Melbourne is the capital city of the state of Victoria in Australia, and the city is known throughout Australia and beyond for its vibrant creativity and artistic and literary culture. With world-class museums, design events, a colourful street art scene, international sporting events, local pop-up markets, and live shows, there is always something going on in Melbourne for locals and tourists alike.
Visiting Melbourne and the State Library
But tucked in the centre of Melbourne CBD, is the oldest literary institution of them all and, despite covering an entire city block, the State Library of Victoria is often overlooked by visitors who often aren’t even aware of its existence.
Melbourne is the first and only UNESCO City of Literature in Australia and became only the second City of Literature in the world when it was given the title in 2008. It isn’t hard to see why, with so many literary and cultural resources on display for members of the public to enjoy.
The history of the State Library of Victoria
The State Library Victoria was established in 1854, just 19 years after the city of Melbourne was founded in 1835. To this day, the library holds the title of the oldest library in Australia, as well as setting the precedent as one of the first free libraries in the world.
166 years later, the library is now home to over two million books and another three million items of literary or historical significance to the state of Victoria.
Things to do at the State Library Victoria
The State Library of Victoria is a must-visit in Melbourne, and makes for a great addition to any visitor’s Melbourne itinerary because, not only is it a significant historical landmark, but it is also completely free to visit! This budget-friendly Melbourne attraction is perfect for those who love to explore libraries and bookshops on their travels, getting lost in endless rows of bookshelves and taking in that familiar smell of books that so many of us love!
But the library isn’t just for book lovers. If you’re a photographer looking for Melbourne photo locations, then you will absolutely love the architecture of the State Library of Victoria.
Head to the Ian Potter Queen’s Hall, accessed by a grand marble staircase to see this beautifully restored heritage library space. The view from the gallery is so symmetrically satisfying, there’s an angle here for every photographer to shoot. In the evenings this area becomes an event space, so check the listings to see what’s on during your visit.
But perhaps the most famous room is the La Trobe Reading Room. This octagonal reading room is 6 stories high with viewing balconies around the sides and a huge domed ceiling. The white walls contrasting with the dark wood desks and bookshelves in this magnificent room makes this the perfect photo opportunity, even the State Library website encourages you to take a ‘dome selfie’ in there!
In case you needed another reason to visit the State Library of Victoria, the library is also home to several extensive exhibitions which are all also completely free to enjoy. I highly recommend visiting the exhibitions here if you are someone who enjoys learning about the history of a place but you’re not eager to pay for a museum ticket to other attractions.
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Free Exhibitions at the State Library
On the upper levels of the La Trobe Reading Room are two permanent exhibitions. The ‘Changing Face of Victoria’ collection follows the history, people, and events which led to the founding of Victoria and the establishment of the state we know today.
With artefacts from the infamous Ned Kelly, documents, and artefacts from the Gold Rush and historical insights into life in Victoria through the years, this is a great introduction to the Australian state of Victoria for anyone wanting to learn more.
Another fascinating exhibition in the La Trobe Reading Room galleries is the ‘World of the Book’. This exhibition has manuscripts of great medieval, sacred, religious, and historical significance. It follows early printed books and medieval manuscripts, looking at early production and printing of books and even trends for tiny printed books that are no bigger than a matchbox.
There are displays to show the development of the literary canon from Shakespeare and John Milton to Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf. There is also a section of the discovery of the world, with texts from famous voyages from the 16th century onwards.
There are displays of the development of natural history texts and books that spoke of mythical creatures, maps and discoveries which shaped history and our knowledge of the world today. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this exhibition is the rare books and censorship section. The library itself has an extensive ‘Rare Books Collection’ which is held in storage and can be viewed by appointment with staff.
It includes first editions of Shakespeare texts, medieval manuscripts and books containing ornate, hand-painted or unique production aspects. However some of these books are permanently on display in the ‘World of Books’ exhibition and can be viewed without appointment and for free.
The history of censorship is also touched on, with early copies of titles on display, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover which were banned and censored due to their content.
These aren’t the only two exhibitions in the library though. The library recently underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation and there is now a dedicated upper gallery to showcase exhibitions and collections from other institutions or private collections.
The Victoria Gallery opened in 2019 and the exhibitions on display change annually, so make sure to check the library website before you visit for the most up to date information of what’s on.
The first exhibition in the Victoria Gallery was one I was fortunate enough to see, called ‘Velvet, Iron, Ashes’. It looked at the history of Ned Kelly and his link to the famous Ashes Urn which is contested between the England and Australia national cricket teams.
The Ashes Urn was actually on display, being on loan from Marylebone Cricket Club in London. Although the urn is no longer there, the exhibitions in the Victoria Gallery draw intriguing links between the history of Victoria and the links to its modern-day development.
Visiting The State Library of Victoria is the perfect attraction if you’re looking for free things to do in Melbourne, or even if you’re just looking for a bit of peace and quiet in one of the oldest, and most beautiful buildings in Melbourne.
Written by Helena Bradbury