19 October 2013

Melbourne's stunning State Library: 1853-1913

Melbourne was first settled in 1835, a young city with a rapidly growing population of newly arrived citizens. Clearly the city wanted a lot, and soon: a cultural identity that would compare favourably to European cities, a vigorous economy based on wool and gold exports, and technological innovations. The first telegraph line in Australia started in Melbourne in 1853 and the first Australian train service started in Melbourne in 1853!

statue honouring Sir Redmond Barry,
still in front of the State Library today 

Australians were well used to participating in Intern­at­ion­al Exhibitions. The colonies had sent displays to overseas exhibitions from the very first World Fair ever, Crystal Palace Lon­don in 1851. At the 1862 Int­er­­­nat­ional Exhibition in London, Victoria and each of the other states mounted their own, individual displays.

Within 20 years of settlement, Judge Sir Red­mond Barry had a grand vision for the creation of an Anti­pod­ean treasure house of learning i.e the State Library of Victoria. Corn­ish­ architect Joseph Reed won a compet­it­ion for this public lib­rary which was to be built in stages. The first stage was ready for use in 1856; the loveliest part, the Queen's Reading Room, was opened in 1859 and became the Library's main reading room for decades. 

Nicholas Chevalier, The Public Library
1860, watercolour,
in the collection of the State Library of Victoria 

Sir Redmond Barry wanted for Victorians what every cultivated Briton had back in the UK: “It is difficult for such of us as have emigrated from Eur­ope, to conceive the disadvantages under which the rising generation will labour in respect to the familiarity with objects worthy of admiration in architecture, painting and other branches of art”. These words were published in the newspaper of note back then, The Argus 9/11/1861.

Since Australia was a loyal British colony, it was to be expected that Barry would base his or­iginal ideas for the Victorian Library and Museum on the British Museum in London. In par­ticular Barry wanted practical books, not exotic, rare or priceless books that would appeal to only five scholars in the entire universe. And by the 1860s he wanted to model Melbourne’s library on the South Kensington Museum's programme of education through loan and travelling shows. The library was free, secular and democratic, accessible for the education of every citizen.

The 1860s were years of continual expansion by the Library's Trust­ees. The National Gallery of Victoria Art School, associated with the gallery, was founded at the same time (in 1867). Inter­nat­ional exhibit­ions gave the Australian colonies a great oppor­t­unity to develop an inter­national profile, long before becoming a federated nation. The very first purpose-built Exhibition Building in Melbourne was erected for the Inter-Colonial Exhibition of 1866–7 at the back of the Pub­lic Library, where the domed reading room was later built. It occupied much of the whole block, with the annexe extending back to Russell St. Addressing the assembled construction workers, Sir Redmond Barry compared the building with the great cathed­rals of Europe. (This may have been exaggerated).

Queen's Reading Room, opened 1859 and demolished in 1909

La Trobe Reading Room, opened, 1913

The official Inter-Colonial Exhibition record of 1867 contained a long essay, giving a walking guide to all parts of the buildings and describing the major exh­ib­its. The Great Hall included displays from all Austral­ian colonies and surrounding nation states. The material ac­com­p­animents of civilisation dominated this show, the emphasis being on mineral and agricultural products, rather than the fine arts. This 1867 exhibition in Melbourne had been such a great stim­ulus that the Industrial and Technological Mus­eum opened in 1870; it shared a site in the Great Hall with the Public Library on Swanston St. 

The Inter-Colonial Exhibition of 1866-67
held in the State Library of Victoria.

The National Gallery of Victoria came into official existence by act of Parliament in 1870. The Trustees' Report published in the same year gave the results of a huge of the collections in the Library, Museums and National Gallery. Comparative tables ind­icated the types of libraries, the size of their collections and the method of financial support in Vict­or­ia, Europe and America. For a young institution, the Library had made great prog­ress in acquisitions and visitor numbers. For a very young city, Melbourne was on its way as a cultural capital of worldwide significance.

Two more exhibitions were held at the Public Library site in Mel­bourne. The Victorian Exhibition of 1872 was “confined to Victorian products intended to be shown at the International Exhibition held in London in 1873”. Victoria’s Inter-colonial Exhibition of 1875 was a prel­im­inary to the Philad­el­phia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The exhib­ition buildings remained in use as part of the library and art gall­ery complex till 1908, having been there for 40 years!

In 1909, the State Library trustees appointed JW and DA Swanson to build a new reading room within a budget of 70,000 pounds. The old spaces were demolished to allow construct­ion of the domed reading room. Designed to seat 320 readers and house 32,000 books on the sh­elves around its walls, the domed, spacious and airy reading room was officially opened by the Governor-General Lord Denman in Nov 1913.


The exhibition called Free, Secular and Democratic: Building the Public Library 1853-1913 will be going until Feb 2014, at the State Library. The exhibition called Mirror of the World: Books and Ideas is on permanent display at the State Library. Regarding Sir Redmond Barry, read the Resident Judge of Port Phillip blog.

Melbourne Art Network recommends a book called "Building a New World: a History of the State Library of Victoria 1853–1913" by Professor Harriet Edquist. She traces the story of the Library and the other institutions that came to share its landmark site. This free e-book has just been published by the State Library of Victoria (Nov 2013).


Andrew said...

Much as I like the La Trobe Reading Room, the demolished Queen's Reading Room looks very nice.

Deb said...

Do you remember the hours we used to spend in that library? No computers but great books.

Hels said...


Agreed. Melbourne was boxing above its cultural weight during the second half of the 19th century. The old facilities must have been gorgeous and even though there had been gold money floating around, I wonder how the city could afford it all.

Hels said...


Oh yes...I remember many happy hours in the State Library in the 1966-1970 era. Then for the post-graduate years as well.

Do students and researchers use the State Library any longer?

Jim said...

A great read.

Hels said...


thank you. I think it is important to track the history of our important 19th century institutions. Otherwise it will seem to us moderns that they were simply always there. Not only do we lose the original community debates, architectural competitions and financial issues, we also lose track of subsequent additions and changes.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The State Library is a real treasure. I like the idea of using it as a public space, as for exhibitions, in addition to its use as a library. It is upsetting that they had to demolish the beautiful Queen's reading room--why is the new so often created only at the expense of the old? The Queen's room, while still very grand, seems much more intimate and comfortable.

Hels said...


I also love the idea of using huge public facilities for important events like exhibitions and for the Industrial Technological Museum.

But that history seems to have disappeared. I have lived 80% of my adult life in this city and have never seen descriptive plaques, posters, memorial photos on the walls, books etc :(

Most people don't know their own cities' architectural histories, I am guessing.

Mandy Southgate said...

What a beautiful place and what a pity the reading room was demolished. It amazes me that we take so much for granted (such as being able to borrow and access books and information for free) that was not only fought for in some instances but carefully thought out and conceptualised in the first place.

Hels said...


that is so true! In Australia (and all British countries?) we have a strong tradition of state ownership. Thus the community was never subject to the vagueries of private philanthropy, or to the private use of cultural facilities.

So it is even more important to know how public cultural facilities were conceptualised in the first place, designed and fought over.

Hels said...

Melbourne Art Network discusses a new book called "Building a New World: a History of the State Library of Victoria 1853–1913" by Harriet Edquist.

Great reference, thanks