World of the book

About the exhibition

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.

Plan your visit

State Library dome level with white arches and balconies and black panel with white text: World of the Book
Tuesday, 1 January 2019Tuesday, 31 December 2019
Dome Galleries, Level 4

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.

Books & ideas

detail of illuminated manuscript with graveside image

Book of Hours, Besançon, France, c1430–40, Rare Books Collection

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
  • books that changed the world, including key works by women authors.

Books & imagination

Beardsley woodcut of four women with sleeping Lancelot (detail)

Aubrey Beardsley's illustration for Sir Thomas Malory's The birth, life and acts of King Arthur …, Edinburgh, Turnbull & Speats, 1927, Rare Books collection

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

  • famous works from the literary canon (such as Chaucer, and the legends of King Arthur)
  • modernist classics, featuring Gertrude Stein
  • children’s books
  • Australian authors, featuring Joan Lindsay
  • graphic novels and comics, and pulp fiction.

Exploring the world

detail of Etruscan terracotta vase illustration

Pierre D'Hancarville, Antiquites Etrusques, Grecques et Romaines (Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities), Naples, William Hamilton, 1766–67

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

garden plans on parchment paper with trees and design

Edna Walling, Garden plan for Mrs Theo Beggs, 'Eurambeen', Beaufort, Victoria, [1937], watercolour, pen, ink, pencil and wash, Pictures Collection

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.

Artists & books

Japanese folding painted artwork with flowers and bee

Nishiyama Kanei, Kanei gafu (An album of drawings by Kanei), Osaka, Maekawa Zenbe, 1886, Rare Books collection

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

  • fine bindings from the John Emmerson Collection
  • Giovanni Battista Piranesi's magnificent 18th-century prints of Roman ruins
  • artists' books and Japanese woodblock printed books.

    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 World of the book exhibition labels to discover the rich and varied history of the book, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Main image captions

    Main image clockwise from top left: