The National Library of Australia, Canberra
It is always exciting to visit a national library, reflecting the cultural history, output and aspirations of a nation, and the National Library of Australia made an impression before I had even set foot inside…
Australia is both a new and an ancient country. New because of what we see today, its skyscrapers, airports and technology, its beach-loving, modern lifestyle, and an ancient country, in two ways: firstly, there is the timeless dream-time reality of the indigenous peoples, inhabiting the same geographical space as the recent settlers but seeing an entirely different landscape; secondly, there is that baggage, the traditional goals and aspirations of what we call western civilisation. Much of modern Australia’s history is the story of the confrontation of these diverse cultural forces.
The Parliamentary Zone of Canberra embodies that bold and bright vision. A planned group of buildings reflects the foundations of Western state-craft and political institutions to govern them. The Library, the Parliament, the National Art Gallery, the War Memorial, the High Court, the National Museum are linked by lines of sight along managed avenues that carry messages in the forms of memorials, artworks and landscaping. It is interesting to me, both personally and politically, that the National Library was the first prestigious building of this grand statement.
The chief architect was Walter Bunning (1912-1977). He was inspired by the Parthenon, and this building has similar impact. Canberra has been the capital city of Australia since 1908, but the National Library clearly establishes its credentials to the ancient Western world. It is also interesting that the architect chose to twin his creation with a building that represented the soul of Athens. The message could not be clearer: the library is the soul of the modern nation.
Crossing the bridge that spans the Malangio River, the clean white columns of the library can be seen from afar and as you get closer its scale becomes apparent. As in Washington or Paris, this city has been planned to impress.
Inside, one can only be impressed by the spectacular works of art are on display. Most of the Library’s works of art were commissioned by Bunning around the time that the building was opened in 1968, these include paintings, tapestries, stained glass, sculpture and metal work.
I am impressed by the sense of space and the emphasis on beautiful vistas which can be seen from the windows. The stock is largely held below ground, which means the public access spaces can be spacious, airy and inviting.
This is an institution built for an ethnically and culturally diverse nation. Reflecting this The National Library’s collections have an identity that is unique, being the largest repository in the world relating to Australia and Australian culture. The Library collects and preserves material recording indigenous history, offering an interpretation of Australia’s past and contemporary culture. At the same time, there is also crossover with the culture that is familiar to me, as so many early settlers were from the British Isles.
In the Treasures of the Library collection, one can find the journals of Captain Cook and the notebooks of William Bligh, reminders of history lessons from my school days. And the story of the First Fleet and subsequent settlers in Robert Hughes’s book The Fatal Shore, which often makes uncomfortable reading. The National Library holds records of these early settlers, and the archivists are often asked to help with genealogy requests.
A nation is defined by its stories and the library represents the cultural output of this fascinating nation. But addressing multiple histories and cultures is a delicate job. Whereas we in the Western tradition delight in the naming of places and peoples of the past, it is quite different for many indigenous peoples who regard naming and reproducing of images as a trespass. Signage in both buildings respects this diversity, making this hub of the nation a heartland for all citizens.
National libraries share common values and objectives: collection and preservation, digitisation, access to information, creativity and intellectual endeavour, yet in this beautiful and tranquil building I found something that is uniquely Australian, something that makes a statement about the country and its citizens.
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
With a classical portico looking north onto Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, the State Library of New South Wales offers a telling juxtaposition: gardens and libraries are close companions, spiritually, philosophically and scientifically.
When I visited the library, an exhibition on the first floor entitled Planting Dreams: Grand Garden Designs explored this point. It presented the garden in a wide variety of roles – leisure, pleasure, passion and pacifier but one that particularly struck me as a keen gardener and a librarian was the parallel developments of classification in both fields. Perhaps it is because gardens and libraries share a cultivation of the soul as the Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero pointed out: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
This piece of Classical wisdom leads to the realisation of all sorts of links between plants and libraries, even to the basic stuff of books themselves: paper and ink.
Here is food for thought – again the plant and idea metaphor comes readily. We see the botanists of the Old World come upon the giant tree ferns and eucalyptus of the antipodes and whole new areas of classification are required just as librarians create new areas of classification in Dewey to classify the discoveries of today.
State Library of South Australia
The State Library of South Australia stands on the edge of Adelaide’s central grid in a row of iconic buildings including the Parliament, the Arts Centre and, of course, the cricket ground, the Adelaide Oval.
Cricket features prominently in the main exhibition area on the first floor of the new wing of the State Library. “The Treasures Wall: a few of our favourite things” is a selection made by librarians from their collection and the first thing you notice is a glass case full of cricket bats, Don Bradman’s bats to be precise – national treasures commemorating great victories, usually over the English.
The wall offers a fascinating insight into the state of South Australia, not only through printed material but also through collections of minerals, such as copper, silver, iron ore and lead; gemstones such as opals, unique to Australia and found near Coober Pedy in the north of the state; agricultural products such as wool and grapevine prunings, and mementoes such as a programme from the erstwhile Adelaide Grand Prix.
Some librarians offer a more traditional approach, one offering us a wonderful illuminated music manuscript from medieval Europe and, another, a tiny clay tablet with cuneiform writing from ancient Mesopotamia.
Walk across the bridge from the new building to the original library and you discover another gem. The Mortlock Wing, a library room in the grand manner, complete with rich woods, columns, a clock counting the seconds silently and hushed study desks set among shelf upon shelf of books.
State Library of Victoria
A free-to-ride tram clatters past the front of the State Library of Victoria. People play giant chess in front of the portico and the steps lead on to a lawn covered with people, reading, chatting, eating some of the ethnic food for which the city is famous. The library is as busy as Melbourne itself – and Melbourne is a busy and very pleasant city.
I have come here searching for one particular thing, another Australian icon, more potent than Don Bradman’s bat and more dangerous than any garden. On the fifth floor of the rising circles that rise over the great reading room of this library are the pieces of a plough that tell the story of Australian history as folklore. This plough was bent, riveted and strung together to become Ned Kelly’s armour.
You have to stand before it to appreciate the impact this iron clad man must have had as he walked from the burning wreckage of the Glenrowan Inn to face rifle fire that dented the suit but sent the bullets to ricochet into the bush. Ned was felled by shots to the legs. He crumpled, was captured, tried by the man who founded Victoria State Library, and then was hanged in Melbourne Gaol.
It is strange to look at the death mask of Ned that is on show in a case behind the armour in the library founded by his judge and executioner. The tranquillity of his features in repose belie the violence in which he lived his life. He looks to have been an attractive man, who was set on the wrong side of the law: son of a convict and an Irish Catholic, living in a Protestant controlled English colony. The brutality and stupidity of the constabulary hunting him down cannot excuse his crimes but the letters he wrote to explain them demonstrate a keen mind with a sense of justice.
Ned Kelly’s armour is a national treasure and reminder of this incredible country’s origins.
National Library of Australia, Canberra: https://www.nla.gov.au/
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/
State Library of South Australia, Adelaide: https://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/home
State Library of Victoria, Melbourne: https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/
Note: This article first appeared in BDSLife for Libraries, Spring 2017. It has been slightly adapted for this online feature.