State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 72 Spring 2003


‘The Pride of Melbourne’
Impressions of the Library in Words and Pictures

This miscellaneous selection from impressions of the State Library (under its various titles) that have been recorded by a variety of people — passing visitors, users, librarians, administrators, politicians — suggests how the institution has been viewed over the years. A much more extensive anthology would be needed to trace the public history of the Library and to document the controversies that have arisen from time to time; but this selection will serve to indicate something of its role in the life of Melbourne and of Victoria. The dates refer to the times when the passages were written or published.

Ferdinand Hochstetter 1859 Public Library, Melbourne

The pride of Melbourne, the pride of the Colony and the city. Justice Barry one of the principal Trustees, Mr Tulk the Librarian speaks good German and said that German literature is also represented in the library. A large building built in the most noble style [from basalt crossed out] of coal sandstone from Kangaroo Point in Tasmania, that will be enlarged again. Open free of charge from 10 am until 10 pm for anybody, men and women. The rules the simplest in the world: ‘hat off, enter name in the book, no talking, put books in place again’. In a population of 100,000 inhabitants, there were no less than 94,000 visitors in 1858. On 18 October 1859, the day on which I was there for the first time, there were 510 visitors and during
June 1859 visitor numbers 12,384
July 14,783
August 14,407
After 8 in the evening, usually so many visitors that the people can no longer find a place to sit, then the most colourful, the most interesting groups on the floor. Excellent clear arrangement of the library. It is intended to combine an art museum with the library. For that reason, plaster casts of statues were ordered in London. The books are all splendidly bound, my Auckland lectures in red morocco with gilt edges. This luxurious binding very political, instilled genuine respect, so that they treat the books properly, they are not soiled. Details about the library in the catalogues etc. presented to me.
In the staircase of the library, natural history and geological pictures are hung up and some ethnographical items from Australia. Gradually, however, an art museum is to be set up there.
From the note-book of German geologist, Ferdinand Hochstetter (1829-1884), translated by Thomas A. Darragh. Source: Thomas A. Darragh, ‘Ferdinand Hochstetter's Notes of a Visit to Australia and a Tour of the Victorian Goldfields in 1859‘, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 13, no. 4, 2001, p. 414.

Hermann Beckler 1859

From the main door you enter a large entrance hall, plain in style, roomy, clean and bright from abundant gas lighting. On the walls I saw, in passing, large display cases with illustrations of natural history subjects. A policeman in the handsome Melbourne uniform paced up and down, probably on duty as he was still in the same place when I left.
From the entrance hall you come to a spacious staircase with wide stone steps covered, like the hall, with mats. A printed notice asks the visitor to take off his hat before entering the library (which is more than reasonable) and to enter his name on the list of visitors. The walls of the staircase are covered with charts, statistical tables and notices relevant to library visits. On the ledges of the wall are a few simple arrangements of Aboriginal arms and implements. …An official or ‘guard’ sits in front of the entrance door to the library. One signs one's name, takes off one's hat and goes in. And there before one is a large library. An excellent book collection is at the disposal of anyone interested, be he a learned, man or the most humble worker. No book may be taken from the library. Anyone who dirties or damages a book would naturally be taken to court on a charge of theft ‘assuming he is caught’. But otherwise one can do what one likes. Dear Carl, this is a wonderful, free, civilized

Vestibule of the Public Library, Melbourne 21 October 1863. Wood engraving. Illustrated Australian News. La Trobe Picture Collection.

land. There is no-one checking to see whether anyone is stealing a book. The best book in the library is too good for nobody. One is just asked politely by notices to return each book to the place whence one took it.
I am no architect and therefore cannot comment on the architectural style of the room. But immediately on entering it I thought of the ‘Odeonsaal’ in Munich….
From letter of German doctor and botanist, Hermann Beckler (1828-1914), to his brother Carl in Germany, 1 August 1859: translated by Margery Ramsay and Walter Struve, La Trobe Library Journal, no. 25, April 1980, p. 9-10.

