The dais in the La Trobe Reading Room stands in the centre of the Dome. Currently it’s used to exhibit collection items, but there was a time when a Library staff member sat up there, ensuring silence be maintained – the librarians’ dream job of ‘Chief Shoosher’1.

Photograph of the Dais in the Domed reading room, showing the library attendant sitting within it in profile.
Central dais, the Domed Reading Room, State Library of Victoria, 1985. Photograph by Viva Gibb. This item is in copyright; H88.55/6

In 2018, Senior Librarian Paul Dee asked two long term Librarians at the State Library Victoria how this used to work. At the time, Gerry had been at the Library for 43 years and Kent for 44 years.

“About 25-30 years ago attendants sat in the dais,” says Gerry.

“And they always wore a blue dust jacket,” interrupts Kent.

“I thought they were grey dust jackets?”

“Oh, I suppose I could be wrong,” says Kent.

“They had a selection of new books they’d be stamping whilst they surveyed the room,” continues Gerry. “The attendant was in charge of keeping the quiet. They’d stamp the book and glare down at anyone who talked.”

As the Dome is circular, the attendant could only ever see half the room. In the photograph below, just above the eye line of the attendant is a rectangular mirror which enabled staff to keep watch on any people chatting behind them.

Photograph of the Dais in the Domed reading room, showing library attendant in centre, with mirror above desk. Desks radiate out from the Dais like spokes. The shelves on the walls are stacked high with books.
Bird’s-eye view of Domed Reading Room, State Library of Victoria, ca.1940, Herald and Weekly Times; H94.5

You’ll also notice in the above photograph how high and full the shelves were stacked. Members of the public could access these themselves – a modern-day hazard that would never be allowed today.

Whilst the dais sits at the centre of the Dome spokes, its inspiration was derived from a far more serious act than keeping the quiet – namely, keeping prisoners in order. Professor Harriet Edquist, Professor of Architectural History at RMIT writes, “The classically ornamented interior was arranged on a radial panopticon plan, commonly used in penal establishments, with a librarian (rather than a warden) seated on a raised dais at the centre. From here an eye could survey the whole room and maintain order with stern admonitions to ‘Silence’”2.

Architectural drawing of the Domed reading room.
Public Library, Museums, and National Galleries of Victoria. Fittings in New Reading Room, 1912, Bates Peebles & Smart; H2010.69/64

Level 4 of the Dome is now home to the permanent World of the Book exhibition, while level 6 is most commonly visited as the highest vantage point for an aerial view of the Dome, and the home of the Shakespeare Window. The upper levels of the Dome of course make for excellent Dome selfies.

Back in Kent and Gerry’s early days though, the upper levels of the dome – levels 4, 5 and 6 – were home to the library’s stacks. As Kent recalls: “The attendants used to retrieve books off the Dome balconies using the spiral staircase. There were very narrow ladders that reached almost to the top shelf, and the large books were on the top so when they had to get a folio, the ladder would shake when they came down. There was a section we called ‘the grill’, which was a cage full of adult-only books, which you needed a key to access.”

For safety reasons, the Dome balconies themselves are no longer accessed – the books currently housed there are duplicates from the collection, for display purposes only.

Photograph of the cast-iron spiral staircase leading to the Dome balconies.
Spiral cast iron staircase, stack galleries, State Library of Victoria, 1986. Photograph by Viva Gibb. This work is in copyright; H88.55/11

Once the Librarian had made the perilous journey back down the spiral staircases, the ordered book was delivered to a room off the Dome and the attendant announced its arrival.

“They’d just yell out the title,” says Gerry. “‘Roman Empire‘ or ‘National Geographic‘, ‘Brisbane phonebook‘. Didn’t matter what it was. There was no privacy. Some patrons got a bit embarrassed – depending on what they’d ordered.”

“And they used to have staff at the entrance to the Dome”, says Kent. “They’d vet people walking up the stairs. In those days you weren’t allowed to bring your own books into the dome.”

“And at closing time, the attendant used to hit the gong,” says Gerry. “He’d walk around the perimeter, banging it.”

The gong displayed below, was struck prior to the Library closing from the 1850s until the mid 1990s.

