State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 6 October 1970


The State Library Building

Many old Melbourne scholars have a queer affection for the domed reading-room, despite all its obvious drawbacks as the central point of a great library, and will view with mixed feelings the bold and obviously correct recommendation either for construction of a new building elsewhere or total reconstruction of the main part of the existing building. The librarians who work there will have no such regrets.
In retrospect, the major reading-room extension shortly before the First World War appears to have been a disastrous commitment of resources at an unfortunate time. The science of library architecture did not show any marked development until the inter-war period, and the local architects appear not to have been conversant with the better examples of their time. E. La Touche Armstrong, the Chief Librarian of the day and the moving spirit behind the new building, was determined to copy the domes of the Library of Congress and the British Museum. The result was a noble reading-room, 114 feet in diameter and height, but in almost every library. At the time there were regrets that it could not have been made the largest dome in the world. The most that The Book of the Public Library … 1906–1931 could claim was that it was ‘believed to be the largest ferro-concrete dome in the world’.
Armstrong, in his ‘Fifty years of the P.L.V.: some recollections and some notes’ (MS, La Trobe Library), wrote as follows:
The Public Library of Victoria was opened in 1856 and although the complete building had been outlined in keeping with the farseeing ideas of Sir Redmond Barry and Mr. Reed, the architect, little or no thought had been given to details, such as offices for the staff, workrooms, store-rooms and so forth. The opening of the Barry Hall in 1886 had afforded some relief in regard to these requirements, but the need became more and more acute as the Library grew. Partly to meet this need and particularly to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Library, I suggested to the Trustees in 1905, the erection of an entirely new Reading Room on modern lines, with provision for badly needed stack rooms and offices. The Trustees approved of the suggestion and later, of rough sketch plans prepared for submission to their architects. The similarity of the site of the Great Hall of the Exhibition building and its surroundings to that on which Panizzi had built the Reading Room of the British Museum appeared to me remarkable. Both were surrounded by buildings which would serve to lessen all noise from the city streets. The Great Hall of the former Exhibition building was at the time partly in use for the Technological Museum and partly for the newly established Lending Branch of the
Library. It was mostly built of wood and for this reason alone its removal was important. Comparing the site on which it was built with those on which the Reading Room of the British Museum and the American Library of Congress had been erected it was clear that the ground occupied by the Exhibition Hall would suffice for the proposed new Reading Room, including the necessary stack rooms and offices. The rough sketches of the proposed octagonal Reading Room, with stack rooms on four sides, met with a general approval from the Trustees and their architects, Messrs. Reed, Smart and Tappin, who, accordingly, instructed their chief draughtsman, Mr. Norman Peebles, to draw plans for a building based on these sketches…. The year after this building was commenced I went to England and took with me copies of the plans, which I wished to show to some English and American librarians and especially to Sir Edward Maunde-Thompson, the head of the British Museum…. Since the days of Sir Redmond Barry the British Museum authorities had always been friendly and generous to the Melbourne Library. It was no surprise therefore to find that, once the ice was broken, the Director proved to be very sympathetic. He very kindly gave me most of the afternoon to discuss the plans. After he had examined them I asked him to give his opinion frankly and assured him that any criticism or suggestions that he might care to make would be very welcome. He expressed great interest in the drawings and approval in the main, but he did not think the Reading Room could be satisfactorily lighted and he feared trouble in regard to ventilation. As regards the natural lighting, I thought that possibly he did not realize the difference of the daylight in London and that in our more sunny climate. It was, however, gratifying to learn that in general he approved of the plans and after thanking him I promised to write to Mr. Peebles about both the matters he questioned. The outcome was that the architect agreed to enlarge the number of skylights but said that in his opinion we would probably have too much light rather than too little….
E. Morris Miller, later Librarian and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania, was employed at the Public Library from 1900 to 1913 and was on leave in Europe when Armstrong made his visit. Morris Miller writes in his ‘Some Public Library Memories, 1900–1913’ (MS., La Trobe Library): I met Armstrong in Edinburgh [and we] discussed the new Library building. Armstrong had just returned from America and had made up his mind to recommend a round structure, with a dome in some aspects similar to the Library of Congress. I advised him against this proposal, arguing that he was trying to do with thousands what the Americans had done with tens of thousands and even more. I pointed out that he had only made provision for a large public reading room with adjoining stacks, and that the staff accommodation would be inadequate. I suggested that he go over to Germany and see some modern representations of the rectangular designs, such as the Königliche Bibliothek, Berlin, and that he give consideration to the needs of researchers in science and literature. My views fell on deaf ears.
The new building was opened by the Governor-General, Lord Denman, on 14 November, 1913. The following is an extract from a report of his speech in the Argus the following day.
It was not so very long ago when a library was regarded as a rather dark and gloomy building, a place frequented by bookworms and people anxious to acquire some abstruse knowledge. To-day a