Anthony Trollope 1873

The city is proud of its institutions, and is justified in its pride. First among these, as being very excellent in its mode of administration, is the public Library. In the first place it is open gratuitously to all the world six days a week, from ten in the morning to ten in the evening. In the second place, whatever the library possesses can be got by any reader without trouble. It contained indeed, in 1870, no more than 60,000 volumes, which to those who are accustomed to wander among the shelves of the British Museum, or of the Oxford and Cambridge libraries, does not seem to be a large number. But the books have been selected for the uses of the people, and in such a library multiplied editions are hardly necessary. And the too vast multiplication of volumes leads to infinite difficulty in the manipulation of them. Here at Melbourne any man who is decent in his dress and behaviour can have books, shelter, warmth, chair, table, and light up to ten at night, day to day, night after night, year after year, — and all for nothing. For women, who choose to be alone, — and in the colonies as in the United States it is always presumed that women will choose to be alone, — a separate room is provided. This is only beaten at Boston, Massachusetts, where the inhabitants of the city are allowed to take the books home with them.
From Australia and New Zealand (1873), an account of the visit made by English novelist, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) in 1871–2.

William Archer 1876

There are many fine public institutions, such as gardens, recreation grounds etc. etc. in Melbourne, which I shall not attempt to describe. But I must not omit to mention one public institution — the noblest I have seen anywhere — the National Library. Any nation might well be proud of this magnificent establishment, which is certainly the most effective instrument of general education imaginable. It is not a particularly fine library as compared with our great national collections in Europe, but it is perfectly sufficient for every practical purpose. I examined some departments — those of British poetry, British drama, and Shakespearian literature both English and foreign — and found them as well stocked as anyone could possibly desire, except perhaps for the most recondite studies. But the beauty of the institution lies not in its collection of books, but in its perfect publicity. Anyone who is moderately clean in person can go to the library at nine in the morning
and remain there until ten at night reading any book he pleases and as many as he pleases. The only part of the library which is not entirely public is the medical section for admission to which an order is required. It is a splendid sight to see the great tables entirely surrounded by men of all ages and all ranks, but chiefly belonging to the lower-middle and working classes, studying earnestly, silently and with the most perfect order. The room is always well filled and on certain evenings it is full to overflowing. Moreover, it is very rarely that this immense privilege is abused. The excellent order in which almost all the books are found, testifies to the absence of any spirit of wanton destruction, and a book is rarely, if ever, stolen. I know of no institution so admirable in every respect. The Public Library in Sydney is conducted on the same principle and is as much appreciated by the classes for whom it is intended, but the collection of books is very much inferior. Melbourne is by no means behind other cities in the number of bars and drinking saloons it possesses, but I sure they would drive a much better trade were it not for the Public Library.
From ‘Australian Journey 1876–7’, a narrative of a youthful visit to the Australian colonies written by William Archer (1856-1924), who became a journalist and leading London drama critic; first published in Raymond Stanley, ed., Tourist to the Antipodes (1977), pp. 8–9.

H. Mortimer Franklyn 1882

As we have said, no restriction whatever is placed upon frequenters of the library, excepting that they are expected to manipulate the books with clean hands, and to return them to their places when done with. The use of ink is forbidden in taking extracts, as it might lead to the injury of the works copied from, and none are allowed to be taken out of the building. In all other respects the student or the desultory reader is as free as he would be in his own library, if he should happen to have one, and for the time being he is ‘monarch of all he surveys’. He may consult a hundred different works in as many minutes, if he thinks proper, or he may concentrate all his attention on one. There are sectional catalogues to assist him in his researches, and obliging attendants to answer his inquiries. He can be as studious or as discursive as he pleases, and it lies within his power to range over the entire field of literature, both ancient and modern.
This unlimited freedom, it is only right to add, has been very little abused. An exceedingly small number of books have been stolen, and a few have been mutilated by the excision of plates or leaves. The place is frequented by a moderate percentage of greasy loafers and disreputable fainéants; but the evils incidental to such a promiscuous gathering, in a city like Melbourne, are insignificant by comparison with the advantages which the institution confers upon those who are qualified to benefit by it for instruction or recreation. In the evenings, more especially during the winter season, the place may be described as crowded. The most perfect silence and good order are maintained. No sound is heard but the rustling of leaves or the muffled footfall of a reader going to replace a volume on the shelf, or taking his departure for the night. The frequenters include persons of all ages, from the stripling of fifteen to the white-haired veteran, who complains that the type is so much smaller and so

