Step into the Dome Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria, and you can almost hear the cogs turning in the minds of visitors. People are studying, examining old books, and expanding their knowledge on anything from rare birds to architectural history. But there’s more to the library than first meets the eye. Time Out is taken on an hour-long tour of the library by Cathy Miller, volunteers and tours manager, who has been working there in various roles for over 30 years. (We’ve dubbed her Melbourne’s ultimate book worm.)
The library is full of surprises, and you can discover them on the free daily 2pm tour. A guide takes visitors to the far reaches of the library, even to places not open to the general public. We start off in the Queen’s Hall, a grand old reading room that is currently closed off to regular visitors. Miller explains that when the library first opened in 1856, the books had only arrived the night before. “Sir Redmond Barry [the library’s founder] took responsibility for ordering all the books from England,” she says. Here in Queen’s Hall, “Redmond was up all night unpacking books with his sleeves rolled up”.
Miller tells us there is allegedly a ghost who plays the piano at night, even though no one has ever died in the library. “I have been told by the managers that they have seen her," she says, "and the electricians never come in here at night.”
The domed La Trobe Reading Room is the most extravagant room at the library. It’s so peaceful; every page can be heard as it’s turned by readers. The room has changed a lot over the last 100 years, Miller explains, and it’s been the location for a variety of art projects in recent years. Melbourne band Faker filmed their video to 'Hurricane' there in 2008 and in 2010 artist Ross Coulter gathered volunteers to make 10,000 paper planes, which were then thrown all at once from the dome’s balcony. (A photo of planes strewn across the library floor is on display at the Enchanted Dome: the Library and Imagination exhibition. After the event “most of the planes were picked up, but every once in a while – for years – you’d find a paper plane stuck on a ledge somewhere!”)
Continuing on with our tour, Miller walks us up to the Chess Room. Who would have thought an entire room, and separate library, could be dedicated to a single board game? In the 1950s MV Anderson, an accountant in Melbourne, had one of the most significant collection of books in the world – all about chess. “And not just any chess books,” Miller says. “He had books that were hundreds of years old. After he died we were given 5,000 books and a bequest. It’s the most diverse collection we have, in terms of books in different languages.” People come to the Chess Room, take something from the shelf to learn about new strategies, or about a past chess master. “Mostly people just meet their friends and play.” If ever there was a nerd heave, it’s here.
When we ask Miller what her favourite book in the whole library is, she can't pick one, but after some thought she tells us about the botanical works available in the Rare Books library. “There are four books produced by botanist Piere-Joseph Redouté in the early 1800s,” one of which is in the library’s Mirror of the World exhibition. The books are filled with beautiful botanical illustrations of Australian flora and fauna, found by French explorers. Empress Josephine of France at the time was obsessed with Australian wildlife, so she requested the explorers bring back animals and plants for her very garden. “There was an Australian garden growing on the other side of the world! How amazing is that?” Books like these can be read in the Rare Books department and in the Mirror of the World exhibition.
Despite working at the library for decades, Miller still adores the place. With endless stories about its history, and over two million books at her fingertips, it’s no wonder she’s inspired. As Miller completes the tour she says: “Self education is what this library was set up for.”
Free guided tours leave at 2pm every day (except public holidays) from the library foyer. Groups of eight or more should contact the library via email@example.com or call 03 8664 7099.