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Thursday, 13 March 2014

Libraries, desks and hallowed halls

This week's photo shows an inside view of the Library of Congress in Washngton DC. You can go on a tour and look down from above, but I actually obtained a reader's identification card, in order to go onto the floor as a researcher and order a couple of volumes from the stacks in relation to the history of my husband's American ancestor Dan Calwell and family, when we visited Washington in 2007. The process of going down into the bowels of a neighbouring building to apply for the card and be photographed, fingerprinted and interrogated as to my reasons for wanting it and then waiting for it to be approved took some time, but eventually I was presented with my card and was able to go into the library and submit my order, and then sit at one of those desks waiting for the books to be brought up from the stacks. That took well over an hour, and unfortunately when they did eventually appear, one book turned out to be for the wrong year, which was bad luck as it was too late in the day to re-order and I wasn't able to go back the next day, but never mind, it was an interesting experience.

Here in Melbourne we have the State Library of Victoria, which was first established in 1854. The library's most influential founding fathers were Charles Joseph La Trobe, who became the lieutenant-governor of the State of Victoria following its establishment in 1851, and Sir Redmond Barry, who is possibly best known for having been the judge who sentenced Australia's most notorious bushranger Ned Kelly to death by hanging in 1880, and himself died 12 days later from unrelated health problems.

 Augustus Henry Tulk was appointed in 1856 as the first librarian of what was then known as the Melbourne Public Library and both he and Redmond Barry worked closely together to develop and expand the collection from 400 volumes to over 80,000 works when Mr Tulk died in office in 1873. In a glowing tribute to the late Mr Tulk published here in the The Argus of 3 March 1873, it was suggested that "The statue of Mr Justice Barry already graces the great reading room; that of Augustus Tulk should be placed alongside it. To these two gentlemen - true brothers in the good cause of popular enlightenment - Victoria owes a debt which it can never adequately repay".

 The crowning glory which is  the Domed Reading Room was not added to the Library until 1913, when Mr Tulk and the others were no longer around, but I think they would have appreciated it. It was modelled on the designs of both the Library of Congress and the former Reading Room of the British Library, now the British Museum, and at that time it was the largest dome of its kind in the world. Here is some more specific information, from a display panel in one of the galleries around the dome.

Problems developed with falling plaster and leaks, but after major restoration the Dome was re-opened in 2003, and was renamed the La Trobe Reading Room, in honour of Charles La Trobe. There are statues of  La Trobe and Sir Redmond Barry outside the library, but sadly the tribute-writer's suggestion extracted above was not taken up, and there are none of Augustus Tulk, whose only memorial seems to be a trendy cafe called Mr Tulk, established at the library in recent years. I wonder what he would make of that?

Sir Redmond Barry surveys the scene, high on a pedestal in front of the library entrance
Charles Joseph La Trobe reading to one side of the entrance
and even a bunyip lurking about the garden

but oddly a name and sillhouette on some cafe umbrellas is all the recognition  that First Librarian Augustus Henry Tulk gets. There is a portrait of him in the library collection but it is presently confined to the vaults, and someone serving on the library information desk did not even know who the cafe was named after!   I'm tempted to email a suggestion about this apparent omission to the present chief librarian.

(From the SLV digital collection)
      Sir Redmond, perhaps waiting for Mr Tulk? 
(from the SLV digital collection)

 The SLV is a popular and busy place, with several other more modern reading rooms, but to me the Dome is the most impressive. I understand that writers often go there to absorb the historic atmosphere and  write their manuscripts while sitting at the desks. No security process or membership card is needed for admission, you just stroll in, but of course a card is required if you want to order books that aren't openly accessible. The viewing galleries on the upper levels contain fascinating displays of rare and historical works from the library collections, and other exhibits on Australian and Victorian history, including for example Ned Kelly's armour, among many other interesting items.

Inside the Dome

Looking down, from a gallery alcove

Focus on the light-filled dome

Street view

View of the library complex from a nearby office block, 35 floors up

Zooming in on the dome

This early photograph on display in the domed gallery shows people working away at the library desks. Interesting that some of the men did not remove their hats while inside. 