‘At the Public Library’. 23 February 1888. Wood engraving. Australasian Sketcher. LaTrobe Picture Collection.

much less distinct than it was when he was a young man. The classes of society most numerously represented are the operative and the lower-middle class, with a fair sprinkling of the déclassés. As to the books most in demand, works of fiction, biography, history, and voyages and travels seem to command the preference, but those of a higher character obtain a reasonable share of attention. Sporting literature appears to be intensely popular, and some books of this kind — histories of the turf, for example — are saturated and malodorous with the porous exudations of moist-fingered readers. Those have also suffered by the predatory fingers of petty larcenists, who have torn out plates of famous race-horses; but, on the whole, as was remarked just now, these mischievous depredations have been few in number, and the great majority of those who habitually frequent the Melbourne Public Library feel that they possess a proprietary interest in the institution, and that they are under an obligation to protect the contents from spoliation or injury accordingly.
From ‘The Melbourne Public Library’, Macmillan's Magazine, March 1882, pp. 378–79; an article by the editor of the Victorian Review, H. Mortimer Franklyn (1848?-1900).

J.F.Hogan 1889

The library of the British Museum rejoices in a world-wide renown, and is an institution of acknowledged pre-eminence, yet, in one important particular at least, it could learn a salutary lesson from its junior brother at the antipodes — the Melbourne Public Library. It still adheres to the antiquated red-tape practice of denying all access to newspapers and periodicals until such time as they are bound in half-yearly or annual volumes. This regulation of course conduces to the ease and convenience of the officials, in whose interests it was doubtless framed; but it is not unfrequently a source of much trouble and needless annoyance to students and investigators. It formerly prevailed in the colonies as well, but of late years it has been wisely repealed by the trustees of the Melbourne Public Library, and now all newspapers are made immediately available for reference with the best of results. The predicted wholesale mutilation has not been verified by the event; the energy and vigilance of the officers have been called into active exercise, and the sphere of the institution's usefulness has been largely increased. The precedent thus established may be confidently commended to the best consideration of the trustees and the principal librarian of the British Museum. Where is the sense or reason in rigorously refusing a reader access to an authority five months old, and cheerfully complying with his request for one of six months? In one other very important respect is the British Museum considerably behind its antipodean junior. The latter is illuminated throughout by scores of electric lights, and is thus made available for readers until ten o'clock every evening. On the other hand the British Museum makes but scanty use of this brilliant illuminator, and compels it patrons to retire at the early hour of eight in the winter and seven in the summer. Not only that, but the attendants are actually precluded from bringing any additional books to readers after sunset, in consequence of the darkness that then takes possession the recesses of the library.
How Australians would smile at the idea of closing any of their large libraries and reading-rooms just because there was no sunlight to be had.
From ‘What London Might Learn from the Colonies’, in The Australian in London (1889), by Irish-born journalist J.F.Hogan (1855-1924), who went to London in 1887 and became a member of the House of Commons.

Theodore Fink and Alfred Deakin 1896

MR FINK… There was one thing in relation to the Public Library which had not been sufficiently emphasized, namely, that the amount which had previously been voted for the purchase of books had entirely disappeared from the Estimates. That was a kind of retrenchment which was the falsest economy. The institution in question was one of the great libraries of the world. It had been organised, as far as the public facilities were concerned, on the most generous and wide scale. There was no great library in any part of the world to which the public had readier access or

Sears’ Studios, photographer. [Interior of the Queen's Hall, showing the book alcoves] [ca. 1910]. Gelatin silver photograph. H4721. La Trobe Picture Collection.

