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David Scott Mitchell

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Name: David Scott Mitchell (1836-1907)
Associations: The Mitchell Library (founder via bequest)
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David Scott Mitchell was born in 1836 in Sydney, and was one of the University of Sydney’s first graduates, winning a mathematics scholarship as well as prizes in physics and chemistry. Brought up in a wealthy household where scholarship and reading were encouraged, he became a devoted bibliophile. Early in life, he preferred Elizabethan works and the Romantic poets, and built up a collection which included an early edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene and many first editions of poets such as Byron, Keats and Shelley. From the mid-1880s he became interested in collecting Australiana, and this is what his collection eventually became known for. He had few rival collectors to contend with at this time, and was fortunate enough to have the means to fully indulge his passion. By 1900 his collection exceeded 10,000 volumes.

Mitchell’s collection was mainly built up through personal visits to bookshops and second-hand dealers around Sydney; he had a hansom cab permanently booked for his regular Monday visits to the dealers. He was willing to go to great lengths to acquire special items, at one time purchasing the entire collection of a rival book-buyer in order to obtain one of the items within. This item, the original of Joseph Banks’ Endeavour Journal, is one of the jewels of the current Mitchell collection.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century Mitchell was encouraged by the principal librarian of the Public (now State) Library of New South Wales, HCL Anderson. It may have been this connection which encouraged Mitchell to bequeath his entire collection to the Library, on conditions that it be housed separately and called the Mitchell Library, and also that it be made freely available. During the last years of his life, he negotiated with the New South Wales government on the construction of the building to house his collection, which was begun in 1906.

Little is known of Mitchell’s personal life; he is alleged to have suffered a broken heart after a failed romance, but more severe was the blow he received on the death of his father in 1869; the will was contested in a notorious case which Mitchell found a difficult experience. While he had taken part in Sydney’s social calendar in his youth, after his mother’s death in 1871 he became increasingly isolated; he never married and had no children. He lived austerely and alone in his house in Darlinghurst Road, eating two identical meals of grilled chops per day; he had few close friends, but willingly showed his collection to visiting scholars. Apart from the bequests to the library, his benefactions were apparently exclusively devoted to assisting scholars in need.

David Scott Mitchell died in July 1907, holding a copy of one of his rare Australian poetry books in his hand. He left his entire collection to the library, along with an endowment of 70,000 pounds to enable the acquisition of new works – a sum of almost $1 billion in today’s terms. The Mitchell Library was opened in 1910, with over 60,000 volumes. It was the first research collection dedicated to Australiana, and is still one of the largest Australian history collections in the world.

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