State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 72 Spring 2003


A Ribbon of Words
Wall Quotations in the La Trobe Reading Room

Background and design

IN JULY 2003 when the Domed Reading Room reopened to the public after extensive refurbishment as the La Trobe Reading Room, a band of quotations circling the room above the shelves was a key feature of this remarkable space. The original concept had emerged from discussions in 1998 between me and Frances Awcock, the then Chief Executive Officer and State Librarian. I had recently visited a number of United States libraries, most notably the Library of Congress1 and the New York Public Library, which use painted or incised quotations as a celebration of their buildings, and Frances Awcock had the idea that quotations from the great figures in literature describing books and learning could be an inspirational feature of the Domed Reading Room, which she described, rightly, as the heart of the State Library of Victoria.
On 25 February 1999 I wrote a memorandum to the State Library of Victoria's Manager Buildings & Facilities, Peter Helfer, asking for his assistance with the project, which we had named the Dome Words Project. The memo anticipated that this would be a complex undertaking requiring input from the architect involved with the Library's $200 million Refurbishment Project, as well designers and content managers. More than four years later the project was completed and ready for unveiling. This article records the process of bringing the Dome Words Project to completion over this period, involving not only the architects, designers and content managers identified in the memorandum, but also Heritage Victoria, authors, editors, lighting designers, engineers and many Library staff.
The project would not have commenced if the Refurbishment architect, Ken Woolley of Ancher Mortlock & Woolley, had not been supportive, but he was immediately attracted to the proposal. The early planning meetings, involving Ken Woolley and Garry Emery, of Emery Vincent Design (now Garry Emery Design), captured the essence of the concept and started to shape it in response to the overall design of the Reading Room and the technical challenges of mounting an appropriate installation. Heritage Victoria, who had a watching brief on the entire Refurbishment Project, had given in principle approval for the installation, provided that it complemented the interior of the Dome and was not permanently fixed to the fabric of the building.
Over the ensuing years Ancher Mortlock & Woolley, specifically through Phil Baigent, was responsible for the technical installation; Garry Emery Design, through Mark Janetzki, was responsible for the design and manufacture of the panels; and the State Library of Victoria, through me, was responsible for the choice of the quotations. In the end, 654 words, including authors’ names, were incised into
20mm thick plastic composite panels. The boards are painted off white, the same colour as the walls of the La Trobe Reading Room. The boards are 900mm high, and are mounted on tapered timber battens above the metal shelves on the perimeter walls of the La Trobe Reading Room. The font is Frutiger, which has been tilted and manipulated slightly. The incisions are ‘v’ shaped, approximately 10mm thick. Quotations are 111mm high, with authors’ names 64 mm high. The incisions are self-shadowing, which means that their impact varies according to the quality of the light in the room. During daylight hours the incised letters are lit from above by diffused daylight from the newly restored skylights. This use of natural light is the way incised lettering on buildings have been lit since ancient times. At nighttime the panels are lit from below by means of a newly installed pelmet of strip lighting that lights down to illuminate the spines of the books and up to illuminate the quotations. The overall effect is very subtle, the intention of the design and installation being to invite readers to approach the panels, rather than to have the quotations ‘shout’ their messages. Ken Woolley is very pleased with the effect, saying that it is reminiscent of quotations to be found in the interiors of classical era buildings in Europe.