more convenient opportunities for availing themselves of its contents. It could not be regarded in any way as a proper thing to save a small amount of money and to seriously injure the value of such an institution. If the Government thought that they could wait till better times, and five or ten years hence fully repair the damage which was done by the present retrenchment, they were taking a view which was entirely opposed to the ideas which governed the maintenance and growth of great institutions like the Melbourne Public Library. There were a large number of books issued which must be bought every year, and they could not be bought as economically at another time as at the time of their first issue; there were a large number of valuable works in every department of science and literature which could not be purchased at all except in the first year of their publication. The Melbourne Public Library was not an institution for the mere enjoyment of the metropolitan population in the sense of being ornamental and convenient. It was necessary, if the people of the colony were to be an intelligent and progressive community, that the people of all classes should be afforded opportunities for self-culture and mental development. There were a great many persons both inside and outside of Parliament who would have been utterly unable to forward their careers or make themselves intelligent and useful members of society, and fitted to follow their arts and crafts with advantage, if it had not been for the ready access which was obtainable to this institution, [p.1277]
MR DEAKIN remarked that at that hour he proposed to say little on the several topics under discussion; but one or two of them were of such importance that it seemed to him that he would fail in his duty if he allowed them to pass without offering a word or two in regard to them. It appeared to him that honourable members had forgotten that the Melbourne Public Library was the most thoroughly democratic institution in the colony, because it gave admission absolutely free to all, and threw its doors open to everyone without distinction to enjoy its treasures of information. It was a most important adjunct to the University, and to all education, and the Minister of Public Instruction ought to be the last to say that it should be crippled in any respect. The stoppage of the purchases of the annual supplies of books seriously crippled the usefulness of the Library. It was a suicidal policy, and was seriously detrimental to students who could not afford to purchase costly textbooks for themselves. He had been in such a position as a student himself, and he was one of hundreds of Victorians who owed to the liberal provision which was made by the Public Library an indelible debt of gratitude. Not only to those who were pursuing a calling, but to that army of people who were always in search of light and culture, which aided in their intellectual development, assisted in shaping their characters, and in many cases diverted the whole course of their lives, the advantages of the Library were incalculable. All classes of people found their way to its doors. If the trustees were deprived of the valuable editions of works published from time to time, and which, if a year were allowed to pass, could never again be purchased except at a higher price, their interests would seriously suffer. The Chief
Secretary was cherishing the delusion that in authorising retrenchment of this kind he could make up leeway afterwards, but the honourable gentleman was under a grave misapprehension in that respect. He desired to urge the Minister with all the impressiveness in his power not to strike out the amount for the purchase of new books, but to allow the Public Library, a truly democratic institution, opening its stores to all — to students, to persons perfecting themselves in their callings, and an important aid to the general enlightenment which the masses were seeking — to continue its career of usefulness unchecked. [p.1280]
Extracts from Legislative Assembly debate in Committee of Supply on the Estimate of Expenditure for 1896–97, 18 August 1896, Victorian Parliamentary Debates, vol. 82. Theodore Fink (1855-1942) was the Member for Jolimont and West Richmond but withdrew from State politics in 1904, and in later life was best known as chairman of the directors of the Herald newspaper. Alfred Deakin (1856-1919) was the Member for Essendon, and after Federation became the second Prime Minister of Australia.

