State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 82 Spring 2008


Marg McCormack
Leaving Their Mark: graffiti in the Dome

Prior to 1999 when the Domed Reading Room in the State Library of Victoria was closed for restoration to its former glory, staff could climb the spiral stairs as an alternative to the creaky old lifts to get to the five floors of book stacks. One staircase beckoned the curious further, up above the books to a small landing and a locked door, beyond which was the outside of the base of the Dome itself. Clearly many did climb to the landing, for the plaster walls and ceiling in this cramped space were heavily marked and scored with names and dates right up to 1999.
Who were these graffitists scratching and penning their marks for posterity? Surely library staff wouldn't do such a thing? One who did was Barrie Reid in 1952, signing himself 'Ern's Pater-Mater', in reference to the Ern Malley hoax of 1944, when intentionally poor poetry was submitted under a fictitious name to a literary journal, and gained publication. Along with Max Harris, who had been at the centre of the hoax, Reid established another literary journal in 1952, and defiantly called it Ern Malley's Journal.
In 1952 Reid was employed at the Library as a temporary assistant. By 1961 he was Chief Cataloguer and when he retired in 1983, he was running the Public Libraries Division. He was also a poet, writer, art critic and art collector, and lived for many years at Heide, home of arts patrons, John and Sunday Reed.
And here's another noted name in the library world: Graeme Macfarlan, who went on to become the Deputy Librarian at the University of Melbourne. When he left his mark in 1940, he was an unqualified 19 year old temporary assistant earning only £104 p.a., about the same as the temporary typists. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army and fought the Second World War in the 22nd Australian Infantry Battalion. Many years later he wrote the battalion's history, Etched in Green, an effort he modestly described as a work of 'compilation and editing'. It was certainly not an autobiographical account,
containing only two references to his own part in the war. Macfarlan studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree part time and graduated in 1953. Within three years he was second in charge at Melbourne University's Central Library. Could we have a family tradition of graffiting here? Graeme was the son of Beryl Macfarlan, possibly the same Beryl who carved her name in the Dome back in 1932.
Some graffiti was clearly inspired by events of the day. The Centenary Air Race from England to Melbourne was part of Melbourne's celebrations in 1934 to mark the centenary of its foundation. It prompted library attendant, J. Kenny, to pen not just his name but also a tribute to the race winners, Scott and Black. John Meskill Kenny was just 17 when he was first employed at the Library in 1924. His war records show that he almost enlisted in the militia in February 1939: poignantly his enlistment form was annotated with the description 'fat man', '19 stone', (that's 120.6 kilos) and 'not enlisted'. He was single at the time and living at the City Court Hotel on the south-east corner of Russell and La Trobe Streets, now demolished but once a favourite watering hole of library staff. Again in June 1940 he enlisted but was discharged less than six weeks later.
A graffitist with a longer war service record was library attendant Raymond Francis Bell, who was first employed at the library in 1938, the date appearing after his name in the Dome. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve the following year,
only three weeks after Prime Minister Menzies declared that Australia was at war. He was posted to HMAS Cerberus III as a writer [administrative clerk]. His service record describes him as a Roman Catholic with blue eyes and a fresh complexion, always of 'very good' character, but only of 'satisfactory' or 'moderate' efficiency. He served for the duration of the war, and was posted to support bases and ships including the Lonsdale, Orara, Melville, Moreton and Penguin. He was awarded the Volunteer Long Service and Good Conduct Medal on 8 May 1945. Soon after the war he left the Library to work as a clerk with the Police, where it seems he stayed until his retirement in 1982.
It was not only staff who felt compelled to leave a visiting mark in the Dome. Plumber N. J. Goodwin could have been carrying out some crucial work up there in 1938 when he wrote his name. Similarly electrician N. Duckworth was probably engaged in repair work when he took the time to sign his name twice on 1 February 1939. The visit by V. Draper, electrician, in 1954 was probably work related. But what was Capt Hansen from South Dakota, USA, doing up there on 1 September 1942? And who was Nancy Cooke, who wrote her name just below his on the very same day? Possibly they were part of a party of US servicemen and friends being shown around the library. Or, they may been a couple stepping out together. Other out of towners who
somehow made their way up the steep stairs, no doubt with staff guidance, were the Lobbs and friend from Perth and Nagambie in 1941, and others from Lilydale, Tamworth, and Launceston.
Even historians of the State Library itself were not above a little graffiti. David McVilly completed his Master of Arts thesis on the history of the Library in 1975 and subsequently wrote a number of other historical articles about the Library. In 1968 he was working as a senior library officer when he inscribed his name in the Dome, in what looks like ball point pen.
Most of the familiar names on the walls are staff who left the Library long ago. But one who was employed until early this year was the La Trobe Librarian, Dr Dianne Reilly, recently named a member of the Order of Australia, in part for her contribution to librarianship. A shy young 15 year old when she began at the Library in 1959 as a temporary Cadet Attendant, she was coaxed into continuing this long tradition, and noted her name and start date on a small spare patch of wall (see middle right of illustration on page 113). At a starting salary of only £156 p.a., a sum less than the temporary female lavatory attendant, she would not have then realized that she would leave a more tangible mark on the Library in the coming years.
Despite the refurbishment of the Dome, the 'graffiti landing' remains, with just a rough paint job over its low curved ceiling and walls. Names that had been gently applied are no longer visible, but those that had been heavily scored into the plaster in ink or pencil can still be seen. Happily this memento, one of the few unofficial records of ordinary Library staff, remains immortalized, though it is now off-limits to all, even to budding graffitists.


  • Kosa, Geza A., ed. Who's Who in Australian Libraries. Sydney: Library Association of Australia, 1968, and subsequent editions (as Biographical Dictionary of Australian Librarians).

  • Macfarlan, Graeme. Etched in green: the history of the 22nd Australian Infantry Battalion 1939–1946. Melbourne: 22nd Australian Infantry Battalion Association, 1961.

  • National Archives of Australia website for service records

  • State Library of Victoria. La Trobe Biography and Local History files.

  • Victoria. Public Service Board. Return of persons employed in the Public Service. 1883–1975.

  • Victoria. Public Service Board. List of officers in the Public Service. 1975–1990.

  • World War Two Nominal Roll website