What is it that makes the library an important place? Is it its architectural grandeur that engenders an impression of its cultural import? Is it its inextricability from its primary role as a book collection that generates a conduciveness to scholarship? Is it its history as the cornerstone of egalitarian society that makes the library a welcoming and democratic space? I speak with the State Library of Victoria’s Acting Director of Engagement, Anna Burkey, and principal architect on the library’s recent redevelopment project, Ruth Wilson, to deduce what it is that makes the library such a special place.
The State Library Victoria is Australia’s oldest public library and one of the first free public libraries in the world. Established in 1854, it is now the fourth busiest library internationally, welcoming over 2 million visitors through its doors every year.
The library embodies a unique institution, as everything from a reading room, a social service centre, to a cultural and heritage destination. There are many spatial considerations that must be taken into account in the designing of a library. On a technical level, the design must conform to the space’s particular requirements for acoustics, ergonomics and access. It must also hold the objective of conservation at its core, from moisture, fire, insects, harsh light – all of the sworn enemies of books.
On a more immaterial level, the design helps to give off a certain ethos – a sense of reverence and majesty, curiosity and engagement, equality and community that helps to dictate the way people behave in the space.
Not dissimilar to many religious spaces, the library has become a place of refuge, privacy, safety, opportunity and reflection. It is the quality of the designed environment that determines how we feel in the space. The traditional domed reading room, for example, with its great, vaulted, light-filled space, certainly inspires a sense of uplift, enlightenment and creative inspiration.
‘You walk into the room and you say, “Whoa, this must be special, therefore it must be important, therefore it is valid – it’s valuable.” How you design your environment has an impact on how people behave in it, and also how they think and dream in it,’ says the State Library Victoria’s Acting Director of Engagement, Anna Burkey.
The library, as it was originally imagined by Redmond Barry, was the vanguard of forward thinking and the egalitarian cornerstone of the new city. The building is a tangible representation of the institution’s abstract mission – free access to knowledge for all. ‘The library comprises twenty-three buildings spanning three centuries – that itself tells a story of the ambition of the state’s leaders in those different eras,’ says Ruth Wilson, director of Architectus and principal architect on the $88.1 million renovation project completed in December of last year.
While the role of the library in society today has far surpassed that of a mere book collection, Burkey believes the space is still inextricable from its primary roots. Stories inform the very fabric of the library, as both the original container of stories and as an artefact of history and storytelling itself. She says of the role of the book collection in the library space, ‘It’s far more than decor: it’s grounding, knowing that if you’re here in this space, you value knowledge and information, and so do the others that are here. You have found a sense of community, and that’s an awful lot harder to achieve without having that heritage and that connection.’
The notions of heritage and preservation through storytelling constitute a significant part of our human experiences. This practice also makes up the ethical foundations of the library. ‘Stories are how we understand the world around us; how we pass on knowledge and information; how we enthuse one another,’ says Burkey. ‘The sense of story that we have here at the State Library of Victoria – a sense of the people who built it in the 1850s as a people’s university, a very radical idea for the time, when the roads didn’t even have paving on them – helps to bring a sense of understanding and colour as to why we’re here now. I think it helps to draw those connections to the past.’
Wilson wanted to integrate this idea of storytelling into the redevelopment and use it to inform the space. ‘The mandate for the project was all about connection to collection,’ she explains. The idea was to reinstate some of the building’s narrative into its physical structure, so as to restore a sense of history and belonging.
‘We wanted to reveal history, not replicate it,’ Wilson explains. ‘We did literally peel back layers of design interventions that had been cluttered into the space over time. We were keen to strip back each space and allow it to be in its volume and its detail as it was originally intended.’ The version visitors can see in the Ian Potter Queens Hall today is the original scheme that was devised by Edward Latrobe Bateman in the 1860s.
Two extraordinary war murals have been restored and are now back available to the public in the West Link, above the library’s marble staircase. ‘They were painted by people who recorded through sketches, and were actually out in the fields of World War I. They came back to Australia and were commissioned by government to produce these works,’ says Wilson. These references serve as markers in history for those primary events, and while they have been a part of the library for almost 100 years, re-revealing them has helped to reinstate the narrative of the public library and national history into the manifestation we see today. Wilson and the team even lifted the vinyl floor at the Russell Street entrance to reveal a beautiful 100-year-old jarrah herringbone parquetry.
The State Library is almost self-referential in its capacity to both house stories and to embody them. ‘We wanted to retain that sense of age, for people to understand just how old it is. It also mirrors the purpose of the library, as the repository of the originals. It’s the state’s reference library; it’s also referring to the authentic references it holds in its fabric.’
Wilson has hoped to reflect the egalitarian thinking on which the library was founded through a sense of ease in navigation throughout the space. An atmosphere of welcome and intuitive way-finding help to promote the equal opportunity and social mobility the library hopes to promote. While spaces should be awe-inspiring, they should not be daunting, and should at their core house the principles of equality and access to knowledge for all.
It’s actually the one thing you can do in the city where you’re not consuming anything, not paying to be there,’ says Wilson. ‘You’re interacting with a collection that is already there and will always be there, and is a resource, not a consumable.’
Wilson believes that the library also offers the unique opportunity to be alone, but together with others – a state that she believes is particularly pertinent in this contemporary age.
Isla Sutherland is in the final semester of her Master of Publishing and Communications degree at Melbourne Uni. She also has a gorgeous Swiss Shepherd who gets her stopped on the streets quite often.