Edmund La Touche Armstrong 1898

Some years ago I was standing in the Queen's room of the Melbourne Public Library speaking to a friend, when he suddenly made this remark in a very feeling tone: ‘What a magnificent place this would be if it were not for the public.’ Of Hamlet without the Prince we have all heard, but the public library without the public had at least the charm of novelty. My friend was a man somewhat fastidious in his tastes, but even he would probably have been content with the exclusion of the undesirable portion of the public. And herein lies one difficulty to which I would like to call your attention. Are the great public libraries and their contents to be absolutely free to all members of the public, whether deserving or undeserving?… I believe that the public libraries of Australia are the least restricted in the world. This is our pride, and in Melbourne at least, unrestricted admission to the building, and, what is practically free access to the shelves, have become traditions. The question is whether we pay too high a price for these privileges. That question I, for one, feel reluctantly compelled to answer in the affirmative.
Before going further, however, it might be well to say a few words as to the origin of this system in Victoria. In library matters in this colony, the most honoured name is still that of the founder of the public library, Sir Redmond Barry. Confident as to the future of the young country for which he did so much, his work was worthy of that confidence. He would have the headquarters of literature, art, and science, side by side, under one roof. A noble treasure house, to grow gradually with the growth of the country, was planned. Here were to be collected the best examples the people could obtain, and to the people whose property they were, the freest access was to be given. A noble idea truly, and worthy of a noble mind!… Sir Redmond Barry held, briefly, that the books in a State library should be good books; that good books were worthy of good covers; that handsome bindings, fine paper, and good type had themselves an educational value, apart from the matter in the book; that good furniture, suitable decoration, and architectural beauty, were valuable adjuncts in refining the taste, and were essentials in our principal libraries.
How far he was right is a matter of opinion. Concert hall chairs, whitewashed walls, and cheap editions are excellent things in their proper place. But in our great State libraries they are not in place, and they will never help to cultivate that sense of reverence that should be just as powerful in a great Library as in a great Cathedral. I do not, however, wish to convey the idea that Sir Redmond Barry bought only the works of the ‘old masters’, if I may use the term. He was most catholic in his purchases; but he always bought the best available. He had no occasion to hesitate between a half-guinea and a half crown edition, and, so far as I can judge, he never did.
Speaking generally it may surely be said that the views of Sir Redmond Barry as to the requirements of a great Reference Library were right. They have been accepted and carried out by his colleagues and his successors amongst the Trustees — at least until we fell upon evil days of want — and if the results anticipated for the enlightenment and education of the public have not been obtained by these methods, the fault lies with the public and not with the principles. But that great body known as the public, made up of all sorts of entities, may be divided for our own purpose into two — the deserving and the undeserving. If it be granted that some of the public are undeserving — and that term need only include the dirty and the dishonest — why should this section have equal privileges with the deserving; that is, for our purpose, with the cleanly and honest? I do not think it will be maintained that they should. Then comes the question how are we to discriminate? Who is to separate the sheep from the goats? It seems to me to be only possible in one way, and that is to adopt the system in vogue at the British Museum and many Continental Libraries and make each reader obtain a guarantee of respectability from some citizen of repute. I am fully seized of the difficulties of such a course. It is a retrograde step and would be very irksome to honest readers. Nor would it entirely exclude dishonest readers. Many who now use the library legitimately would remain outside rather than comply with such a condition. Partly for these reasons, and partly because I do not think any restriction of this kind would be tolerated, I do not advocate this plan. I confess that under existing circumstances I can conceive of no satisfactory solution of the difficulty, and I would therefore suggest that we endeavour to do our best to palliate what we cannot prevent. To this end I would advise the gradual removal from the shelves and ‘storing’ of books most likely to be mutilated and those which it is impossible or difficult to replace… In the few cases in which we have tried this plan in the Melbourne Public Library it has been most successful. The exceptional freedom that has been given, practically without discrimination, to the general public has, in my opinion, already cost too high a price. Our records of the last few years tell us that no department is free from mutilation.
From ‘The Public Library and the Public’, a paper delivered by the Librarian of the Public Library of Victoria, Edmund La Touche Armstrong (1864-1946), to the meeting of the Library Association of Australasia in Sydney, October 1898.

Photograph of Library staff [ca.1894]. Gelatin silver photograph. H16881. La Trobe Picture Collection. The group includes both Dowden [sitting third from right], who became Chief Librarian in 1895, and Armstrong [standing, extreme left], who succeeded him in 1896.

Robert Henderson Croll 1939

In 1886 I passed the clerical examination of the Public Service, an examination for which I had to sit in Ballarat, and I was appointed to the staff of the Melbourne Public Library. Was ever such luck! I was a booky boy, a reader of everything I could lay hands on, and here I was thrust into the midst of one of the greatest collections of literature in the southern hemisphere… [p.14]
I learnt to love (literally) that great institution — the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, and I have lost, and lose no opportunity of serving it.
It was my Alma Mater, the source from which I drew most of my mental nourishment. I sampled everything in it from Theology (which commenced the classification in the north end of the main hall — this was long before the present rotunda was built) to Geography, which concluded it in the east end of the Barry Hall. The whole of the books, except a few shelves of indecencies, and some rare, and very valuable, volumes kept in the Librarian's room, as well as the art and medical
works in the Gallery, were in bays open to the readers. There was no need to ask for anything: you went to the shelves and helped yourself. A wonderful institution, a true cultural centre with its associated art gallery and museums, a place which is in truth a monument to the pioneers of the State, for they, led by the redoubtable Redmond Barry, had laid its foundations before settlement here was twenty years old. [p.16]
…It will probably be news to the present staff that we, the clerical officers of the Library, went through a form of [fire] drill every month or two. We handled the hoses (and how we hated the messy job!), connected them to the hydrants, and pretended to put out a fire. Another unpleasantness the staff to-day knows nothing of was the wearing of badges to give us official standing with the public. The badge was in the form of a crown in gold wire, and we wore it (when the Librarian was about, and only then, for we detested the label!) on the lapel of the coat. I know that the Library to-day, through its very obliging staff, answers questions in amazing variety and number; in my day, too, we were expected to spend time satisfying inquiries. I recall being asked for a Do-away Bible, and satisfied the lady when I found her a copy of the Douai version. And one day a lean, sunburnt man, with ‘bush’ written all over him, wanted to find out how long it would take him to drive a bullock team from Victoria to Coolgardie, Western Australia. I think I saved that man's life, to say nothing of a team of bullocks! Every quotation under heaven was asked for at some time or other. The big reading room (now part of the Museum) was a popular place in which to have fits. Out-patients would come in from the Hospital next door, often surrounded by an aura of iodoform. In the peace of the reading room, where quiet was strictly enforced, the outcry and fall of an epileptic were terrifying at first to my unaccustomed ears. [pp.165-66]
From I Recall: Collections and Recollections (1939) by Robert Henderson Croll (1869-1947), one of the best-known literary men in Melbourne.

