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Victoria State Library

Under the Dome

It was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world at the time. Spanning six stories, it was considered a remarkable feat of modern architecture.

It is a magnificent feeling to sit under the enormous white octagonal cupola, bathed in natural light, and surrounded by more than 32,000 books. This is the reading room of the State Library of Victoria, known as The Dome for obvious reasons, and opened in November 1913, to the enchantment of awestruck Melburnians. It was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world at the time. Spanning six storeys, it was considered a remarkable feat of modern architecture. The State Library of Victoria – originally known as The Melbourne Public Library – first opened with a carefully curated collection of 3,800 volumes in 1856, and became an immediate refuge for the literary minded. It was commissioned by Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe, who proposed a competition to find the perfect designer. Joseph Reed, a local architect who had migrated from his native Cornwall to Melbourne in 1853, won the honour. He later designed Melbourne Town Hall and the Royal Exhibition Building, creating a series of classical structures in the heart of the city.

Today, the library dominates an entire inner city block, bounded by Swanston, Little Lonsdale, Russell, and La Trobe Streets. It has changed dramatically since its conception, with rooms expanding, shifting, or disappearing entirely. The original reading room is now known as Queen’s Hall, and has doubled in size. Its 19th century décor, original pillars, plasterwork, and heritage furniture make it a covetable space for weddings and private events. Readings, one of the city’s most iconic independent book retailers, operates from the space originally known as Palmer Hall.

The Library’s buildings take in intimate courtyards and 23 opulent rooms, and it is currently home to more than two million books. It is also a magnet for history buffs, who come to view the diaries of Melbourne’s founders, John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner, the armour of legendary Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, and the original folios of Captain James Cook. Also included in the library’s permanent collection, are reams of maps, newspapers, and archived microfilm. Art, too, is of great significance, with the Red and Blue Rotundas, the Keith Murdoch Gallery, and the Cowen Gallery displaying permanent and visiting exhibitions all year round. The Arts Reading Room houses thousands of books, journals, and magazines, while the Chess Reading Room is dedicated entirely to the game it is named after, featuring books and periodicals covering its 1,500 year history. The Heritage Collections Reading Room, which can only be visited by appointment, boasts an ornate ceramic ceiling, and 14 historical pendant lamps ,as well as its collection of historical maps of Melbourne. The Redmond Barry Reading Room, meanwhile, has evolved from a museum space displaying stuffed animals into a contemporary hub for non fiction. Of all these spaces, it is The Dome, however, that remains the Library’s most beloved building. Refurbished and reopened as the La Trobe Reading Room in 2003, it remains the pièce de résistance, and a benchmark for beautiful library design everywhere, making eyes – and hearts – soar.

Victoria State Library
Victoria State Library
Victoria State Library

Further reading