The history of the State Library of Victoria

How to research the history, development, architecture, collections and management of the State Library of Victoria.

Architectural history

In 1853, Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe initiated the establishment of the Melbourne Public Library. The Library Trustees were appointed in July 1853. The sum of £10,000 was appropriated for the building and the purchase of books and a two-acre block of land was set aside with frontage on Swanston Street. Joseph Reed (1823?-1890) won the competition to design the library building.

The foundation stone was laid by the governor, Sir Charles Hotham on 3 July 1854. The original building, comprising what is now the Swanston Street foyer and the central portion of the Queen's Hall above it, was officially opened on the 11 February 1856. The wings along the Swanston Street frontage were completed in 1859 (the south wing) and in 1864 (the north wing). The distinctive octastyle portico with its fine Corinthian columns was finished in 1870 and completed Reed's design for the central portion of the Swanston Street frontage. During these later works the 1854 foundation stone appears to have been permanently covered over as part of the additions to the front of the Library.

The main internal feature is the Queen's Hall with its fluted Ionic columns. Redmond Barry's Coat of Arms is in a prominent position above the entrance door. The Coats of Arms of the other founding Trustees (Bindon, Childers, McArthur, Palmer and Stawell) were placed under the portico between the pillars. The façade of the building is made from Tasmanian freestone, sandstone from Kangaroo Head near Hobart.

The State Library building is listed on Heritage Victoria's Victorian heritage database which describes the architectural style of the original buildings as Victorian Period Academic Classical. It is also listed on the Australian Government's Register of the National Estate and the Register of the National Trust of Australia - Victoria.

The 2009 Conservation management plan (available to read online) undertaken by the architects and heritage consultants Lovell Chen provides a detailed description and analysis of all of the buildings, halls and galleries of the State Library, Museums and National Gallery complex.

For details about particular buildings (including architectural drawings), and the more recent redevelopment history from the 1970s, use the tabs, above. 

General sources

Allan, J. Alex, March 1951, ‘The Melbourne Public Library', The Australian builder , pp 138-141

Article discusses the history of the architecture at the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery complex, including perceived failure in linking the buildings into one harmonious whole. Discusses the glass windows of electro-copper-glazed prism glass in the Domed reading room, evidence of water penetrating the upper skylight and proposals for the new La Trobe Library.

Barry, Redmond, 1866, Address to the workmen employed in building the Great Hall of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum, in Melbourne, Victoria, Wilson & Mackinnon, Melbourne, [online]

The Great Hall was built for the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia. On pages 36 & 37 Barry compares this hall with halls in Europe. It was demolished in 1899.

Beckler, Hermann, April 1980, ‘A visit to the Library in 1859'. La Trobe Library journal, vol 7, no 25,  pp 9-13, [online]

Hermann Beckler (1828-1914) studied medicine at the University of Munich. After the Revolution of 1848 in Bavaria, he migrated to Australia and arrived in 1856. Beckler described his visit to the Melbourne Public Library in a letter to his brother Carl in Germany. It is a very lively, interesting account and includes a plan of the Library from The Catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library for 1861.

Lovell Chen, 2009, State Library of Victoria complex...: conservation management plan, Lovell Chen, Melbourne, Victoria, 

The definitive reference to the history and description of the buildings, rooms, halls, galleries and furniture within the State Library of Victoria/Museum of Victoria complex of buildings. Includes plans, architectural drawings and photographs of buildings and furniture. Texts of the citations from the National Estate and Government Buildings Registers and from the National Trust are reproduced. Includes lengthy bibliography. Includes a building chronology.

Lewis, Mary, 2007, 'The State Library buildings' in The art of the collection, State Library of Victoria, Miegunyah Press, pp 6-19 

Lewis, Miles,  2008, "The great dome" unpublished article, typescript 4p  in Local History File Melbourne (Vic.) -- Libraries -- State Library of Victoria (folder 3).

‘A jubilee history: some notes on three new Australian buildings, with plans and portraits'Life: a record for busy folk, vol 12, 1909, pp 252-56

Discusses the alterations to Library buildings in 1909 and the new building under construction.

McVilly, David, October 1971, ‘Something to blow about? - The State Library of Victoria, 1856-1880'. La Trobe Library journal, vol 2, no 8,  pp 81-83, [online]

Briefly describes the Library in the first quarter of a century of its existence. The architecture, the numbers and type of visitors, the collection and media snippets are discussed.

Melbourne, Vic., Libraries. State Library of Victoria',
Local History Files. For further information about these files use the Further sources tab, above. 

Contains miscellaneous articles and references to the State Library buildings.

Miller, E. Morris, April 1985,  ‘Some Public Library memories'. La Trobe Library journal. Vol.9, no.35, pp.49-88, [online]

Written by a former notable staff member in 1951. It discusses the Public Lending Library for the years 1900-1902, the Reference Library during the period 1902-1913, staff accommodation for the years that the Domed Reading Room was being built and the layout of the Reference Collection in the Queen's Hall and Barry Hall.

Public Library, Museums and National Gallery (Vic), 1944, The case for a reconstruction plan: as presented by the Trustees' Special Committee in deputation to the premier on Monday, 14th February, 1944, [online]

Tibbits, George,  2004, 'Joseph Reed and foundation 1853-1890' in Bates Smart : 150 years of Australian architecture edited by Philip Goad, Thames & Hudson, pp 16-65

Joseph Reed won the competition for the Melbourne Public Library in 1854.

Turner, Henry Gyles, [1906?],  Address by the President, Henry Gyles Turner, on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition of rare and curious books, etc., and of the new building for the extension of the Museum of Natural History, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Public Library, Victorian Govt Printer.

Henry Gyles Turner was the President of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria.

Evolution of the site

Watch this virtual 3D reconstruction to discover how the 1856 Melbourne Public Library has evolved into the contemporary State Library of Victoria, spanning an entire city block and bearing traces of more than 100 years of architectural influences.

Building stones

Base, basalt:
- original: Malmsbury, Victoria
- additions: Footscray, Victoria

Superstructure, sandstone:
- original: Tasmania
- additions: Grampians, Victoria

Stairways, facings, etc., marble:
- greys: Buchan, Victoria
- white: Italy
- 'Black Belge': Belgium

Source: Mines Department, Victorian building stones, Melbourne, 1949, p21.

Architects

Below is a list of architects who have been involved in the building and redevelopment of the State Library complex of buildings.

1854 – 1862
Joseph Reed

1863 – 1883
Reed & Barnes

1883 – 1890
Reed, Henderson & Smart

1890 – 1907
Reed, Smart & Tappin

1907 – 1922
Bates, Peebles & Smart

ca. 1926 – ca.1936
Irwin & Stephenson

ca. 1937 – ca. 1978
Department of Public Works

1986 - 2007
Ancher, Mortlock & Woolley

Tradesmen

In 1862 Redmond Barry compiled a list of the workmen employed on building the north wing of Queen’s Hall. The list is housed in the Library's Manuscripts Collection at MS13020 Box 5 Folder 1. A transcript of the names on the list can be downloaded: