By Peter Bish


Passing down stories and collective wisdom is regarded as something of a sacred task. After all, writing has traditionally been seen as almost mystical in its power to convey thoughts. In the Western world, it was in the scriptoriums of monasteries and abbeys that books were painstakingly penned in medieval times with quills made from feathers – perhaps from a raven – and on vellum made from calfskin. The production of a manuscript was an entire month’s labour and required a whole team of scribes, illuminators, gilders, and book binders. Books in those times were a luxury afforded by only a privileged few, restricted to members of the cloth and nobility. But it wasn’t until the advent of the printing press that books came into the hands of laypeople.


The importance of the written word is reflected in the prominence and scale of the State Library of Victoria, situated right in the heart of the Melbourne CBD and occupying an entire city block. Its grounds encompass 23 buildings; it attracts 1.5 million visitors annually; and its 19th-century stone walls house over 2 million books. This cultural colossus doubtless played a significant role in Melbourne being named as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008, a title shared only by 6 other cities across the globe. When the foundation stone was laid in 1854, it was one of the first public libraries in the world. Its wealth of knowledge was accessible to everyone over the age of 14 – as long as they had clean hands and were of respectable appearance.


The Library’s classical portico is carved from Tasmanian sandstone quarried from Kangaroo Head, near Hobart. It is described as ‘octastyle’, in reference to the 8 columns that are fashioned in the Corinthian style – yet the portico wasn’t part of the original library as it was added in 1870.


Its wealth of knowledge was accessible to everyone over the age of 14 – as long as they had clean hands and were of respectable appearance..”


Standing watch in front of the old building’s columned portico stands a statue of Sir Redmond Barry, the Library’s illustrious founder. Appropriately bearing a book in one hand and looking very dignified, although a tad portly – perhaps he had a fondness for brandy and cakes – the bronze effigy of the great patriarch has watched over the comings and goings of the Library’s forecourt since 1887. From his pedestal I imagine he has witnessed many profound changes to the colony he helped forge – from the dirt roads and swampland of its early days to the great, bustling metropolis it is today.


At a time when the colony was consumed with gold fever and its inhabitants were in a mad scramble to scoop up their share of the rivers of gold flowing through the colony, Sir Redmond Barry was laying the foundations of what would become the colony’s capital of culture. It was the colony’s newfound wealth that funded this and other grand Victorian-era buildings, such as the Melbourne Town Hall and the World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition building. Both of these buildings were designed by the same architect, Joseph Reed, who designed the original library.


Sir Redmond was a judge by profession and, in 1880, presided over the trial of Ned Kelly following Ned’s capture after the siege of Glenrowan. The armour Ned wore at the siege, all 41 kg of it, is on display in the library. It was fashioned from the mouldboards of ploughs purloined from local farmers and consisted of a great helm, breastplate, lappet, back plate and shoulder plates. Besides the armour, countless books on the library’s shelves recount the deeds of Ned, Australia’s most memorable folk hero. When Ned rose up menacingly out of the mist-shrouded scrub on the morning of 28 June 1880, police opened fire on him only to have their bullets ricochet off his medieval-style suit of armour. However, he had neglected to clad his legs in mouldboards and the police soon exploited this oversight. On 29 October 1880, Sir Redmond Barry sentenced Ned to death. He didn’t outlive the infamous bushranger for long however, succumbing to illness just 12 days after Ned’s execution. Just as their paths crossed in life, so their legacies are intertwined.


Take a stroll through the Library’s grassy forecourt and you will stumble upon some of its more mythic residents, such as Jean d’Arc, installed in 1907, and Saint George slaying the dragon, installed in 1889. There’s even a bunyip tucked away in a shady recess of the grounds. This little guy was inspired by Jenny Wagner’s book, The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, a classic children’s story about a bunyip’s quest for identity – no easy task when bunyips aren’t supposed to exist! In another corner of the grounds two other whimsical figures, Mr Lizard and Gumnut Baby, have seemingly leapt off the pages from May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.


