The State Library’s founder, Redmond Barry, described his vision for the Library as a ‘voluntary university … a great emporium of learning and philosophy, of literature, science, and art.’ 1

When the Library opened on 11 February 1856, such enlightenment was accessed without artificial light, so initially the building closed before darkness. This upset some patrons:

All the arrangement necessary for lighting the Library with gas could be completed in a week, and then the Library would, in reality, be public, and not only so in name, as at present. 2

This disgruntled letter writer didn’t have long to wait. The Library closed briefly during May 1856 while gas lighting was fitted, reopening under gaslight until the later time of 9pm on 26 May.

Queens Hall with men studying at night circa 1860
Queen’s Hall, Public Library, Melbourne picture, c 1860; H3970

The Age observed that within this

delightful temple of instruction … now thoroughly lighted with gas … a genial warmth pervades every corner … Surrounded by the choicest treasures of human intellect, and tempted to their perusal by the presence of every bodily comfort and luxurious appliance, no valid excuse can be assigned for the neglect of self-culture … As we sit drinking in the intelligence of these precious tomes, no sound ever penetrates from the busy world without. (Age,19 June 1856, p 3)

A month later the Age was no less complimentary but also took

the liberty of suggesting two things wanting to complete the admirable arrangements which characterize the institution: —first, some means of warming the library in the daytime—for at night it is sufficiently warmed by the gas; secondly, a lavatory, for the convenience of readers. (Age, 23 July 1856, p 5)

Black and white photos of gas lights in Queens Hall
Reading Room Melbourne Public Library. Photo by Charles Nettleton, c 1870; H4573. Note the gas lamps

The newspaper went on to address the thorny issue of Sunday opening.

We wish that public opinion were enlightened and tolerant enough to admit of this [Sunday opening]; but we fear that, at present, the opening of a sly grog shop would be considered a smaller evil than opening the doors of an Institution where a man can go and quietly take down his favourite author and improve his mind by reading, when but for this privilege he might be nobblerising in a public-house. (Age, 23 July 1856, p 5)

These arguments bounced around for well over a century until at last the Sabbatarians gave way and the Library finally opened regularly on Sundays.

The Library goes electric!

In 1871, the Trustees lauded the ‘seven handsome gasoliers’ lighting the Library and claimed that the ‘free circulation of pure air prevents the gas from producing any of the injurious effects on the leather binding  or gilding of the books.’ 3 A decade later there was a rather different view:

The ventilation of the Library also is so defective that, during the hot months and always in the evening, the galleries are unbearable, and are practically useless. The binding of the books in the galleries is being destroyed by the fumes of the gas and the heat. 4

The time had come for the Library to ‘go electric’. The Australian Electric Light Company erected a plant at its own expense (housed in a shed behind the Library) and undertook to light the Library for a year for the same cost as gas. The Library then had the option to purchase the plant or extend the contract for five years.

Black and white photo showing detail of electric lights attached to gas lights in Queens Hall

Interior of The Queen’s Hall, showing the book alcoves; H4721. Note the globes hanging down from the light fittings with the gas lights still in place at left

On 13 April 1883, 164 electric lights illuminated the Library. Electricity allowed for a much less soporific atmosphere but was not without teething problems. It was claimed that there was ‘no chance of even a temporary failure of the illuminating power’,  however initially it was not unusual for the lights to suddenly go out requiring the long and tedious process of lighting of the gas lights (which presciently had not been removed).5

Of course it was the information and knowledge contained within the Library’s collections – illuminated by gas or electricity – that ultimately provided the enlightenment. The Library developed rapidly through the 1880s with a comprehensive card catalogue, a new classification system, a reference desk, the new Barry Hall (adjoining the southern end of Queen’s Hall), and the establishment of a separate Lending Library (1892).6

Fast forward to 2022

Now the Library buildings occupy a city block, housing a series of magnificent reading rooms and multi-functional spaces. We have millions of physical items, an extensive digitising program and statewide access to vast collections of books, newspapers, journals, archives and documents through our database subscriptions.

The 19th century librarian would find this a different world, but after 166 years of progress, Redmond Barry’s vision of a ‘voluntary university … a great emporium of learning and philosophy, of literature, science, and art’ remains as true today as it was in 1856. 7

The Ian Potter Queen’s Hall, 2022

References

  1. Barry, R, 1877, ‘On lending libraries’, in Nicholson, EB & Tedder, HR (eds), 1877, Conference of librarians held in London, October, 1877: transactions and proceedings, Trubner, London, pp 134–35
  2. Age, 22 April 1856, p 3
  3. Public Library, Museums and National Gallery, 1872, Report of the trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria … for 1870-71, Government Printer, Melbourne, p 10
  4. Public Library, Museums and National Gallery, 1882, Report of the trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria …  for 1881, Government Printer, Melbourne, p 4
  5. Armstrong, E La T, 1906, The book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria: 1856–1906, Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p 49
  6. For more on the history of the State Library, see our research guide
  7. Barry, R, 1877, ‘On lending libraries’, in Nicholson, EB & Tedder, HR (eds), 1877, Conference of librarians held in London, October, 1877: transactions and proceedings, Trubner, London, pp 134–35

This article has 2 comments

  1. I’m surprised at both gas lighting in 1856 and electric lighting in 1883. Very interesting, thanks.

  2. What a significant part of our history back then and today that this iconic institution remains with us. Our Victorian State Library just keeps improving all the time. The restoration of the Queen’s Hall is nothing short of spectacular. Thank you so much to all the fantastic, hard-working staff who make this fabulous library so enjoyable to use. The staff’s passion shines in their commitment and knowledge, making using the people’s facility easy and comfortable. I hope that as long as the public continues to appreciate what a marvellous space this library is, it will continue to go from strength to strength for generations to come.

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