Selecting and Editing the Quotations

While the architects and designers were solving the technical challenges, I had the task of identifying and selecting the quotations. In the earliest days of the project two possible themes were identified. The first of these was a Victorian or cultural development theme, to complement the collection of Australiana that was to be housed in the Domed Reading Room open access collection. The second was books, reading and libraries. From the outset Frances Awcock had preferred the latter, and it soon became apparent that it would be difficult to find appropriate brief quotations on the first theme, so it was ruled out.
It is surprisingly easy to gather quotations about books, reading and libraries. For a period of time I collected exhaustively, from books that I had in my own collection2, from staff, colleagues and friends, and from the Web. This was a useful exercise, not just because it provided the raw material, but also because, with real quotations in hand, the nature of the editorial decisions that had to be made became apparent. Before too long I had hundreds of quotations and over 6,000 words. The first of the people to help me with the editorial task was Bev Roberts, who was at that time working at the State Library as an editor and writer. Together we determined that the quotations in their entirety should be treated as a book, albeit a special sort of a book. This helped us to articulate some scoping parameters. We wanted a mixture of quotations, embracing different concepts, eras, cultures and genders, and we wanted the set of quotations to be pleasing to read as a whole. In addition, however, each quotation had to earn its place by being both meaningful and inspiring, and it should not be too long, given the odd physical nature of the installation. This last factor was helpful for both the ultimate readers of the quotations and the designer, who was working for the most part with strings of words, rather than meanings, and he had to fit our selection of quotations into varying sizes of panels.
Several problems emerged at this stage. One was that very few of the quotations were properly sourced (indeed, most were not sourced at all). Another was that we had accumulated a plethora of quotes by dead, white, non-Australian males. The first problem was quite serious, as we had made the decision that, in the interests of accuracy and intellectual property rights, we wanted to verify against the original, and, where appropriate, we wanted to seek permission to use the quotation. Even when the source of the quotation was known, where this was in a lengthy prose form it was very difficult to locate the original. At this stage of the process I engaged Bruce Sims, a Melbourne publisher and editor, who threw himself into the task. He also accepted as a challenge the need to secure more Australian and more culturally diverse material, and he managed to identify a number of new quotations, including several Asian quotations. Bruce's tasks were to locate the original quotation, take a copy of it, seek permission to use the material whenever the material could be deemed to be still covered by copyright, determine which edition of a work would be cited, and advise on the form of both the author's name and the quotation to be used.
The next editor to contribute to the project was Beth Dolan, who had by then begun working at the State Library as an editor and writer. It was Beth's task to sign off on the finished artwork, knowing that the next step was the incision process. We all knew that, once the quotations had been incised, there was very little, if any, prospect of correcting errors, so Beth's acute editorial eye was extremely valuable at this point.
To give examples of some of the editorial challenges and decisions, I refer to the quotations by James Joyce, Lord Byron and Jorge Luis Borges. The Joyce quotation — “The studious silence of the library. …Tranquil brightness” — was first sighted in Diane Asséo Griliches’ book Library: the drama within3. The cited source was Ulysses, and so Bruce had the task of locating the quotation in one of the longest and least easily scanned novels of the twentieth century! When it was located we discovered that the words used by Asséo Griliches had been extracted in two grabs several hundred words apart. We finally decided to use the same form as Asséo Griliches, although we toyed with several variations. We also had to decide whether to put three stops in the break between the two phases, or to use simpler punctuation. The final decision was made by Beth Dolan, in the interests of accuracy. The Borges quotation was more problematic, as it is a translation, and in context it is actually a lament about Borges's blindness, which had the effect of removing libraries from his world. The complexity of this could not be communicated in a short out of context quotation, but we made the decision to include it because of Borges's great love of libraries. Again on Beth Dolan's recommendation, the final form of the quotation was varied from that first sighted, in the interests of accuracy. The first sighted form was: ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’. The final form selected is: ‘I, who had always thought of Paradise in form and image as a library’, the variation being caused by different translations. Our choice is, we think, more evocative of the original intent, while still working as a stand-alone quotation.
The Lord Byron issue was simpler, but it illustrates the problem of selecting which form of an author's name to use. We generally preferred the full version of an author's name, unless a shorter version would be recognised without confusion. We considered that the version Lord George Gordon Byron was excessively long given the purpose to which it was being applied, when Lord Byron is the most used form of his name. On the other hand we considered that Wystan Hugh Auden is only ever referred to by his initials, and so elected to use the form W. H. Auden. It should be noted here that the quotations and authors’ names were capitalised by the designer, so that, although we presented accurate capitalisation, this was made redundant through the design process. The value of retaining capitals in the documentation is that they can be used in other forms of communication about the project where appropriate.
Careful readers of the installed quotations will believe that they have discovered an error in the proofing: the quotation from Redmond Barry uses the word ‘honor’ instead of ‘honour’. ‘Honor’ is as it appears in the original, which is an address to the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library on 24 May 1859, a copy of which is held at the State Library.
Several of the Australian quotations are from unpublished sources. Boori Monty Pryor, an Aboriginal writer, said ‘Stories are the way to feel you belong’ in a session at the 1999 Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Brenda Walker said ‘Nobody has the last word’ when speaking about Edgar Allan Poe at the same festival; and Sonya Hartnett said ‘Words on the page are never prisoners of the page’ when accepting an audio book award, also in 1999. Helen Garner's quotation is from a piece she wrote about the State Library of Victoria that had not then been published. All of these quotations were considered to add to the richness of the overall final selection.
There are a number of quotations about the State Library of Victoria itself, and some specifically about the Domed Reading Room. These are the quotations by Redmond Barry, Irving Benson, Helen Garner and Arnold Zable. The State Library of Victoria has nurtured and inspired many writers, and a number of those have written about the Library. Some wonderful writing was collected for possible inclusion in the project, but some of it was too long to use, or didn't yield any suitable short extracts. One of my favourites is a poem by Lesbia Harford, called ‘Closing time at the Public Library’, which I repeat here for interest: ‘At ten o'clock its great gong sounds the dread/Prelude to splendour. I push back my chair,/ And all the people leave their books. We flock,/ Still acquiescent, down the marble stair/ Into the dark where we can't read. And thought/ Swoops down insatiate through the starry air’4. I hope that the State Library material gathered for this project can be the subject of its own article some time in the future.