Photograph of the brass gong and striker that was used to signal the end of the day in the Dome.
Brass gong with wooden striker, ca. 1857-ca. 1880. This image is in copyright; H98.208/1

Every day hundreds of patrons pour through the dome, including high-school students, tourists, writers, business people and hobbyists. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on who you ask), Librarians no longer ‘shoosh’ visitors in the Dome, although it remains one of our designated quiet study areas. The dais is currently home to an exhibition of artist books, and has hosted many decidedly un-quiet events over the years, including the launch of Melbourne Fashion Week in 2022, and performances by Missy Higgins and Angie Hart as part of the Dome Centenary Fellowship Project (by Sean Whelan, Alicia Sometimes and Emilie Zoe Baker) in 2015.

Elevated photograph showing a model wearing a white dress and black gloves, positioned and spotlit on top of the Dais in the centre of the Dome.
Melbourne Fashion Week launch night event, Fashion x Art at State Library Victoria, 2022, Melbourne Fashion Week (photographer). This image is in copyright.
Photograph looking slightly up towards singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, a woman with short dark hair, holding an acoustic guitar. She is standing on the Dais in the Dome, and appears to be singing.
Part of the Dome Centenary Fellowship project by Sean Whelan, Alicia Sometimes and Emilie Zoey Baker. Performances by Missy Higgins and Angie Hart, 2015. Photograph by Paul Armour. This image is in copyright.

As for Gerry and Kent? Gerry retired from the Library in 2021 after a 46-year career at SLV. Kent – one of the most widely recognised employees at the Library – retired late in 2023, racking up close to 50 years of service.

Oil painting portrait of a man with grey hair and a long, grey beard.
Kent, 2012. Painting by Fiona Jeffrey. This work is in copyright; H2012.148

Want more stories about the Library? Take a walk through the Library’s weird and wonderful history with Wander – a free, self-guided digital tour.

This blog was originally published by Senior Librarian Paul Dee in 2018, and has been edited by Librarian Caitlyn Grant to include updated information.

More to explore

From our blogs

  1. ‘Chief Shoosher’ may not have been an official job title!
  2. Edquist, H, 2013, ‘A New World’, Dome 100 – Celebrating the Dome, State Library Victoria, viewed 6 July 2023 (Pandora), <>

This article has 14 comments

  1. Remember the days well when the invigilator sat in the Dias. Staff were always helpful and competent. I recall being allowed in the stacks at times when staff could not locate a book you required. There was an elderly man, very gaunt, who came in every day and drew. The staff would give him scrap paper to draw on. They nicknamed him ‘death’. This was in the mid 1960s. Usage was not like it is today.

  2. My father David Pitt was frequently in the library in his youth, as his father Ernest Pitt was the Chief Librarian from 1931 to 1943. Dad often recounted a startling tale; he clearly saw a pistol located in a drawer in the dais. No doubt the pistol was there as a last resort to maintain silence!

  3. During the second half of the1960s attendants in other parts of the library also admonished anyone who spoke. They seemed to recognise and keep an eye on students from the RMIT library school who were usually looking for reference resources to evaluate for their course. If you dared to look at another student an attendant seemed to appear from nowhere. Amusing times!!

  4. I remember the buckets scattered around the reading room to catch the drips coming throught the dome in the 50s.

  5. Hilary Rubinstein

    I remember when one of our attendants, Teddy Todd, was on dais duty in the domed reading room. Teddy was a loveable man and we were all very fond of him. I will never forget the time when a reader who had come into the LaTrobe Library, as it then was, situated on the ground floor, came down from the domed reading room and said he had just had a lovely conversation with the state librarian, and what a lovely man he was, absolutely no side on him. It turns out that the reader had mistaken dear Teddy, seated in isolated splendour on the dais, for that Illustrious functionary! He assumed that the dais was the ultimate seat of power in the place! Much love and best wishes to Kent and Gerry. I seem to recall that the dust jackets were tan …

  6. Bring back the gong !

    On a Saturday in 2013 at the national library in Dublin I was startled by the tinkling of a small bell announcing that day’s early closing, and even more startled to notice the other readers instantly pack up and leave the reading room as I scrambled to complete my note-taking.

  7. I loved the reading room in the 1950s and early 1960s and really enjoyed browsing the high shelved walls, there was an amazingly diverse selection available. You could circumnavigate the Reading Room, pluck a book and take a seat at one of the reading desks to examine it at your leisure, under the stern eye in the central dais.
    Equally wonderful was the card index room off to the left, with hundreds of drawers, containing thousands of cards, one for each book. It felt like a 19th century relic even then; a wonderful manifestation of the care and thoroughness of libraries and librarians.
    I was also an active member of the Lending Library, long closed now. It was a great resource in the days when suburban libraries were less common and less well stocked.