On Swanston Street, in front of the Library grounds, passersby are treated to something of a dystopian scene as a likeness of the library’s iconic colonnaded portico sinks into the pavement. The sculpture, carved from Port Fairy bluestone, is titled ‘Architectural Fragment’ and was sculpted by Petrus Spronk. It was inspired by ‘Ozymandias’, a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley – which you can no doubt pluck off the library’s shelves if you are so inclined – that speaks of the fragile and transient nature of all human works.


There’s also a statue of Charles La Trobe, the first Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria. When he arrived in the fledgling city of Melbourne, he noted in his diary that the only building of note was the gaol. This wasn’t a surprise, I guess, given Australia’s origins as a penal colony. There was also a pair of bronze lions flanking the Library’s entrance at one time. They were installed in the 1860s but the poor old fellas were retired in 1924 due to bad corrosion.


Others have likened it to a giant cranium, encasing the collective thoughts of all those engaged in a myriad of intellectual endeavours beneath it..”


The interior of the building – with its marble and parquetry flooring, heritage wooden doorways, and decorative plasterwork – is just as grand as its exterior. Beyond the foyer, twin staircases of Carrara marble imported from Italy ascend to the Queen’s Hall, the Library’s first reading room. The walls and massive balustrades are made from dark grey limestone quarried from Buchan, Victoria. Fittingly, for a building of such historic significance, ancient fossils can be seen embedded in the limestone upon close inspection. The Queen’s Hall was opened in 1859 to mark Queen Victoria’s birthday and is part of the original Library.


The Library is a maze of rooms. Among them a number of impressive reading rooms, galleries and exhibition spaces intersperse throughout. The grandest of the reading rooms and the most iconic space in the Library is the La Trobe Reading Room, which was opened to the public in 1913. Commissioned to celebrate the Library’s jubilee, the great octagonal-domed chamber was designed by Norman G. Peebles. It is six storeys high and can accommodate 500 readers and 1 million books. Upon its completion, it was the largest dome of its kind in the world, with a height and diameter of 34.75 metres and a glass oculus 5 metres in diameter. It’s built of brick, ferro-concrete, glass and has double walls forming an annulus approximately 5 metres wide.


November 2013 marked the centenary of the dome, a distinctive landmark on the Melbourne skyline and a space that has been likened to a temple of enlightenment and described as the intellectual heart of Melbourne. Others have likened it to a giant cranium, encasing the collective thoughts of all those engaged in a myriad of intellectual endeavours beneath it. Generations of scholars, readers, writers and artists have pored over books under the great dome, seated at its heavy timber desks, reading in the light cast by its distinctive green hooded lamps. It has featured in movies and was even used as the backdrop in the music video, ‘Hurricane’, by Sydney rock band, Faker.


Beautiful and impressive as it is, the Library building is really, to all intents and purposes, just a velvet-lined box. What really makes the Library such a priceless treasure trove is the world-renowned collection housed within its old walls. This has grown from the initial collection of 3,800 books hand-picked by Sir Redmond Barry himself . Today, the Library’s shelves bow under the weight of around 2.5 million books – including some very old and rare works.


Many might fail to see the relevance of a building full of seemingly musty old tomes in the age of the Internet and ebooks, where you can fit thousands of texts onto a thumb drive you can carry on your keychain. But the library is not just a treasure trove of knowledge and rare and beautiful books, nor is it just a cultural, historical and architectural icon; it’s an experience with a character and atmosphere that can’t be replicated by pixels on a screen. It is a place brimming with beauty, history, culture and stories that has stood at the heart of this city from its early days of dirt roads and horse-drawn carriages. It is truly a cultural colossus!


Peter Bish is a writer with a background in the arts. Apart from his interest in history, culture and architecture, he also has a host of other interests ranging from digital art and photography to programming and web development – and quite a few things in between.

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