Selected quotations

The following are the quotations exactly as they appear in the Domed Reading Room, listed clockwise from the west wall. Note that the north-west, north-east, south-west and south-east walls have two smaller panels to accommodate the four doors into
and out of the Reading Room. These split panels are described as left and right, taken from the perspective of a viewer facing the wall.
West elevation — left panel
No two people read the same book ∼ Edmund Wilson
The true University of these days is a collection of books ∼ Thomas Carlyle
Wide and independent reading — self-education — is what matters ∼ Patrick White
West elevation — right panel
Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey ∼ Anna Quindlen.
Let's save old books and study them with care ∼ Phùng Khác Khoan
Read in order to live ∼ Gustave Flaubert
North-West elevation
No place can be chosen more likely to arouse and exalt such feelings than this apartment, reared in honor of literature ∼ Redmond Barry
Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy ∼ Germaine Greer
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations ∼ Henry David Thoreau
The chief glory of every people arises from its authors ∼ Samuel Johnson A public library is the most democratic thing in the world ∼ Doris Lessing
North elevation — left side
Until I feared to lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing ∼ Harper Lee
Beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies ∼ John Milton
North elevation — right side
Words on the page are never prisoners of the page ∼ Sonya Hartnett
Writers speak for those who are kept in silence ∼ Isabel Allende
A real book is not one that's read, but one that reads us ∼ W H Auden
North-East elevation
Blessed are those who are privileged to read what they like ∼ Dorothy Green
Books can warm the heart with friendly words and counsel, entering into a close relationship with us which is articulate and alive ∼ Francesco Petrarch
One must be an inventor to read well ∼ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Public Library is at once the product of democracy and a sign of faith in universal education as a life-long process ∼ Irving Benson
Dreams, books, are each a world; and books, we know, are a substantial world, both pure and good ∼ William Wordsworth
East elevation — left panel
Books are the threads from which the fabric of our culture and civilization are woven ∼ Richard W Clement
One reads in order to ask questions ∼ Franz Kafka Books, the children of the brain ∼ Jonathon Swift
East elevation — right panel
The Dome and its ascending galleries seemed like a giant brain vaulting towards the heavens ∼ Arnold Zable
Stories are the way to feel you belong ∼ Boori Monty Pryor
Nobody has the last word ∼ Brenda Walker
South-East elevation
The studious silence of the library … Tranquil brightness ∼ James Joyce
To slide into the Domed Reading Room at ten each morning, specially in summer, off the hot street outside, was a sensation as delicious as dropping into the water off the concrete edge of the Fitzroy baths ∼ Helen Garner
But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think ∼ Lord Byron
Come, and take choice of all my library, and so beguile thy sorrow ∼ William Shakespeare
South elevation — left panel
There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away, nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry ∼ Emily Dickinson
I, who had always thought of Paradise in form and image as a library ∼ Jorge Luis Borges
South elevation — right panel
The word is the making of the world ∼ Wallace Stevens
A study lamp, a desk make two old friends … Rejoice — the ancient spirit thrives again. For those who read a word or two there's hope ∼ Nguyeěen Trãi
South-West elevation
The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest men of past centuries ∼ René Descartes
You can make initial contact with someone who does not speak your language with signs or smiles, but to communicate you need words. So it is with a nation; to understand it you have to read its books ∼ Geoffrey Dutton
A person cannot contribute to humanity without knowledge … Only a person with a free soul, a person who has no use for fear, can contribute to this world's betterment ∼ Pramoeda Ananta Toer


It was, as anticipated in my memorandum of 25 February 1999, a complex task to select the 38 quotations that now grace the walls of the La Trobe Reading Room. I wonder how many works of tens of thousands of words are the beneficiaries of as much high quality editorial attention as was directed towards these 654 words? On the other hand, very few ‘publishing’ enterprises expect to be displayed in such a prominent place, or to be one of the key features of one of Melbourne's cultural attractions, or to be expected to endure in that role for hundreds of years.
This was a wonderful project to have had charge of; it inspired me and the others who worked on it. The ribbon of words is now installed in the magnificent La Trobe Reading Room, offering to intrigue, inspire, entertain and challenge the many thousands of people who will enter the Room to use it as a library or to visit it as a remarkable architectural and cultural space. I can only hope that we have succeeded in our task of creating a memorable celebration of the indispensable world of libraries, books, writing and reading.
Cathrine Harboe-Ree


Refer Cole, John Y., On these walls: inscriptions and quotations in the buildings of the Library of Congress, Washington, Library of Congress, 1995.


There are many books about reading. Some that informed this project were:
Alter, Robert, The pleasures of reading in an ideological age. New York, A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Fraser, Antonia, ed., The pleasure of reading. London, Bloomsbury, 1992.
Halpern, Daniel, ed., Antæus: literature as pleasure. London, Collins Harvill, 1990.
Library: the drama within. Photographs by Diane Asséo Griliches, essay by Daniel J.
Boorstin. Washington DC, University of New Mexico Press in association with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, 1996.
Manguel, Alberto, A history of reading. New York, Viking, 1996.
Olmert, Michael, The Smithsonian book of books. New York, Wing Books, 1992.
Rabinowitz, Harold and Kaplan, Rob, eds., A passion for books: a book lover's treasury of stories, essays, humour, lore, and lists on collecting, reading, borrowing, lending, caring for, and appreciating books. New York, Three Rivers Press, 1999.


Refer Endnote 2 above for bibliographic details.


The poems of Lesbia Harford. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1941