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State Library of Victoria


State Library Victoria, Swanston Street, Melbourne VIC, Australia


Exterior – Free to view

Interior – Free public entry during Library hours (10AM–6PM)

Accessibility – This site is accessible

Architectural History

Opening in 1856, the State Library was the first of many buildings constructed on the site, and would, over a period of time, accommodate four separate cultural institutions. These included the Public Library, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Industrial and Technological Museum and the Natural History Museum. Construction of buildings on the library site was almost continuous from 1854 until the completion of the La Trobe Library in the 1960s.

The main Swanston Street facade of the library is built of sandstone in an English Palladian manner, with a central Corinthian portico and flanking wings, which terminate in projecting pavilions. A giant order, supporting an entablature and balustrading, runs across the undulating, two-storey facade. The classical character continues in the interior of the Queen's Hall reading room, which was designed with a central space encircled by galleried aisles, delineated by a giant Ionic order colonnade. Similarities have been drawn between the library and the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. The dome in the main reading room is an example of the early and innovative use of reinforced concrete construction used to create the largest dome in the world at the time of construction.

Social History

Not long after its inception, this building also housed the National Gallery of Victoria collection and Museums Victoria, and as such it was the principal educational and cultural centre for the people of Victoria for many years. Free public libraries were the product of a movement which aimed to provide ‘rational recreation’ for the populace at large, and the State Library was amongst the first in the world to offer library access to the masses with comparatively few restrictions placed on library users.

Prompts & Activities

  • Why do you think the architect used Greek influences in this building? How does it relate to its purpose, and the people who would have occupied it?

  • In comparison, how is it used today, and is this thinking still relevant? Or does the modern use of the building subvert its history?

  • How many of the Greek architectural elements listed can you see? Can you count columns or other design features?

  • What is your favourite element of this building? Does it have interesting ornamentation? What part does this element play in the overall design of the building, and why might it have been included? You might like to draw your favourite components! Observational sketching is a great way to get a deeper understanding of something.