A rare book librarian to celebrate: Mirror of the World: Des Cowley, books and ideas

A Library Planet post by Fiona Kells

On 4 August 2022 Des Cowley retired from the State Library of Victoria (SLV) after thirty-seven years of service. Des began working at the State Library in 1985 in the Acquisitions team, Reader Services. He then moved into an entry-level Librarian role in the SLV’s La Trobe Library. In 1997, Des became Rare Printed Manager, overseeing a team working in Maps, Children’s Literature and Rare Books.

Des Cowley in Paris, 2012 (photography by Susan Millard).

Des is a first-rate Rare Books Librarian. Under his management, the State Library of Victoria’s international and Australian rare books collections were consolidated into a single unit and the Rare Books Collection as it exists today was created. A passionate and dedicated curator, Des systematically transformed the Library’s collection and the public’s engagement with it. He pursued new areas of collecting – notably developing the Library’s holdings of pulps, artists’ books, ephemera and modern fiction – and he cultivated public awareness of the Library’s impressive collection through exhibitions, fairs, seminars and summer schools on the history of the book, and via the marvellous permanent exhibition World of the Book (formerly Mirror of the World), of which he was co-curator. Des also co-authored (with Clare Williamson) the excellent World of the Book (Melbourne University Press, 2007).

The Chief Librarian, State Library of Victoria aka Des Cowley (photograph by Anna Welch).

In honour of his achievements and to mark his retirement, Des’s friends and colleagues banded together to create a Festschrift (even managing to keep the project top secret almost to the time of presentation). The book details Des’s career along with his curatorial interests and areas of innovation within the State Library of Victoria. The book also reveals the deep and abiding appreciation felt by those whom Des helped along the way. Titled Mirror of the World, the book ranges across diverse topics from pulp fiction to artists’ books and medieval manuscripts.

Marc Brody, Obituary Blonde, (Sydney: Horwitz Publications for Transport Publishing Co., 1957). (Kells Collection.)

The Festschrift contains plenty of personal reminiscences as well, including amusing insights into the conundrums faced by modern Rare Books Librarians. In his essay ‘Lessons learned: The things they don’t teach you at library school’, Des’s colleague Dermot McCaul recalls the occasion on which a dealer offered the State Library a collection ‘of highly visual advertising material (brochures and so on) for pornographic videos being distributed in Fyshwick, Canberra – the home of adult videos in Australia at the time’. Des prevaricated, ‘recognising the unique nature of the material’, but ultimately he had to pass as neither he nor Dermot felt they could get such a purchase past ‘the Library’s increasingly po-faced Selection Committee’. What a loss!

Elias Canetti, The Tower of Babel, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947).

My husband, Stuart, and I had many pleasant encounters with Des, as fellow book people and as friends and patrons of the State Library of Victoria. For a decade we ran an ILAB-affiliated antiquarian book business, and the State Library was a preeminent destination for our most prized books, including Australian pulps and comics. This material was, and is, a passion of ours, and we hunted high and low for it. No ‘bookshop’, ‘junk’ shop, op shop, ‘collectables’ centre or garage sale was too dingy or chaotic; if it existed, we were there, knee deep in boxes and grime. It was a pleasure to see the items we recovered entering the Library’s collection where they would be cherished and cared for.

Clare Williamson and Des Cowley with their The World of the Book, 2005 (photograph by Susan Millard).

Affable, knowledgeable and generous in sharing his expertise, Des won umpteen friends and supporters for the State Library of Victoria. The role of Rare Books Manager was a tough gig, but Des acquitted himself exceptionally well, and then some. Outside his work at the State Library of Victoria, Des was (with Francesca Jurate Sasnaitis) co-owner of the Greville Street Bookstore. He is also a jazz aficionado and reviewer, regularly contributing to music magazines Rhythms and Addicted to Noise.

Fiona Kells

Stuart Kells contributed the chapter ‘Australian Pulp Fiction’ to the Festschrift, Mirror of the World.

William Morris, designs for wallpapers, vol. 1 of 2, c.1887 (photograph by Anna Welch).

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