  8. I was an attendant, starting in the State Library 1987. We wore grey dust jackets. Later we got a new set. Blue with State Library in Gold sewn print on left side. They were eventually discarded. Some of the older attendants still wore the old brown uniform under the dust jacket. I was an attendant in the general reference team. The book trollies for reshelving books were a danger. They could tip over if not balanced correctly. Retrieving from folio size items on the Dome Reading Room stack area was a trial for those who were vertically challenged and not so strong. Narrow ladders proved to be a danger when climbing down with a book that was very heavy. The old Domed Reading Room had a folio “wedge”. Coming in on Monday mornings was a huge job reshelving in the Dome. Once again narrow ladders that were needed for the great height of shelves as a trouble. Fortunately there were no folio books on the perimeter of the Dome. When requesting books from the stacks, patrons would hand write the details of the book and pass to a Librarian for checking. The patron would be given a docket with a number on it. If the book was found the number would show up on the “bingo board” One board on ground floor reference centre, the other in the Domed Reading Room. If book not found, the number would flash. Books were collected from Reference centre. Back before the 1990 redevelopment level 2 of Domed reading room was only half for reference area; the rest (southern side was serials and monograph acquisitions and cataloguing). I am sure there are staff still in the library who worked in that area. The West side near to Arts courtyard / Expermedia was the work area for Reference Librarians and Support Team. At that time the two court yards were staff car parking. The court yard that was Family History area was built with the intention of the State Library café / restaurant. Therefore the large kitchen in Armstrong level 2. This area was the staff court yard where staff could enjoy lunch outside. There was a door from the State Librarians office to the court yard. This enabled her to have lunch with staff. We had a magic show one Christmas in the courtyard. The magic show was led by Mr Alma. There are many more memories. This is just a glimpse of what was the State Library of Victoria last century.

  9. I’ve been at the library for 40 years, so I am a baby compared to Kent and Gerry. All I remember from my first year that the Newspaper reading room was on the ground floor and had the most awful lino full of holes and the lighting was very dim until the public came in. It was closed and renovated and then became the Information Centre. I still remember being handed a can of Mr Sheen to clean the desks before the then Premier, Rupert Hamer, arriving and having to do the formal opening of the area. I also remember those spiral stairs, if you were at the bottom and the whole thing shaking somebody was galloping down them and not to step on the landing at all. You might be bowled over or upset the delicate balance of books in their arms and I can still remember one staff member carrying down at least 10 books in a pile down those stairs. I still recall being at the doctor’s looking at x-ray’s of a tear in a muscle in my ankle (which had accumulated calicum deposits) and my doctor concluded that it was the spiral stairs causing those tears. I had to resort to the lift – the lift was old and cranky, you had to open one door, then the second door, before you got out. I lost a ruby from a ring battling those doors. It was very difficult to open when you had your arms loaded with books. The dust coat colours, that I remember, were either gray or blue (for most of the attendants). I managed somehow to acquire a red one – and that protected me from the dust and leather rust when handling books.

  10. As a student in the late 1950s, I once let one of the ladders used to get book of the high shelves tilt and fall. The crash was deafening, and I swear the attendant in the central dais levitated about a foot into the air!
    Not aware of what I was asking, I once asked for 10 years of ‘Chem Abstracts’, having no idea of just how heavy those volumes were. There must have been swearing by the unfortunate carrying them down the spiral staircase (which made a squeaking noise, as I remember). I certainly got a glare from the index room supervisor, and never made that mistake again….

    • Oh no Geoff! I think we’ve all been in that situation where we’ve accidentally made a noise that’s just a little too loud for the space we’re in! I hope you weren’t too traumatised and have been able to enjoy your time at the Library since.

  11. Esther Anne Ringer

    I remember the Shooser quite well. When studying for my Matriculation in 1956 we were regularly sent by our teacher to look up certain books so a group of us would sit together and pass he relevant books along the line. Again I was a regular user when completing my teacher qualifications in the following three years. I must admit that I would spend quite a lot of time gazing at the magnificent dome

    • It’s a beautiful space, isn’t it? It definitely can be quite distracting! What a wonderful memory to hold.

  12. I worked at the library in the 80s. The Dome and the balconies have always been magical spaces. One Christmas party n the 80s, I suggested or maybe just encouraged our Reference Librarian to give her thank you for the year’s work talk from a balcony.
    When the Dome and all levels were full of books the fire brigade reputedly said the design was like an incinerator and it would be pointless to try to put a fire out, too much oxygen to fuel the fire.
    I used to take the occasional library user up into the stacks so they could see the view.

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