A stroll around the Library, an iconic Melbourne landmark recognised for its heritage architecture, reveals much about its fascinating history. The building, which is in fact made up of 23 buildings, takes up an entire city block and was constructed over many years, beginning in 1854. Highlights include the spectacular domed La Trobe Reading Room and the splendid Redmond Barry Reading Room.
The first thing you'll notice when you arrive is the huge grassed area at the front of the Library – a rarity in the centre of the city. Since at least the 1930s, the lawn has been a popular spot for inner-city workers, students and visitors wanting to soak up a few rays.
When the Library opened in 1856 a picket fence surrounded the lawn, which was mostly covered by shrubs and trees. Library visitors entered the grounds through a gate on Swanston Street before climbing the stairs to the wooden front door that is still the main entrance. The pickets were replaced by wrought iron in 1873, the fence removed altogether in 1939, and the shrubs and trees cleared away over time, to leave the open space you see now.
At the corner of Swanston Street and La Trobe streets lies a modern bluestone sculpture of a great institution in ruins. The sculpture, Architectural fragment by Petrus Spronk, was installed in 1992 and is based on a detail of the Library's portico.
Dotted around the lawn are several statues. From his position in the middle of the steps, a statue of Sir Redmond Barry welcomes our visitors. Barry founded some of Melbourne's most famous public works, including the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital. The statue was modelled by James Gilbert and completed by Percival Ball after Gilbert's death in 1885. It was erected in 1887, seven years after Barry's death.
At the north end of the lawn is a statue of Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe, the first Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria and another of the Library's founders. Peter Corlett OAM was commissioned by the La Trobe Society to sculpt a statue to celebrate the National Trust's Year of La Trobe. It was unveiled in 2006 by the then-Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser AC.
The statue of St George and the Dragon by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, which is near the Library entrance, was purchased in 1889. It was originally placed in the centre of the entrance to the Library but was moved in 1907 to balance the newly acquired statue of Jeanne d'Arc.
The bronze statue Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) by Emmanuel Fremiet was installed in 1907. The statute was selected and purchased not by the Library but by the director of the National Art Gallery of Victoria, Bernard Hall. (The Gallery was then part of the building complex, as was the Museum.)
Beside the steps is a bronze statue of the titular character from Jenny Wagner’s book The bunyip of Berkeley's Creek. It was made by Ron Brooks at the Meridian sculpture foundry in 1994 and came into the Library’s care as part of the Scholastic Dromkeen Children’s Literature Collection.
Also a gift of the Scholastic Dromkeen Children’s Literature Collection is Mr Lizard and Gumnut Baby, characters known and loved by generations of Australian children from May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Smiley Williams created this bronze sculpture in 1998.
Other statues have graced the Library's grounds in the past, including a pair of huge, resting bronze lions that guarded the top of the steps, where the lawn ends, from the 1860s to 1924.
Facade & Library entrance
In 1853 Joseph Reed won a competition to design the Library, which was then called the Melbourne Public Library. Even though the main section of the Library was finished in time for the official opening on 11 February 1856, the south wing wasn't completed until 1859 and the north wing wasn't finished until 1864. The grand portico, made of Tasmanian freestone (a type of sandstone from Kangaroo Head near Hobart), was added in 1870.
When the Library first opened, only men and women aged over 14 with a respectable appearance and clean hands could come in. Our entry policy has changed since then, but the architecture is still largely the same. The heritage wooden entrance doors and beautiful marble flooring are complemented by modern automated sliding glass doors and an information desk that includes a digital signage screen featuring the latest Library events.
Keith Murdoch Gallery
To the right of the main Library entrance is the Keith Murdoch Gallery. This gallery was originally an art museum, before being incorporated into the Museum of Victoria. These days it displays exhibitions drawn from the Library's collections, as well as touring shows from other cultural institutions.
Directly behind the information desk is the grand marble staircase leading to Queen's Hall, which is currently closed to the public except for special events. The stairs were built in 1913 to link the foyer with Queen's Hall and the La Trobe Reading Room. The Carrara marble used to make the stairs was imported from Italy, but the walls and balustrade are made of locally quarried limestone from Buchan in eastern Victoria. Look carefully and you'll see fossils in the limestone.
Although you can't currently tread the staircase, if you look up you'll see stained-glass windows featuring the Latin phrase 'Delectant domi — non impediunt foris — peregrinantur', or 'Books are a delight at home and no hindrance abroad'. This phrase was chosen by Barry and was stamped in gold on the inside cover of all the Library's books. You'll also see some murals at the top of the staircase. Harold Septimus Power's War and Napier Waller's Peace after victory were purchased by the Library during the 1920s to commemorate World War I.
Situated on the third floor, Queen's Hall was part of the original Library building that opened in 1859. The room was opened to mark Queen Victoria's birthday and was originally called the Queen's Reading Room. The hall contained the art, music and performing arts collections. It is now used for functions and Library events.
Through the foyer and past the marble staircase you'll arrive in the Information Centre. Originally used as a newspaper and periodical reading room from 1913 to 1980, this area retains some original architectural features, such as an elegant fan-ribbed roof. In 1997 the space was redeveloped as the Information Centre, a public area specifically designed around computer technology.
In the corners of the Information Centre are the former courtyards, which have now been roofed — though you can still see the Library's original stone walls and huge stained-glass or imposing sash windows. The courtyards now house the Genealogy Centre, Newspaper Reading Room, Arts Reading Room and Experimedia
Beyond the Information Centre is the marbled central lobby. The artwork above the lift is View of Melbourne at the end of the millennium, painted by Jan Senbergs between 1997 and 1999.
If you head up the marble staircase or take the lift from the central lobby, you'll arrive in the Cowen Gallery, which is richly decorated with paintings depicting, or relevant to, Victoria. The adjacent rooms, the Blue and Red Rotundas, house portraits and busts of Victorians, while the gallery primarily showcases historical Victorian scenes and paintings by local artists.
Redmond Barry Reading Room
Pass from the lifts or stairway through the Cowen Gallery, and you'll enter the Redmond Barry Reading Room. This superbly restored room originally housed the Industrial and Technological Museum. Now home to the Library's general nonfiction collection, the reading room opened in 2004 following total refurbishment.
The room is bordered by several special collection rooms and the Journals & Magazines Reading Room.
La Trobe Reading Room
Walk back through the Cowen Gallery and take the marble stairs or lifts up to the La Trobe Reading Room. To the left of the lift as you face it is Spring Street end, a woollen tapestry designed by Ben McKeown and woven at the Australian Tapestry Workshop in 2011.
Facing the entrance to the La Trobe Reading Room is the Joyce and Court Oldmeadow Memorial Sculpture, cast in bronze by Tessa Wallis at Coates & Wood foundry in 2003. The sculpture depicts a group of much-loved characters from Australian children’s books, including Koala Lou, Wombat Divine and Shy the Platypus. It was commissioned by Scholastic Australia to commemorate Courtney and Joyce Oldmeadow, the founders of Dromkeen, and the dragon encircling the group represents the Dromkeen Dragon.
At the La Trobe Reading Room, you'll see the best-known and most impressive architectural feature of the Library – the great reading room and its dome. Built in 1913, this octagonal building is six stories high and can house 32,000 books and 320 readers at its desks.
Known as the Domed Reading Room until it was reopened in 2003 after refurbishment, the building is an architectural feat. When it was built in 1913, the enormous reinforced-concrete structure was the largest in the world.
The upper galleries were originally serviced by spiral, metal staircases. These staircases can still be seen, but access to the galleries is now by lift.