easier (than they have done for the past 24 years), but also check them in when they are returned. FE Technologies commenced tagging approximately 200,000 library items on 20 November and completed the project in March 2018. The system was launched at the end of  2018.

In December 2017, St Marys Library was significantly damaged by a burst fire hydrant. About half of the collection and most of the fittings, floor covering and furniture was replaced over the following few months. The Library opened on a reduced scale at the end of January 2018.

In November 2018, the Library embarked on a significant refurbishment of its staff areas, Research Room, Reference and study areas. All staff came together in one room after moving the Local Studies Research Room. Two new study rooms were also added. They were named after the Library’s first two chief librarians, Margaret Trask and Joan Pearson. A major feature of the refurbishment was the glass wall that has made the Research Room very visible to the public. The refurbishment has also allowed for the beautiful art works and wall hangings to be more visible and accessible by the public. The refurbished areas were opened in March 2019.

Penrith City Librarians

By the time of the Library’s 70th anniversary year in 2018, it had five women and five men act as city librarians.