Emerald city’s rare gem
he State Library of NSW — the oldest in Australia — is a remarkable and underappreciated institution in the city of Sydney, with a vast collection of books, documents and historical memorabilia stored in stacks that go down 10 stories below Macquarie Street. It also features a magnificent reading room, a vast space filled with light and peace, lined with books and crowded with scholars and students working silently yet in tacit company on anything from primary historical research to school or university essays.
Designers of modern libraries too often have forgotten that the combination of space, and especially height, with the proximity of other people also intent on reading or research produces the most favourable conditions for clarity of mind, attention and intellectual focus. Too many of our university libraries were designed in a postwar period when such subtleties were overlooked in favour of a misconceived model of industrial efficiency, and isolate students in grim reading cubicles as though they were battery hens of the mind.
But the beautiful State Library reading room was almost lost in 2013-14 in a singular rush of stupidity when a so-called renewal plan envisaged turning the library into some kind of social hub. Readers were to be banished to a much smaller room where they could carry on their quaint activities, presumably until the last of them had disappeared by natural attrition.
Fortunately there was such an outcry from writers, scholars and others that the vandalising of the reading room was avoided.
The incumbent state librarian, my friend and former colleague John Vallance, came to the position last year after 17 years as headmaster of Sydney Grammar School. I have heard that he is the first state librarian for a generation to explore the stacks on a regular basis. When we visited them together I was impressed by his ability to find his way around this rambling underground maze, with a detailed memory for the location of books, folios of drawings or reserves of photographic negatives.
As a former trustee of the library he already had an intimate knowledge of its premises, resources, and also deficiencies. One of Vallance’s first innovations, within months of taking up the position, was to create a special reading area with open-shelf access for recent literature. The plan was to ensure that any book reviewed in a serious literary journal such as The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books or Australian Book Review, or indeed in these pages, should be acquired and catalogued as a matter of priority, so readers whose appetite have been whetted by a review should be able to browse through the book itself within a week or so.
But anyone familiar with Vallance’s record of building and restoration at College Street, where he was responsible for adding the classical portico facing Hyde Park, planned in the 1830s but never executed, as well as excavating the colossal underground theatre now known as the John Vallance Hall, would have expected more dramatic reforms of an architectural nature, and they would not be disappointed by what has been achieved in the past year or so.
The library has always had a suite of handsome exhibition rooms in which several temporary exhibitions reviewed here have been held, but the rooms themselves felt a little tired. At the same time, the institution also had a considerable collection of paintings and works on paper, as well as particularly important holdings of artists’ sketchbooks and other documents. Few of these works had been seen in public for decades, except when individual pieces have been lent to specialist exhibitions. When inspected more closely it was clear that many were in need of conservation or cleaning.
From the moment Vallance took over the library, he conceived the plan of turning the galleries into a permanent exhibition space for the collection. This entailed restoring the galleries themselves, but also the substantial process of conserving the works to be brought up for exhibition. It also meant the library would lose spaces for temporary exhibitions unless alternative accommodation were found. So adjacent administrative offices were evacuated, and even the old state librarian’s office was sacrificed, to make room for a new suite of galleries.
And this was not all. Several smaller rooms were restored, including a space for resident scholars to work, which was sponsored by Donald Horne’s family and includes his desk and other furniture, and a project space for school boys and girls as well as a smaller reading nook for younger children. There is also an enormous new display area for the physical treasures of the library, including everything from Henry Lawson’s death mask to Matthew Flinders’s sextant and the original copper plates used to print Norman Lindsay’s etchings. What is really extraordinary about these initiatives is that so much has been achieved in such a short time. One can’t help contrasting this kind of energy and achievement with the stagnation at the nearby Art Gallery of NSW, where bureaucrats and consultants grow fat but nothing ever seems to happen.
Our biggest state gallery has lived for years on promises of a massive expansion project that has failed to inspire general conviction or support because it has never been supported by a vision for the future of the collection.
The new rooms at the State Library are intended to make much more of that institution’s collection not only visible but also accessible, thanks to thoughtful display and labelling and the provision of other explanatory materials. Many precious books and other objects are now shown, including the journals of Flinders, for example, and of William Bligh, open at a page where he describes how the officers of the Bounty were put into a longboat by Fletcher Christian, while he himself was tied to the mast.
Altogether 10 collections that are listed by UNESCO are now displayed to the public. Of particular interest, of course, are the pictures