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 staff member sat up there, ensuring silence be maintained- the librarian dream job.

[Central dais, the Domed Reading Room, State Library of Victoria], H88.55/6

I asked two long term State Library Victoria librarians how this used to work; Gerry, who’s been at the Library for 43 years and Kent, who’s worked here 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. The attendant was in charge of keeping the quiet. They’d stamp the book and glare down at anyone who talked,’ says Gerry.

As the dome is circular, the attendant could only ever see half the room. In the below photograph, just above the eye line of the attendant, is a rectangular mirror which enabled staff to keep a watch on all those chattering public behind him.

[Bird’s-eye view of Domed Reading Room, State Library of Victoria], H94.5

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 the prisoners. Professor Harriet Edquist, Professor of Architectural History, 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’.

Public Library, Museums, and National Galleries of Victoria. Fittings in New Reading Room, H2010.69/64

You’ll also notice in the same photograph how high and full the shelves were stacked- which the public could access themselves. 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.’

Level 5 and 6 of the Dome is now home to the permanent exhibitions World of the book and The changing face of Victoria.

[Spiral cast iron staircase, stack galleries, State Library of Victoria], H88.55/11 ; This work is in copyright.

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

[Brass gong with wooden striker], H98.208/1

 

Everyday hundreds of patrons pour through the dome, including high-school students, chess players, tourists, writers, business people and hobbyists. The dais is currently host to an exhibition of artist books.

 

Kent / by Fiona Jeffery, H2012.148This work is in copyright

 


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This article has 9 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.

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