In the heart of the second 'city of literature', and celebrating The National Year of Reading 2012, lies one of world's first free libraries - the State Library of Victoria.
Founded in 1854, when Melbourne was just 20 years old, the Library was to be 'the people's university' - a place where access to the world's knowledge and information was available to anyone over 14 years of age '…if only his hands are clean.' In the 157 years since its establishment, the Library has undergone much expansion to become the state's primary research and reference centre, and one of the largest exhibiting libraries in the world.
A competition was held for the design of the building, and was won by Joseph Reed, who went on to design a number of Melbourne's landmark buildings including the Royal Exhibition Building and the Melbourne Town Hall.
The Library, which opened with a collection of only 3846 volumes, now includes over two million books, hundreds of thousands of pictures, newspapers, CDs, DVDs, maps, manuscripts and more. The entire catalogue has been digitised, as have many of the resources which are available online to registered members. This can be useful to search the database before going in as this is a reference library and does not lend books: however, photocopying is allowed and you may reserve books for up to a week.
The landmark Domed Reading Room underwent renovations from 1999 to restore natural light, and reopened in 2003 as the La Trobe Reading Room. Home to the Library's Australiana Collection, here you can find anything from Parliamentary debates over 100 years old, to a book on Nick Cave.
The Dome Galleries - layers of balconies which encircle the
Domed Reading Room - house two permanent exhibitions. Mirror of the world: books and ideas, showcases the rare, beautiful and historically significant books in the Library's collection. Spanning the Middle Ages to modern day, it features anything from classic picture books, to 1950s pulp fiction. The changing face of Victoria exhibition provides a glimpse into our state's history and showcases many significant artefacts including Ned Kelly's original armour, photos dating back to the early settlers, letters, newspaper clippings, political satire and Aboriginal art, to name just a few. It reflects not only our past, but our current culture, and our everchanging landscape. Works rejected by Barry as having no value, such as John Batman's treaty with the Aborigines, are now treasures, on prominent display.
Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond, runs until 1st July, 2012. It is a major exhibition of Persian manuscripts telling classic tales of divine love and featuring exquisite illustrations from one of the richest periods in the history of the book. To celebrate the exhibition, the Library has planned many associated events including a Persian cultural day, musical performances and a conference on Persian cultural crossroads.
Other features of the library include free wireless internet access and powerpoints, a games room, a bustling foyer, quiet study areas, tours, family history resources, and the Arts Reading Room where you can watch films and listen to music. Mr Tulk, a lively café named after the first librarian, Augustus Tulk, is a great place to take a break and grab a bite to eat, or just a coffee to keep you going. Alternatively, you can picnic on the grassy lawn in front of the grand entrance.
Recently the Library has expanded to include the Victorian Writer's Centre and the Wheeler Centre, both of which are invaluable resources for both writers and readers. The Moat, located at the Wheeler Centre, features free events most nights of the week which are open to the public, covering every literary issue from comics' worst gigs, to an analysis of a Christina Stead classic.
The Library may be a far cry from the kind of emporium Barry first envisioned, but the variety of information available to the public, and the lively exchange of ideas, make it an emporium of sorts. Visit today and decide for yourself. Whether it is to do research, read a book, play games, trace your family history or the history of Victoria, or just hang out, the State Library of Victoria is a great place to explore.