Emer­ald city’s rare gem

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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