E. Morris Miller 1951

About August 1900 I was requested to report myself for duty at the Public Library. Through frequenting the Reference Library I was already known to several members of the staff. The Chief Librarian (E. La T. Armstrong) sent me down to R.D. Boys, the Librarian of the Lending Library. Its entrance was from La Trobe Street, opposite the Working Men's College (now the Melbourne Technical College). The La Trobe Street boundary of the Library had a high galvanized iron fence. Double iron gates opened to the entrance door of the Lending Library. This was situated at the back of the North wing of the old Technological Museum (above which was the North end of the Reference Library). Across the North courtyard, on its eastern side, and opposite to the Lending Library building, was the residential ground-floor flat occupied by the Chief Librarian. The present octagonal building was erected on the courtyard and the Lending Library site. The residence is now used as tea rooms. The flat had a private entrance from La Trobe Street, adjoining the Lending Library gates.

The annulus of the Domed Reading Room. State Library of Victoria Presentation Album of Photographs. ca. 1985. La Trobe Rare Book Collection.

The Lending Library, at the time I commenced duty, had recently been remodelled and re-classified. I remember the older establishment, though but dimly. In front of a wide delivery counter there was created a high and broad indicator. This is described in Dr. T.F. Bride's paper on ‘The Public Lending Library of Victoria’ (1896), (First Australian Library Conference, Melbourne, 1896, Proc. p. 51) as ‘a wooden frame, containing small oblong pigeon-holes, into which are fitted blocks representing the books in the library. On each end of the block the number of the book is printed — one end having a red and the other a white ground. The white represents in and the red books out.’ In my secondary school days I was a seeker after H.G.Bohn's translations of the classics, and often awaited a favourable sign. Beyond the indicator the book stacks were placed. So far as I remember, there were no book shelves directly accessible to the borrowers.
The four walls of the re-modelled Lending Library were shelved almost to the ceiling. In the centre of the large square room there were stands with grooves for the display of new books. At the entrance door the delivery counter was situated. The borrowers came in on one side from the porch, and went out on the other. The sides were screened off by wire partitions. Inside this area there were tables for the temporary reception of returned books and receptacles for reserved books. On the counter at the incoming side there were trays containing paper pockets, indicating authors and short titles, with borrowers’ slips inserted; these were arranged numerically and grouped according to dates of issue. To the left of the attendant at this counter the unused borrowers’ tickets were placed in a tray. When selecting a book each borrower had his own slip in his possession. On the outgoing side the trays contained the separate pockets of all the books in the library available for borrowers, arranged in numerical order. The attendant at this counter stamped the date of issue on a slip placed at the back of the book, handed the book to the borrower, and inserted the latter's slip in the book pocket which was transferred to the opposite incoming counter for appropriate placement. At the left of the entrance porch was an inquiry window next to which a door led into the assistants’ alcove and the Librarian's office. The Library remained in this locale until the re-building of the present Reference Library.
From ‘Some Public Library Memories’, written in 1951 by E. Morris Miller (1881-1964), who was on the staff of the Library from 1900 to 1913, and later became Professor of Philosophy and Psychology and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania; published in La Trobe Library Journal, no. 35, April 1985, pp.54-55.

