Behind Closed Doors: The State Library of Victoria

Many people go to libraries to scour old documents, read magazines or use the free wi-fi and avoid doing homework. But unlike many libraries that have been built in more recent decades, the State Library of Victoria itself is a major part of Melbourne’s history.

Sir Redmond Barry was a judge who convinced the government to build the then named Melbourne Public Library in 1856. At the time of opening, there were 3846 books on its shelves, but in the following years that collection has grown to over two million books. Being one of the first free public libraries in the world, Barry thought of the library as ‘the people’s university’, where the world’s knowledge and information would be freely available to anyone living in the colony of Victoria, regardless of their social status or wealth.

Having gained such a huge collection of books over the years, the Library has needed to create more space for new books. The Library has had many extensions over the years, such as the Dome and the Redmond Barry Reading Room, and has kept up with the times by integrating technologies such as wireless access and computer workstations. The Library was also the site of Melbourne Museum for many years, before the current location at Carlton Gardens was built to accommodate the growing collection in 2000.

There is also an exhibition room where items from different parts of Australian history have been on display, covering such areas as sports, the arts, shopping, and even what Aussies like to do when they go on holidays. The Library is also the holding place of Ned Kelly’s infamous tin armour, which is ironic as Redmond Barry was the judge who sentenced Kelly to be hanged.

The Library’s oldest tomes (the ones the Librarians will be watching you like a hawk over) includes a collection of medieval manuscripts that are hundreds of years old, the oldest item believed to have been created around the year 1050! All the books printed before 1801 can be found in the rare books collection, with works from Shakespeare, foundation works about Australia and Victoria, and books that have impacted society, such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Though some may not think such a regal place would have them, there is an extensive collection of both Australian and Victorian fiction books from pulp novels, adventure novels, and children’s books.

On top of all that, the grassy area out front provides a lovely place in the city for RMIT students and passerbys to have their lunch at.

And like any library worth its salt, the State Library is rumoured to have a few resident phantoms. Just like in Ghostbusters.

Originally published here at on Monday 20 February 2012

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