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World of the book

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State Library dome level with white arches and balconies and black panel with white text: World of the Book
Friday, 1 January 2021 - 10:00amFriday, 31 December 2021 - 6:00pm

About the exhibition

Temporary closure: Please note that exhibition visits and tours are suspended while the Dome Galleries are temporarily closed. 

Explore a wealth of ideas and imagination in World of the book, a one-of-a-kind exhibition showcasing the history of book design, production and illustration from the Middle Ages to today.

See rare medieval manuscripts and sacred texts, magnificent natural history and botanical illustration, and stunning modern artist books and fine press editions. Discover pioneering Australian classics, children’s books, graphic novels and comics, and cutting-edge graphic design.

From books that break the mould to books that changed the world, World of the book celebrates the unique place books have in our hearts and minds.

The exhibition explores five themes:

This exhibition opened in 2005 as Mirror of the world: books and ideas. In 2017, it was renamed World of the book.

Take a tour around the 'World of the book'

open book showing diagram of hands

Chiromantia [Chiromancy], Padua, Matthaeus Cerdonis, 1484

Watch this 20-minute video of exhibition highlights and fascinating insights into our contemporary photobooks, medieval bestiary, the history of the form of the book, banned books and Audubon's 'Birds of America', with curators Anna Welch and Des Cowley.

Fantastic beasts: unicorns, manticores & mermaids

Historical drawing of a manticore

Senior librarian Anna Welch shares her infectious fascination for older natural history books that describe curious animals like unicorns, mermaids and the grinning Spanish 'half man, half lion' manticore. 

From tablet to codex & beyond: the history of the book

A manuscript lays unfurled from its scroll

Watch Senior librarian Dr Anna Welch show how changes in the physical form of the book have led to the bound book as we know it, and at the same time, have revolutionised the way we take in information and ideas.

Restricted books

The spines of hardcover books of various heights and sizes sit on a shelf

Watch this short film where Principal librarian Des Cowley lifts the curtain on the Library's collection of restricted texts, many of which were banned due to controversial content and some of which are (gasp!) on display in World of the book.


A long-haired, smiling woman in overalls holds up a sign saying 'A good idea'

See stunning examples of Australian photobooks on display in World of the book, introduced by Principal librarian Des Cowley.

Audubon's astonishing 'Birds of America'

Hear Principal Librarian Des Cowley reveal the intriguing stories behind John James Audubon's astonishing work of art – and one of the the greatest works of book art, ever – Birds of America.

Discover the world of books in our collection

James Joyce's 'Ulysses', Shakespeare and Company, Paris, 1922

Ulysses, James Joyce, Shakespeare and Company, Paris, 1922, Rare Books collection

Uncover the amazing breadth of the Library's Rare Books collection.

Marvel at old, valuable, famous and beautiful works – including our collection of medieval manuscripts and many significant first editions – and discover the fascinating history of the book as a tangible object, from cuneiform tablet to contemporary artists' books.

Related events

Books & ideas

Purple and gold Buddhist scroll

The fivefold method of appeasing transgressions against one's tantric vows), Mongolia [written in Tibetan], 18th century, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria

Marvel at our 'Books & ideas' online gallery that showcases:

  • medieval manuscripts and early printed books
  • sacred texts from around the world and from different religious traditions
  • a special display about the history of the restricted book section.

Books & imagination

two-page folio with Shakespeare portrait

Mr William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies: Published According to the true originall copies, the second impression, London, Tho. Cotes for Robert Allot, 1632, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria

Lose yourself in our 'Books & imagination' online gallery and explore:

  • famous works from the literary canon, featuring Shakespeare
  • modernist classics, featuring Virginia Woolf
  • Australian authors, featuring Gerard Murnane
  • comics and pulp fiction, featuring Dick Tracy and pulp Westerns.

Exploring the world

open book with bugs and missing bugs

Specimen drawer of Scarabaeidae (scarab and dung beetles), Castlenau Collection, Museums Victoria. Photograph by Rodney Start. © Museums Victoria

Stop over in our 'Exploring the world' online gallery to see:

  • atlases and maps from European voyages of discovery from the 16th century onwards, with a special focus on Australia and the South Pacific
  • illustrated travel accounts, including some of the earliest uses of photography
  • richly illustrated works of natural history.

Art & nature

open book with painting of lily and text

Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Les liliacées (The lily family), Paris, the author, 1802–15, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria

Peer into our 'Art & nature' online gallery to see botanical art from the 16th century to today, drawing on works by key artists, botanists and physicians such as Pierantonio Mattioli, John Gerard, Pierre Joseph Redouté, John Sibthorp, Ferdinand Bauer and Celia Rosser.

About the curators

Des Cowley and Anna Welch exhibition curators in front of bookcases
  • Des Cowley is History of the Book manager at State Library Victoria, and co-author of The world of the book. He created World of the book (as Mirror of the world: Books & ideas) in 2005 with Clare Williamson.
  • Anna Welch works in the History of the Book collection at State Library Victoria. A historian specialising in the study of medieval manuscripts, she has been part of World of the book's curatorial team since 2011.

Artists & books

leatherbound gilt-edged book with clasps

Frederick Hendrick van Hove, The history of ye Old & New Testament in Cutts (London, printed by Wm R for Iohn Williams in Crosse-keyes Court in Litle Brittaine, 1671), John Emmerson Collection, State Library Victoria

Pore over our 'Artists & books' online gallery, including:

  • fine bindings from the John Emmerson Collection
  • Wayzgoose Press archive
  • art-deco graphic design
  • Japanese woodblock printed books
  • contemporary Australian photobooks.

    Read the book

    black background with book cover featuring covers of a number of books

    Updated in a new paperback edition for 2017, The world of the book celebrates manuscripts and publications in all their varying forms. Sumptuously illustrated with rare items from State Library Victoria's collections, this treasure chest of a book invites idle browsing as much as avid reading.

    Rare Book Week

    Photo of people looking at a rare book

    Rare Book Week is an annual, Melbourne-wide program of free talks and events that celebrate the importance of books, literacy and literature in our lives. It has been a key event in Melbourne’s literary calendar since 2012.

    Behind the scenes

    Watch a short time-lapse video of the installation of the 2017 World of the book exhibition in the iconic Dome Galleries.

    Watch the videos

    six people in conversation seated on a stage

    Browse this curated set of videos to deepen your understanding of the book's rich tradition and its ongoing contribution to contemporary life.

    Exhibition labels

    De dissectione partium corporis humani (On the dissection of parts of the human body), Charles Estienne, Paris, Simonem Colinaeum, 1545, Rare Books collection

    Download the exhibition labels as an accessible pdf to read on your own device, adjusting options to suit your needs.

    Main image captions

    Main image clockwise from top left:

    • Aubrey Beardsley, The yellow book, vol. 1 (London, Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria
    • Sarah Walker, Second sight (Melbourne, Perimeter Editions, 2018), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria. Reproduced by kind permission of Sarah Walker.
    • Feuillets d’Art [Art Leaves], no. 1 (Paris, Condé Nast, October–November 1921), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria
    • Louis Renard, Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires [Fish, lobsters and crabs of diverse colours and extraordinary shapes] (Amsterdam, Reiner & Josué Ottens, 1754), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria
    • Edward Topsell, The history of four-footed beasts and serpents (London, printed by E Cotes for G Sawbridge, T Williams and T Johnson, 1658), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria
    • Nesumi Takenosuke, Somemoyo hinagata: nakadachi kodachi [Book of dyeing patterns for children's furisode kimono] (Osaka, Maekawa Zenbe, 1891), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria
    • Chester Gould, The original Dick Tracy comic album no. 2: The origin of the two-way wrist radio (Prescott, Arizona, Gladstone Publishing, 1990 reprint), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria. Used by Permission. Dick Tracy © Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
    • Specimen drawer of Buprestidae (Jewel beetles), Castlenau Collection, Museums Victoria. Photograph by Rodney Start. © Museums Victoria.
    • Walter Burley, Liber de vita ac moribus philosophorum poetarum veterum [The lives and manners of the ancient philosophers and poets] (Nuremberg, Friedrich Creussner, 1479), Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria