The history of our building
State Library Victoria is one of Melbourne's founding institutions, established 165 years ago in 1854, barely 20 years after the city was settled. It opened as the Melbourne Public Library, and is not only Australia's oldest and busiest public library but also one of the first free public libraries in the world.
The Library was created as 'the people's university' – a place of learning and discovery for all Victorians. It was also given responsibility for preserving Victoria's heritage by collecting items of historical and cultural significance for future generations.
This responsibility has remained a critical focus throughout our history, which helps explain why the Library has constantly expanded over the decades, resulting in today's intricate floor plan and varied architecture. The Library housed Melbourne's first exhibition buildings, and the institutions now known as Museum Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria and Public Record Office Victoria have all shared the site with the Library at various times.
In its many incarnations over the past 165 years, the Library has provided a special place where all Victorians can enjoy equal access to information and engage with collections that describe our past and inspire possibilities for our future.
The 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 around two dozen 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 as we have evolved over the years and constantly adapted our services, spaces and technology to meet the changing needs of the community. Find out more about our magnificent spaces.
Completed in December 2019, the ambitious Vision 2020 project has ensured that the Library continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of our vibrant, diverse community, both in Melbourne and in regional Victoria, today and into the future.
One of the Library's most transformative projects, Vision 2020 saw the reopening of The Ian Potter Queen's Hall as a public reading room and events space, and the creation of innovative new spaces for young learners and entrepreneurs.
The five-year, $88.1 million redevelopment was funded through a combination of government, private and corporate philanthropic support.
Did you know?
- When the Library opened in 1856 a picket fence surrounded the lawn, which was mostly covered by shrubs and trees. Visitors entered the grounds through a gate on Swanston Street before climbing the stairs to the wooden front door that still forms the Library’s main entrance. The pickets were replaced by wrought iron in 1873, the fence was removed altogether in 1939, and the shrubs and trees were cleared away over time to create today's open lawn.
- From the 1860s to the early 1920s, two majestic bronze lions kept watch over the Library from the top of the library steps. The statues were relocated to the Melbourne Zoo in 1925, where they were displayed until the early 1960s. They were removed as part of a major clean-up and haven’t been sighted since…
- The magnificent Ian Potter 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.