Deep within the bowels of Melbourne’s State Library of Victoria (SLV) is a large elevator built in 1928. It has a sliding cargo door, leadlight windows and worn wooden panels. This notoriously slow “elephant lift” was named so because it was used for carrying taxidermied elephants when the building housed the Melbourne Museum and the library’s biggest (jumbo-sized) books.
It is one of the hidden treasures of the iconic library revealed to me during a special “Dome to Catacomb” tour. These free tours are held on specific days and talk about the origins of the building, its storage facilities and indexing. “Most Melburnians don’t have a clue what’s in here,” says our guide Norman, “it is one of the city’s great secrets”.
Set up in 1856, SLV is Australia’s oldest public library and one of the first free public libraries in the world. The cultural monument on Swanston Street has a grassy lawn, which slopes up to the building’s front portico, watched over by the statue of Judge Redmond Barry, who founded the library. Though the outdoor area is fascinating, it is what’s inside that matters to me. In two hours, Norman does a good job of showing off the library’s hidden spaces during this “vertical tour”. A jovial man, prone to politically incorrect statements, his knowledge of the space is impressive. He starts with a history lesson: “It was the year 1854 and Victoria was the richest place in the world. There was gold beyond belief and it made the Californian gold rush look silly. It was decided to open a library founded on an egalitarian motive: give the working man proper means to acquire knowledge,” he says. The library opened in 1856 with 3,000 books and soon became a space for exhibitions, fairs, an arts school, museum and even a state public records office. It’s why the SLV is imbued with a real connection to the other disciplines of art and learning and not just bookkeeping.
Through the years, the space has seen renovations, additions of annexes and refurbishments. Norman takes us to the sixth — and topmost — floor that offers the best view of the Domed Reading Room (now, the La Trobe Reading Room).
Built in 1913, the dome was, “for a short period of time, the largest free-standing structure of its kind made of a revolutionary new material called reinforced concrete,” says Norman. Restored in 2003, it now has a skylight fitted with 400 panes of double layered glass, with special sun protection. Though the seating and lights have changed, the flooring is the same — linoleum, and sourced from the factory in Scotland that made the original.
The reading room, with long desks converging at a central point, mimics a Victorian panopticon prison design. “No, it was not designed this way to make prisoners visiting the space more comfortable,” quips Norman, preempting a question he is asked often.
In the olden days, books were stored in the annulus of each floor, and an attendant would climb a spiral staircase — the first set made in the city — to search for titles. The staircase, now sealed off, harks back to a time before elevators.
The staircase, however, isn’t the only thing inside that no longer serves its purpose. Near the “elephant lift” is a stairwell. The Pendulum Staircase owes its name to the Foucault pendulum that once hung there as a part of the Melbourne Museum and removed in the 1970s once children started swinging on it.
The basement or “the stacks” is in stark contrast to the reading room above it, replacing aesthetics with functionality. “We have some two million books here, of which more than half are stored here,” says Norman pointing at the 11km-long metal shelves. These are used for storing frequently-used and new books, separated alphabetically and according to subject. The not-so-favoured ones go to the BOSS (Ballarat Offsite Storage Facility).
Not just books, every kind of retrievable information is stored at SLV. There are ephemera, posters, musical scores, records, posters, etc.
Norman shows us a “special treat”. A rare book, it is a prayer book of liturgies by Owen James, with an engraved red leather binding. It’s a gift, one of the many that helps build up the library’s extensive collection. Recently, they were handed 5,000 rare books belonging to John Emmerson, a nuclear physicist, barrister and bibliophile. “Thanks to this, we went from having one pamphlet about the English Civil War to the third-best collection in the world,” says Norman.
Our final stop, the catacombs, is the library’s old card-catalogue room — its non-digital backup. If ever there’s a digital wipe-out that deletes the library’s archives, this room will save them. In the olden days, this space was used for storing equipments, books, coal and unused exhibits. “When we built the dome, it took us six weeks to get the books in because we introduced the Dewey decimal system,” says Norman. Before that, the library relied on a series of cataloguing systems. In long wooden drawers are thousands of well-thumbed index cards, some in copperplate script and others in sprawling handwriting. The efficient recording system, from the pre-technology era, is fascinating to see.
We leave with Norman’s words ringing in our ears: “For goodness sake, encourage everyone to read a real book, and support your local library”.