State Library a palace of knowledge, but watch out for the ‘shusher’

The State Library Victoria has always been known as the palace of knowledge. When it first opened its doors in 1856, it boasted an amazing 8000 books. Now there are more than two million.

Each year, the two-storey Victorian monolith in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD has more than a million visitors.

The giant La Trobe Reading Room in the State Library Victoria.
The giant La Trobe Reading Room in the State Library Victoria.

Designed by eminent architect Joseph Reed – one of Melbourne’s oldest practices which morphed into Bates Smart – the library was more recently “reworked” by Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen.

While the original building is best described as “Victorian period academic classical” in its style, it is the magnificent octagonal-shaped dome – added in 1913 – that makes this treasured heritage-listed building such a major jewel in Melbourne’s crown.

“The dome originally had a glass ceiling, but it continually leaked, allowing some ornate plasterwork to crumble,” says Tim Hogan, principal librarian, Victorian and Australian collections. He retells a story from library folklore of a man being knocked out by one of these falling fragments in 1917, and jostling with the chief librarian, who was trying to resuscitate him.

“Less serious breakages caused the dome to be enclosed with a copper roof from the late 1950s, until being removed again in the early naughties, creating a dark and sombre ambience,” Hogan says.

When Queens Hall – now the front portion of the library – first opened, its frontage was only half its current size. However, a southern wing was added in 1859 and, in 1864, a further northern wing. A classical Greek-style portico was built in 1870.

Hogan says the library complex now features 22 interconnected buildings on the corner of La Trobe and Swanston streets, with numerous reading rooms, galleries and offices for staff.


The giant La Trobe Reading Room, also referred to as the dome, is layered in history. At the time of completion, it was the largest ribbed reinforced concrete cupola in the world. It is a real blast from the past, featuring leather writing desks and armchairs.

There is also a dais directly below the centre of the structure. Now referred to as the “shusher”, it is the place where library staff sat perched above the tiers of desks to keep noisy patrons in check. It has a mirror, not dissimilar to a bus driver’s view to enable backward glances, as well as 180-degree views to the front.

When the dome’s copper ceiling was removed, the magical space became a major drawcard not just for those using the library, but tourists visiting from interstate and overseas.

“You often see people pause at the entrance and take their cameras out,” says Hogan, pointing out the rich plaster detailing on the cantilevered balconies.

There are many other spaces that make a visit to the library a must.

The Cowan Gallery, with its coffered ceiling, is a treasure trove of great art, including work by leading Australian landscape artists of the 19th century, John Glover and William Strutt.

A portrait of Moira Madden – the glamorous granddaughter of Sir John Madden, chief justice of Victoria – by artist Arthur Thomas Challen is a prized possession. As is a painting by Jan Senbergs depicting Melbourne in 1998. Then there are the murals painted by Harold Septimus Power in the 1920s that capture World War I scenes.

One of the most spectacular rooms is the Ian Potter Queen’s Hall, a gallery that, when restored, saw the unveiling of leaf-like stained-glass celestial windows framing a highly ornate ceiling. The columns extending the gamut of the gallery are just one of many architectural delights.

While the creamy white colour palette create a crisp touch, one can also see a few revealed wall fragments showing the work of internationally renowned artist Edward La Trobe Bateman, and his distinctive Art Nouveau signature.

Many of the sumptuous finishes in the library could be found in the 1850s homes of wealthy Victorians made rich during the gold rush. But it is endearing that its features have been lovingly restored to their former glory, so the less well-to-do today can enjoy all the benefits of the palace of knowledge.

  • The State Library Victoria is open 10am–6pm, seven days a week. Admission is free.

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