State Library of Victoria - a cultural icon

304–328 Swanston Street, Melbourne


1854-1856 Joseph Reed; 1870 Reed and Barnes; 1906–11 Bates, Peebles and Smart;

1951 Percy Everett, Public Works Department; 1990-98 Ancher, Mortlock and Woolley

The decision to build a state library for Victoria was made in 1853 by Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe and Mr Justice Redmond Barry. An architectural competition was held and a local architect, Joseph Reed was declared the winner with his submission of an academic classical design.


The foundation stone was laid in 1854 and in 1856 the library was officially opened with a collection of 3,800 books chosen by Mr Justice Redmond Barry.


In 1859 the first reading room, the barrel-vaulted Queen’s Reading Room (now Queen’s Hall) was opened.  Additional temporary structures were built in the rear facing Russell Street in 1866 for the Inter-colonial Exhibition and were in use until 1909.


Construction of the landmark Domed Reading Room begun in 1906 and was completed in 1911. The dome sits on a classically composed polygonal drum that rises over four levels and is punctuated by arched entrances/exits. It was designed by Bates, Peebles and Smart, and a for a short time after its completion, the Domed Reading Room was the world’s largest reinforced concrete dome. In 1959 the Domed Reading Room’s skylights were modified and covered in copper to stop water leaking into the room.


The library’s original grand plans made provision for inclusion of a museum and an art gallery. A museum of grand proportions was to be built facing Russell Street, however due to funding shortages a scaled back version was gradually built over the interwar years in a more austere restrained classical style. In the 1990s, the museum was moved to the Carlton Gardens in a new purpose built structure.  The State Library complex was also home to the National Gallery of Victoria until it was moved to its St Kilda Road address in the late 1960s.


Between 1990 and 2004 the State Library underwent a $200 million major refurbishment and redevelopment. The most notable of these refurbishments was the restoration of the Domed Reading Room, to allow the return of natural light into the space. It was renamed the La Trobe Reading Room when it was completed in 2003. Other developments included the construction of exhibition rooms and spaces that are used to house permanent and temporary exhibitions. The permanent exhibitions include, The Mirror of the World: Books and Ideas and The Changing Face of Victoria, both of which are on display in the upper level galleries of the La Trobe Reading Room. Other permanent exhibition rooms are the Cowen Gallery, along with the Stawell Gallery rooms on level 2a, which house a collection of oil paintings and portrait sculptures drawn from the Library’s Pictures Collection. Temporary exhibitions are held in the Keith Murdoch Gallery, which is entered from the foyer of the main entry on Swanston Street and like the Cowen and Stawell Galleries, used to be a former museum space. The construction of these exhibition spaces has made the Victorian State Library one of the largest exhibiting libraries in the world.


The library has moved into the twenty first century with the inclusion of exciting new visitor facilities. This includes Mr Tulk Café, named after the first librarian, Augustus H. Tulk, with its main entrance on La Trobe Street. A Readings Bookshop, is situated next to the library foyer and in 2010, the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, was set up, with its entrance on Little Lonsdale Street. The Wheeler Centre was named after the Lonely Planet founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who donated funds for its establishment.


The State Library of Victoria was the first public library in Australia and one of the first in the world. The library currently holds over two million books, hundreds of thousands of pictures, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts, and has also amassed a large collection of audio, video and digital material. These collections reflect the culture of Victoria over the past 160 years, making the State Library of Victoria one of Melbourne’s greatest cultural icons! 


The website:

The original grand vision for the State Library complex.


Viscount Melbourne's picture

Quite enjoyed reading about it. Thanks Pete!

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Bronteboy's picture

Thanks for the article Peter. The SLV is both a a great structure, and a great, enlightened educational and scholarly institution. I've always found their staff, from the back rooms to the front desks, to be delightful and helpful people - dedicated to sharing their vast store of knowledge and collections, and getting them out into the public domain. Unfortunately not all public libraries are like that - some are hoarders, but the Latrobe Library [SLV] is the best we have, in my opinion.

Just as a bye the bye, this photo is an external display for the Jubilee of Flight Exhibition held in the Museum of Applied Sciences in July 1953, marking the 50 years since the Wright Brothers flight at Kittyhawk. The aircraft on display outside is a Navy Hawker Sea Fury. The photo is from the Museum Victoria collections.

onwards and upwards

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