The Reading Room under Construction

library was known as a place where no dust nor mustiness could penetrate. The modern library might be regarded as a clearing house of thought. The Melbourne building was a fine example of what a modern library should be. He greatly admired the beautiful proportions of the dome and the splendid reading-room, which, to his mind, made it one of the finest, perhaps the finest, buildings of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
The late Leigh Scott, who worked on the staff of the Public Library before ultimately becoming Librarian at the University of Melbourne, wrote in his ‘Mainly from Memory’ (MS., La Trobe Library):
The new library was ready for occupation towards the end of 1913…. Immediately it became something of a show-place. From its roof it was, and is, possible to see over the greater part of the city and the nearer suburbs. Visitors were frequently taken to the roof and round it though with rather a squeeze in various parts….
It is not for me to attempt to enumerate the many faults of the building: they have become more and more obvious and the many expedients to overcome them have been costly and not too successful. One of the greatest mistakes is the height of the reading room with a consequent waste of possible accommodation…. For the staff in 1913, small as it was, the inconveniences were at once obvious. To blame Armstrong is easy but he was not the sole culprit. The architects should have been aware that reasonable provision for staff was not made…. The sub-librarian's room was a thoroughfare, and the staff was merely put somewhere round the annulus. The building was to be heated by air (drawn in by fans on the roof) passed over furnaces and driven into the big reading room. Sometimes the fans or the fires did not work properly and cold air only was provided…. In winter the catalogue room was draughty and cold….
From the public's viewpoint perhaps the greatest fault was the height of the shelves in the reading room. It was absolutely necessary to use ladders to reach perhaps one half of the 30,000 volumes available to the public in that room. This was often a nuisance to the staff who could be called on to assist readers finding the ladders rather an obstacle. They were not always safe. Indeed on one occasion some years after the shift, a visitor came to me one night tendering a humble apology for breaking a ladder. He had fallen through two rungs. I remember the incident clearly perhaps because I spoke of the apology to Sir Harrison Moore then in the catalogue room. His dry comment was ‘That was very kind of him’. This incident reminds me of another. As is well known the ceiling of the room is one hundred feet and more from the floor. One day a small piece of plaster fell and hit a visitor on the head. From that height the small piece knocked the man unconscious. The Chief-Librarian was sent for. By the time he arrived the sufferer had recovered sufficiently to be looking round for the person he thought had bashed him. Armstrong was close at hand to offer sympathy; but the sufferer was looking for revenge rather than sympathy and naturally enough blamed and nearly assaulted the Chief. The piece of plaster was produced and the man placated. It was not the only piece of plaster to fall during the early years and in consequence the inside of the dome was lined with fibrous sheets. As a consequence of the plaster fall and the broken ladder, the trustees took out a public risk policy.
The Library Council's 1970 report briskly defines more than half a century's experience of the building in listing its defects
as follows:
Retrieval of books from the stacks is absurdly time-consuming, partly because of the slow lift and partly because of the long distance there is to walk around the annulus on any stack floor.
Supervision of the staff in the stacks is virtually impossible.
The book stacks are about 95 per cent full (as against an acceptable standard of 66 per cent) and possibilities for extending the stacks are available only by developing and further perpetuating a very bad arrangement.
The catalogue has grown in size and now fills the room it occupies, so that some re-housing of it is a matter of great urgency.
There is no space in the Inquiry Room for a Readers’ Service staff.
The Reading Room is unsatisfactory acoustically in that it magnifies all noise. It would therefore be unsatisfactory to station Readers’ Service staff in the room where they might serve readers.
There is no space for a public reference and bibliographical collection from which readers might do a good deal of self-help.
Staff quarters throughout the building are cramped and unadaptable, and not capable of expansion nor of rearrangement to allow a better work flow.
The segregation of staff in the annulus creates problems of uneconomic supervision of the Reading Room.
Movement of staff and materials from one part of the building to another is often circuitous, and frequently involves man-handling of heavy materials because of the lack of lifts in some areas and the numerous flights of steps.
The heating, lighting and ventilation of the Library are all bad.
Toilet facilities for both staff and public are minimal, and in some cases, in spite of care, quite offensive.
There are no public facilities for eating and resting, or smoking, such as are provided in libraries in other parts of the world.
The whole building is dreary and dull, and unfortunately the dreariest and dullest part of it is the Newspaper Room, which is the first part that the casual visitor sees; and it is this room which he carries away in his mind as “the State Library of Victoria”.