State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 72 Spring 2003


The Library after 150 Years

SIR REDMOND BARRY, in his address at the opening of the Library, remarked that the Trustees, when selecting a design for the building, sought one that would assure convenience, be adaptable, and make a public statement to and about the community it was to serve. These criteria remain as appropriate 150 years later. The generations of custodians who have succeeded the original Trustees and the small complement of original staff have been fortunate in being able to build on the foundations of these remarkable pioneers.
The mammoth project to integrate and redevelop the 328 Swanston Street city block is now three-quarters complete and the results are glorious. The project unifies the site, harnessing seventeen buildings of disparate style and age to serve the Library's readers. As a result of the redevelopment the space available to the public will have trebled, storage space that meets industry standards will accommodate 50% of the collection onsite, and staff office areas and facilities will be improved.
The resources and collections to which the Library provides access today are vastly different from those to which the reader of 1856 had access. It will come as no surprise that the size of the book collection has grown (from 3846 volumes in February 1856 to 1.9 million volumes in June 2003). Today printed material is complemented by electronic resources. The Library's expenditure on electronic resources in the mid-1990s was negligible, in 2003 electronic resources account for 12% of expenditure on the collections. A third difference 150 years on flows from the Library's national responsibility to collect, preserve and provide access to material about Victoria. This has resulted in the development of remarkable manuscript, pictures and map collections.
Not only has the size and nature of the collections changed, so has the way that the Library provides access to them. From its inception the Library has been intent on making readers welcome and making the collections as accessible as possible. For this reason the Library welcomed the introduction, in 1856, of gas lighting as it enabled the Library to extend its opening hours to 9pm. Another early example of this resolve to make the collections accessible was the Library's decision, in 1891, to make the card catalogue (of 200 000 cards) available to the public, thereby allowing readers to search for material by both subject and author.
The redeveloped Library is just as intent on making the Library welcoming and usable — from the banners in the portico to the clear line of sight from the entrance to the Trescowthick Information Centre — so that it is easy for all to explore the collections and resources, exhibitions, events, spaces and services.
The Library has remained open through the course of its redevelopment, this in itself being testimony to the commitment of staff to accessibility. Readers are now able to enjoy reading rooms dedicated to providing services to specific areas: genealogy; newspapers; digital resources; arts, music and the performing arts; manuscripts; rare
books; and, of course, Australian material in the La Trobe Reading Room under the dome.
The Library's exhibitions are a draw card, giving visitors access, in ways that are intriguing and unexpected, to stories and to the collections themselves. The Keith Murdoch Gallery, which features three exhibitions each year, and the Cowen Gallery, which features 150 pictures from the Library's collection, will be complemented, at the end of 2004, by an exhibition featuring stories from Victoria.
Technology remains an integral component of making the Library accessible — although we have moved from rejoicing about gas lighting to realising the potential of the web. The web allows the Library to provide virtual access to information about the Library, its services and collection and, increasingly, to provide access to the individual collections. Since 1996 the Library's catalogue has been on its web site; and by mid-2003 it was possible to access digital images of 200,000 photographs in the collection. The Library's web site is the most important single source of information about the Library, providing access at any time from anywhere.
In this, our sesquicentenary year, we look forward to welcoming you all to the redeveloped Library to join us in celebrating information, ideas and inspiration — for everyone — a purpose that applied equally strongly 150 years ago.
Anne Marie Schwirtlich
CEO and State Librarian

State Library of Victoria [ca. 1860]. Albumen silver photograph. H 11786. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Charles Nettleton, 1826–1902, photographer. Melbourne Public Library [ca. 1870]. Albumen silver photograph. H83.312/14. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Beaumont, photographer. Public Library of Victoria draped in black and purple on the day of the funeral of Queen Victoria 1901. Gelatin silver photograph. H13082. La Trobe Picture Collection.