State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 72 Spring 2003

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From the Editorial Chair

IN THIS age of technological marvels, when buildings rise ‘like an exhalation’ (to borrow Milton's simile), the laying of foundation stones may not hold as much significance as it did in the past. For the colonial outpost that was Melbourne one hundred and fifty years ago, the laying of a foundation stone of a public institution was a marker of progress in the creation of a city and an expression of faith in the future. On 3 July 1854 Governor Hotham laid the foundation stones of two key institutions in the cultural life of the colony — the University of Melbourne and the Library now known as the State Library of Victoria. A central figure in both ceremonies was Redmond Barry, who became the first Chancellor of the University and the first President of the Board of Trustees of the Library. His impressive contribution to the life of Melbourne and the colony as judge and ‘cultural commissar’ (as his biographer Ann Galbally calls him) will be the subject of the next La Trobe Journal, which will be published to coincide with that memorable occasion.
This number of the Journal, heralding the important anniversary, is devoted to the State Library itself, both as a building and as a functioning institution — an institution which is now in the midst of a phase of renewal and re-invigoration. The re-opening of the Domed Reading Room and the redevelopment of spaces formerly occupied by the National Gallery and the Museum is the beginning of a new chapter in its somewhat chequered history. Those who have known the Library only in very recent years will find it hard to believe that little more than a decade ago a Melbourne newspaper could editorialise that the State Library was ‘in a lamentable condition’. With the transformation now under way, the institution is recovering the status it had in its early years when a German visitor described it as ‘the pride of Melbourne’.
There is no detailed history of the State Library, and the task of writing such a history is a daunting one. We should like to think that the material in this number of the journal will stir some interest among those best qualified to write it. A most welcome sign that the State Library is once again being seen as a centre of scholarship has been the announcement this year of Creative Fellowships, part-funded by the State Government, which support scholars with projects based on the Library holdings. Perhaps at some time in the future one of these Fellowships — or one that is independently funded — might be reserved for a scholar to undertake research into the history of the Library itself.
The articles in this number do not canvass the political issues that inevitably arise in relation to institutions depending upon public funding, nor do they explore the controversies within the profession of librarianship as they bear upon the local institution. Our aim has been twofold: to document the building history of the Domed Reading Room, which has just re-opened; and to place the current
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redevelopment of the site in the context of the Library's history. This record of change will, we judge, be of interest to contemporary readers and a resource for future historians as well. We have sought to supplement the articles with illustrations of the site over almost one hundred and fifty years, suggesting some unfamiliar perspectives on a building that has for so long been part of the identity of Melbourne. Readers who enjoy Cook's painting of the dignified neo-classical façade may also enjoy McCubbin's painting from the same period which shows the goat tethered in the back yard of the ‘temple of knowledge’.
The expectations of what libraries will contain and the services they will offer have changed in all sorts of ways since Redmond Barry and his fellow-Trustees invited the Acting Governor to open the newly constructed building in 1856. Exciting technological innovations such as Experimedia, which the young are likely to appreciate and enjoy more readily than the old, are a reassuring sign of the energy and imagination with which the State Library is now able to contemplate the future. Such developments need not mean any loss of those fundamental values that a library exists to uphold. For regular users perhaps the most exciting aspect of the current renaissance of the State Library is that potentially the institution is now better able to fulfil its traditional role. The quality of the service that the State Library will be able to provide depends, though, on its capacity to maintain adequate staffing; and that, in turn, depends upon adequate public funding. The Library serves the whole Victorian community, and its future should be a matter of concern to all Victorians. Of the quality of the librarians themselves one has no doubts.
Just how much the State Library as an institution has meant to citizens of Melbourne and beyond is apparent from the small selection of impressions and commentaries that is reprinted here. A democratic institution, free and open to all — not just desirable people — it has contributed significantly to the creation of an educated society in this part of the world. For my generation it was ‘the public library’ — and now, as much as ever, it is a library for the public.
John Barnes