The history of our building

The State Library has remained on the same two-acre allotment since its opening in 1856, but the structure you see today is actually made up of 23 individual buildings that have changed dramatically over the years.

Entire buildings have appeared, changed shape or, in the case of the Intercolonial Exhibition buildings, disappeared completely. Here are just a few of the changes that might surprise you…

  • The Melbourne Public Library (as the Library was originally known) initially took up a much smaller part of our city-block site. When it was officially opened on 11 February 1856, the building consisted of the central portion of the current Swanston Street frontage. The impressive portico that completed architect Joseph Reed’s original design wasn’t added until 1870.
  • Palmer Hall, now home to the Readings bookstore, was originally filled with casts of contemporary sculptures.
  • The current Library site is also the birthplace of Melbourne’s first Exhibition Buildings, the National Gallery and the Melbourne Museum.
  • For a period of time from 1892 the Library offered a lending library service, most recently located in what is now the Mr Tulk cafe.
  • The magnificent Queen’s Reading Room (now known as Queen’s Hall) was originally half its current size. In 1864, an extension to the original building lengthened the room to provide the 26 bays still in place today and a long central area to accommodate readers.
  • The majestic Dome that towers above the Library’s facade didn’t exist until the early 20th century. This space was originally occupied by the Rotunda and Great Hall of the Exhibition Buildings, which were built to host the 1866–67 Intercolonial Exhibition. They were planned as temporary structures, but served a variety of purposes until being demolished in around 1910 to make way for the domed La Trobe Reading Room, which opened in November 1913.

Like to know more? Take a look at our research guide on the Library building.

Beyond our walls lie a number of iconic features with their own stories – some of which, such as the Architectural fragment sculpture, are as instantly recognisable as the Library building itself.