Purpose ' To most minds libraries exist at the periphery of debates over education and educational reform. However, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how, in 1910, the Melbourne Public Library (now the State Library of Victoria) was central, rather than peripheral, to a conflict which focussed on the role of the library in education and how the library and its collection could best be organised to meet this purpose. It will be argued that libraries and the way they are organised act as indices of the dominant views about education and can be seen as social and educational artefacts. As artefacts they encapsulate community beliefs about how learning could best occur at a given time and what knowledge was esteemed, made available and to whom.Design/methodology/approach ' To illustrate this point of view and illuminate the broader issues, this paper will use a particular set of events and a particular group of protagonists in Australian history as a case study.Findings ' This case study illuminates conflicting ideas about the place of libraries and the organisation of their collections in early twentieth-century society and demonstrates how these ideas continued to have an impact on the place of libraries in educational reform agendas in Australia in the following decades.Social implications ' The argument reported as 'the disaffection in the library' was both philosophical and practical and illuminated ongoing debates surrounding the place of the library in education. The outcome influenced the shape and place of libraries in Australia and demonstrates broader concerns at work in Federation Australia.Originality/value ' The paper casts a new light on the relationship between libraries and education and the place of libraries in the educational process. The network of influence in Federation Australia and the impact of this on the development of institutions and professions in Australia is also examined.