Leigh Scott 1960

The new library was ready for occupation towards the end of 1913. There is no need to describe this building. The cost of its erection and furnishing was about £80,000 — a ridiculous sum under present conditions. 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.
The many faults and shortcomings have long been obvious. It was estimated that there would be space for fifty years expansion of the book stocks. In his Melbourne, The Biography of a City, published in 1956, W.H. Newnham writes of the ‘millions of books’ in the library, — a gross exaggeration as the library has just about reached its first million and is small when compared with the great libraries, many of them, in Europe and the United States. That is just by the way.
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.
But this is anticipating! 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. It is scarcely too much to say that there were no really adequate staff rooms in the building. The Chief Librarian's room could be considered satisfactory but it was, and still is, on the cold side of the building and separated as far as possible from the rest of the staff. It is not too much to say that Armstrong was always rather aloof from his staff. Perhaps he was more interested in his contacts with the trustees,

Interior of Domed Reading Room. Gelatin silver photograph ca. 1950, H12931, La Trobe Picture Collection.

a body of distinguished people, many of them with real scholarly interests and attainment, as the notes on them in the Book of the Public Library give ample evidence.
But accommodation for other staff members was haphazard. 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. Actually the fans were to provide cool air in summer and perhaps did so; but the ventilation system was never entirely satisfactory; and the staff in the annulus did not benefit. In winter the catalogue room was draughty and cold. Radiators were of little value.
Perhaps the greatest lack was a staff room. There was nowhere the staff could meet for discussions. Indeed there was no suggestion of a respectable lunchroom. Senior staff took their lunches in a low narrow room in the north wing of the building. At one end of this was a table perhaps six feet by four and a small heating appliance, either gas or electric, in the corner. The floor was concrete but with some sort of covering under the table. The heating unit was not always in working order and so it was not always possible to make a cup of tea. Such primitive provision would not have been tolerated in a factory. [pp. 18–20]
…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. There was no action for damages in either case of injury, though surely the man who fell down the ladder had a good case. [pp. 27–28]
Edited extracts from ‘Mainly from Memory’, written in 1960, unpublished memoir by Leigh Scott (1888-1963) held in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, MS 7644

Glen Tomasetti 1976

He went up the stairs and, at the top, found double glass door with READING ROOM on them in gold, in the same lettering as WINES & SPIRITS on the window of the store in Chapel Street. He hesitated, then pushed one of the doors, went through another pair of half-glassed doors and found himself facing a huge chamber, its sides lined with the shelves of books up to balustrades in tiers with more books behind them and above, a dome. From a high central desk on the floor, partitioned work benches ran out in a star formation. Over these, a few hundred figures were reading. He turned to the right and a soft walk projected right round the library. ‘A gloomy place’, he thought with the rejection of a boy glad to leave school in the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. ‘Holy Moses!’ he would've said to anyone had there been anyone with him. ‘Who'd want to read all these books!’
Just past the first partition he caught sight of a man in a shabby coat and hat, fast asleep with an open book before him: obviously a down and out. The place was several degrees colder than the day outside. Tossing his head in sympathy, he supposed it was a more private place to sleep than on a seat in the park or a doss house.
He was moving very quietly as in a bank or church when the service has begun. He kept looking at the head bent over books and papers, at the attendant presiding from the throne of the centre desk and across at the wall of books on the other side. Keeping close to the wall himself to avoid, if possible, attracting the attention of the man in the centre, he almost collided with a ladder. He shied away and, looking up, saw the legs and skirt of a woman standing on it. He tiptoed on, wondering if the man in charge would suddenly look up and in silence, more profound for the rustling of pages and coughs that echoed to the roof, shout questions at him: ‘What do you want? What are you doing here?’ But the man was also engrossed in reading. Bert would have taken a book from the shelves himself and sat down to read, if only to end the growing sense of being unable either to complete his journey right round the vast room to the Exit door where he'd come in, or to turn back on his tracks. No one was taking any notice of him. He couldn't take a book because he didn't know the regulations, [pp.72-73]
Above him on the eight sides of the Reading Room were three tiers of balconies adorned with plaster laurel wreaths linked by swags of fruit. Higher up were sixteen round embrasured windows, each with a centre opening pane and eight fixed panes around it. The central desk had eight sides to match the room. Quickly, he added and multiplied to get the number of seats at the double-sided benches reaching out like spokes, and at the tables set between them at the widest point. The room could seat 304 people. He thought it a waste of space to provide such scant seating in so vast a room.
The sum done, he stood looking for a way of escape. An attendant approached with a sort of auto-tray of books and passed him without looking or speaking. Bert was holding his hat across his heart in the attitude of extreme respect adopted by men in civilian dress to honour fallen soldiers. When the tray-pushing attendant
ignored him, there rose in him a flicker of objection. They weren't very helpful in here, although the man outside had been polite enough. Perhaps they weren't allowed to speak. Of course, that was it! SILENCE IN THE READING ROOM. He'd read the notice on the door before he came in.
He walked on around the room, looking up at the light coming in the windows of the dome. This lower part was for all the world like a well: yes, a well lined with books but a well all the same. He'd done his share of climbing down forbidden wells. Prosperous farmers all had wells when he was a boy. Once down the ladder, your one object was to get out again and for that, you didn't need look down but kept your eyes on the light above. [p. 74]
From Thoroughly Decent People (1976), a novel set in Melbourne in the 1930s by Glen Tomasetti (1929-2003)

