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The La Trobe Reading Room

The State Library of Victoria’s La Trobe Reading Room is one of Melbourne’s grandest historical spaces. Here, we dive into this landmark’s past – from design to construction and everything in between.

Officially opened on 14 November 1913 by Governor-General Lord Denman, the State Library of Victoria’s Domed Reading Room was designed by Norman G. Peebles, who drew inspiration from the British Museum in London and the Library of Congress in Washington. The octagonal space, spanning 220 square feet, was built using brick, reinforced concrete and glass. The space was designed to hold more than one million books and house 600 readers at a time. Of these 600 readers, the space accommodated 28 seated readers at the eight radial desks, supervised by library attendants at the central raised desk.

The desks within the Domed Reading Room were also designed by Peebles, and made from Queensland silky oak. All furniture at the time cost £4300, with each component made in Australia (excluding the bookshelves). In fact, apart from the glass in the windows, the glass fittings for the lighting and the white Sicilian marble of the grand staircase that links the reading room and Queen’s Hall, everything was made in Australia.

The dome was designed to be the main feature of the building, with a diameter larger than that of Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral. The weight of the dome was a reported 1800 tons, with most of this being concrete and 148 tons of reinforced steel binding it all together. Upon completion, this dome was the largest in the world, sitting at 114 feet high.

Victoria’s State Library was Australia’s first free public library, and was the cultural centrepiece of Melbourne in the 19th century, sharing its premises with museums,

the gallery, an art school and the Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia in 1866. The Domed Reading Room was accessible to all through the library’s egalitarian membership policies, which was radical at the time.

Read more in edition 17 of Traces, available now.

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