 Mr Tulk and the others would surely have raised their eyebrows at illuminations of their beloved library like this one, taken recently on Melbourne's White Night, and would probably have been thankful  it was only a fleeting image!

Desks on the floor below the dome are a prominent feature in our prompt, and as I can't end what is essentially a family history blog without some mention of family, I  thought I would finish with this photograph of Daniel William Morrison, former surname Morrissey, at his desk in the dairy factory in Canvastown NZ, where he worked for many years as secretary. Daniel and his wife Mary Bridget emigrated to that area of New Zealand in 1875 as a young couple from Cork City, Ireland, aged about 22 and 19 respectively, with their first child Minnie aged 6 months, and had another 14 children, of whom all but four survived to adulthood. He would definitely have needed to work hard to support that large brood.

 Daniel died in 1945 and here is his obituary. The ship that brought the Morrison family to NZ was actually called the Hanibal, not the Annabell, and by my calculations, Daniel and Mary Bridget's grandchildren eventually produced a total of 94 great grandchildren, of whom I'm just one.

Now for more offerings on towering domes, arches, desks and other items of interest, just click here to jump over to Sepia Saturday 219


  1. That certainly is an impressive view from the balcony.

  2. Poor Mr. Tulk --

    I LOVE the gallery of library tables under the dome and can fully appreciate how the atmosphere would inspire writers. There is something so noble about open access and free information.

  3. I think I would enjoy sitting in that reading room, writing. The atmosphere appears as though it would be quite inspiring & in especial, with the link to the outside through that massive dome of windows. On a side note, the name La Trobe caught my eye. For years, when visiting my mother in Folsom, Calif., I took a road called Latrobe Road to get over to highway 50 and thence, to Folsom. Out of curiosity, I looked up its history. The road was named after the town of Latrobe which was named after Benjamin Henry La Trobe II, chief engineer for the Baltimore & Ohio railroads so no connection to Charles Joseph La Trobe - except perhaps very distantly? Who knows . . . :))

  4. The dome views are fantastic. I have to admit I enjoyed the history of the late Mr. Morrison most of all.

  5. Somehow I managed to visit this very beautiful library but could not for the life of me find my way into the room with the dome. Talk about stupid!!

  6. Thanks for the pics of SLV and Melbourne - a trip down memory lane for me, spent many and hour slogging away in that library way back in the fifties

  7. The Australian libraries are very impressive. I especially enjoyed reading your great grandfathers obituary.

  8. What is a bunyip? He looks like a character from Winnie the Pooh. Very interesting post +Jo Featherston! :)

    1. A bunyip is an Aboriginal word for a large mythical creature that inhabits swamps and billabongs (ponds left behind after a river changes course). This particular bunyip outside the SLV is modelled from illustrations in a popular Australian children's picture book called "The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek". The bunyip asks everyone he meets 'what am I?' but they don't know, so he sadly retires into a billabong, where he happily meets up with another bunyip.

  9. Oh, yes, that dome in the SLV is fabulous, both looking and and looking down! I love that they preserved the tables radiating from the center.

  10. Well I think you’ve done the dome, AND Mr Tulk, proud with this post Jo. Thanks to you he won’t just be remembered as a cafe.That view from the balcony almost bought on my vertigo!

  11. I like the view of all the little people down there working away, hats and all.

  12. A fascinating post linking Australian libraries (thst I knew nothing about) and your family history with your great grandfather's obituary.

  13. Wow! What an impressive Dome, loved the layout from the balcony above!

  14. By the way, every time I open up your blogsite, I want to go up to the door and knock, hoping someone will let me in, it is so inviting.............

  15. Someday a child we told the history of libraries instead of being taken to one. That makes me very sad. If everything goes digital the community of a library will be gone. I don't see the future of books being held in such high esteem. I have always wanted to visit the Library of Congress, but at least feel some pleasure in knowing some of the books I've designed are there.