Staff member on dais. State Library of Victoria Presentation Album of Photographs. ca. 1985. La Trobe Rare Book Collection.


James McMahon, 1927–1949, artist. [Entrance Melbourne Public Library & Museum] [ca. 1927-ca. 1932]. Pencil drawing. H87.96. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Kathleen Fitzpatrick 1983

The old Leaving Certificate, even at Honours level, was an examination of very low standard and we simply did not have enough to do. There was a whole day each week on which I had no classes and the school library was inadequate for private study. I therefore laid before my parents the proposition that on this blank day, instead of going to school, I should retire to what was then the Public Library and is now the State Library and conduct my own education.
Thus began a blissful year, when, without pressure from curriculum or examinations, I simply read at large, book after book, week after week, month after month. It seemed to me that in the Public Library there was every book in the world, and I was sixteen and nearly grown up, eager to learn but very ignorant. All knowledge lay before me, or at least all knowledge that could be acquired without the aid of mathematics or science. I remember measuring with my eye the row of books by Bernard Shaw, the guru of my youth, and resolving to begin at Volume I and go on till I finished Volume XX or whatever it was, and so I did, imbibing a welter of radical notions on practically everything. I was mad for the drama at that time and read innumerable plays, including the complete works of Ibsen. I have never failed to call blessed that wonderful last year of school, from which I emerged fresh and full of enthusiasm and wide open to new ideas, unlike many of the exhausted adolescents I knew later as my own students at the university, already spent by their premature, competitive athletics at Matriculation. [pp. 146–47]
When I was sitting my final examinations [at the University of Melbourne] in February 1926, some wag placed a large notice on my usual chair in the Public Library, saying — ‘Vacant this place, formerly occupied day and night by Kathleen Pitt’. I loved working in the Public Library, pausing to look up into the great dusky dome to reflect on the rich store of learning it spanned and on the generations of learners who had studied beneath it. It may seem fantastic, but I believe I was also learning to love the great domes of the world that lay ahead of me on the road of experience — Sancta Sophia, the Cathedral of Florence, St Peter's and to me the most wonderful building on earth — the Pantheon of Rome. In the evenings, emerging from the Library in search of dinner, from the noble flight of steps I loved to see the dark old Brick Shot Tower against the brilliant sunset light. I used to tell myself that it reminded me of Florence, but as I had never seen Florence it must have reminded me of some Florentine tower seen in an illustrated book. The Florentine impression was to survive the actual experience of seeing Florence, because it is not only the form but the colour and texture of that modest relic which brings the Tuscan association to mind. The old Shot Tower still survives but the students of today can see only a sliver of it from the steps of the State Library, [p.175]
From Solid Bluestone Foundations (1983), a memoir by Kathleen Fitzpatrick (1905-1990), the niece of Ernest Pitt (Librarian from 1931 to 1943), who was a student at the University of Melbourne in the 1920s and later taught there, becoming Associate Professor of History.
[Material selected and prepared by John Barnes. Grateful acknowledgement is made to copyright holders for permission to reprint material in copyright.]