A Jewel in the Australian City of Literature

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The stunning La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. In the centre is a raised platform where librarians in bygone days used to sit and police the silence.

I have had the pleasure of doing some research at the State Library of Victoria while in Melbourne for the birth of our granddaughter.  Melbourne was the second city in the world to be designated a ‘City of Literature‘ by UNESCO. Melbourne has had a long love of books. The State Library of Victoria was one of the first public libraries in Australia (officially opened in 1856), but it continues to be loved and heavily used by the public. Increasingly tourists are visiting this Library to view the magnificent building.

Old book, computer plugged into one of the desks and an old chair to sit on.

My little place in the La Trobe Reading Room. It is a lovely mix of new and old. There are many power points in the old desks and wi-fi is available throughout the Library.

The stunning La Trobe Reading Room is a joy to work in. The room is flooded with daylight from the glass dome which soars thirty-five metres above. Even on one of Melbourne’s many dismal grey cloudy days, the dome and the white walls lift my spirits while I am working.

The La Trobe Reading Room was designed on panopticon principles, with a central raised platform in the middle of the room where in days gone by, a librarian would be perched to police the silence. Today no-one sits there. Apparently noise can be a problem in the room, but it has never bothered me. I find it difficult to concentrate in silence.

I have always wanted to do more photography at the Library so in breaks from reading World War I diaries I have been roaming around taking photos.

Looking through one of the arches down on the desks.

I have been looking for new angles to take photos of the La Trobe Reading Room. It is worth wandering right around the room and taking photos from different floors.

While the La Trobe Reading Room (or the Domed Reading Room) is the feature of the Library, there are many reading rooms at the State Library of Victoria. I have been working in the Heritage Collections Reading Room. While it is not spectacular, the tall ceilings and large windows give it the spacious and airy feel that I enjoy. It is a contrast to the harsh artificial lighting and blandness of so many new archives.

Desks, many with computers downstairs while people can work on the mezzanine level.

The Redmond Barry Reading Room is another spacious area with lots of books which people can consult while working there. The Library does not lend books.

There are always plenty of exhibitions at the Library. They are blessed with copious exhibition places in the various levels of arcades surrounding the La Trobe Reading Room, as well as in the space leading to the cafe, the large Keith Murdoch Gallery to the left of the foyer, and the galleries which join the Redmond Barry Reading Room, the Heritage Collections Reading Room and the stairs leading up to the La Trobe Reading Room.

The State Library has a dedicated room to the game of chess. The chess board tables seem to be in constant use. The Library holds over 13,000 books, magazines and tournament records about chess which it claims is one of the biggest such collections in the world.

Parquet walkway with large pole in the middle and ceiling with eight beams radiating from the pole.

This spacious room is the main thoroughfare leading to the La Trobe, Redmond Barry, Newspaper and Family History Reading Rooms as well as the various gallery spaces in the Library.

The State Library of Victoria also has a Readings Bookshop and is one of the few archives or libraries I have visited with a decent cafe. It is named Mr Tulk after the first Chief Library, Augustus Henry Tulk. The decor has character, not the minimalist, bland decor of so many archive/library cafes, and while it is not cheap the food and the drinks are good. I am still wincing at the chai latte I had at the cafe of another archive/library recently. It tasted like dirty dishwater. Usually I take my lunch and a bottle of water both to save money on research trips and because I am not going to help finance businesses that don’t provide a good service.

Large cut-out duckie in the foreground with a bluestone wall at the rear.

This large open space is labelled ‘Genealogy’ but it seems to be a spare room for functions or for parents to relax with children.

The State Library of Victoria already has a large number of open spaces for the public but there is a major redevelopment taking place which will open up another 1000m2 of floor space to the public by 2020. One thing that is currently missing is a good, dedicated area for children to encourage literacy. The new development will provide that as well as another public reading room, a garden rooftop terrace, another cafe, more exhibition space, an innovation hub, theatre and conference facilities as well as reopening the Russell Street entrance to the Library.

While the State Government has contributed $55 million dollars towards the project, more financing needs to be secured to fund the entire project. Last week the Ian Potter Foundation promised $10 million dollars which will secure the renovation of the Queen’s Hall which was part of the original library that opened in 1856 but closed to the public for years.

It is great that the state government is funding a large part of the renovations. The cynic in me notes that governments like financing prominent new developments but tend to be miserly about the essential operational budgets of their institutions. I wonder how well funded the day to day operations of the State Library are?

One of the things I love about the Library is how it is embraced by so many people. The Library is a hive of activity with people coming and going all the time while others sit for hours doing their stuff. It is fabulous to see an old building so well used by people today.

I am looking forward to another week of research at the Library.

The entrance of the State Library at dusk.

The entrance of the State Library of Victoria at dusk.

I have some more photos of the State Library of Victoria on my Flickr photostream

6 thoughts on “A Jewel in the Australian City of Literature

  1. I spent a good proportion of my waking life, while I was at uni in the 1960s, in this library. No computers, no iPads, no Kindles and no mobile phones, but great research material and very supportive staff.

    What I do not remember is a Readings Bookshop and I don’t think I remember a cafe either. Great ideas!


    • Did they have librarians sitting in the that raised dais in the middle when you were studying there? I was trying to find an old photo of staff sitting there but couldn’t find one.

      I have vague memories of it being fairly dark in the domed reading room because it was covered. Is that how you remember it?


  2. Oh my…I’m in a swoon. I can feel myself sitting there, writing, reading, and researching for days on end, never wanting to leave. I hope they get the children’s section set up soon as my son would love that. Can’t wait to make a trip and go!!


    • My heart lifts when I sit down to work in that library. I am looking forward to seeing the children’s section too. It is so good that they want to make this library for everyone and for all ages.

      Liked by 1 person

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