Melbourne's dome away from home

IT’S mid-afternoon and I’m sitting on a wooden swivel chair in the domed reading room of the State Library – officially the La Trobe Reading Room – checking the index of a book I have removed from its place on the open-access shelves around the walls. I’m looking for any mentions of a once-prominent, now half-forgotten Australian political figure while doing background research  for a story I’m contemplating. This particular book is the only source of the information I’m seeking. It’s not available on eBay or Google Books. The State Library has the only accessible copy in Melbourne.

I have chosen a bad time to consult the collection. VCE exams start next week and the room – indeed, the entire library –  is packed with high-school students. Almost every seat is occupied, the tables are covered with textbooks and laptops and, what with all the fidgeting and bag shuffling, the whispered conferences, the subsonic beats leaking from headphones and the occasional mobile phone conversation, concentration is difficult. Contemplation is  out of the question.

But exams are a pestilence for all concerned and it would be churlish to begrudge their innocent victims a little slack. They are as entitled as Iam to use the room, if only to escape the distractions and temptations of studying at home. Perhaps some of them feel, on some subliminal level,  a timely visit to the Temple of Knowledge might impart a blessing on their endeavours. More likely, it’s the adolescent flocking instinct at work.

If only the drip in the seat beside me would flock off somewhere else. He is humming along with his iPod as he stares, slack-jawed, at his Facebook page. Suppressing the urge to stab him with a pencil, Iraise my eyes to the ceiling, 35metres above us.

The dome is such an integral part of the State Library that it seems to have been there forever. In fact, it was built more than 50 years after the original Melbourne Public Library opened in 1856, by which point the joint was bursting at the bindings. The collection had grown to more than 300,000 items – books, maps, journals, periodicals, music scores, architectural plans, sketches – and something huge and magnificent was needed to do it justice.

When it was finished in 1913, it was the largest reinforced concrete vault in the world. Only the Pantheon in Rome was bigger, but it didn’t count because it wasn’t reinforced with steel, and Italians weren’t yet running the Melbourne concrete business. John Monash did the original drawings and civic worthies such as Tommy Bent finagled for contracts, but the real work, the shovel work, was done by men who probably had little energy for reading. Continuously, night and day for three years, thousands of tonnes of concrete were hand-mixed by crews of 20 men, then hoisted aloft by an electric winch and shovelled into chutes. Contemplate that, scholars. Mixing concrete by hand is the dictionary definition of back-breaking labour. Look it up. The reference section is bound to have a copy. Better still, go across the road to McDonald’s and Google it.

This mass influx of school students is a relatively recent phenomenon. By recent, I mean within my lifetime. The thought of taking my school books to the State Library would never have occurred to me. It would be like taking your own sandwiches to a feast.

Back then, there were two soldiers out the front, solid men and true, large as life and cast in bronze. Their names were Wipers and the Driver. Memorials to the Great War, they stood like sentries at the bottom of the steps leading to the grand classical facade.

They might have been defending the citadel of civilisation against the tide of barbarism, but it turned out they were just waiting for a billet and now reside at the Shrine of Remembrance. You would pass between them and go past the statue of Redmond Barry, who sentenced Ned Kelly to hang and so was a baddie even if he also founded the library and let people use it, as long as they washed their hands first. You would pass the statues of StGeorge and the Crocodile and the defiantly lost Joan of Arc, whose plinth had been sprayed with the word SISTER. You would walk through the vestibule – museum to the right, library straight ahead – and find yourself face-to-face with the Ark of the Covenant – the main catalogue – above which hovered the angel Serendipity.

Here, in long wooden drawers, the contents of the collection were inscribed upon millions of index cards – some in elegant copperplate script, others briskly typed, all furred at their top edges from the brush of generations of questing fingertips. To flip through them in search of a particular title was to undertake a journey of infinite possible destinations. You’re looking for Sectarianism in Australian Politics, your attention snags on Secret Sexual Practices of the Kali Cult (Calcutta, 1889) and there goes the rest of the morning.

It’s long been digitised – the keystroke work was outsourced to the Philippines – and while its online replacement is less romantic, it is infinitely more practical. It lets me check that a book is available and order it from the stacks before Ileave home. It saves my searches, gives me access to the picture collection, and makes me cups of tea.

Serendipity is now ‘‘I’m feeling lucky’’ and where the drawers of catalogue cards once stood are rows of monitors with free internet access. Cheapskate backpackers use them to shop for budget airfares, browse Korean pop music sites and send emails as long as Thomas Mann novels home to the folks in Dusseldorf. There’s a 15-minute limit, but take a grappling hook. The card cabinets now reside in the catacombs, an unplugged cryogenic brain.

At first, the books were classified by their place on the shelves. The new dome was an opportunity to introduce the Dewey system, an innovation some library users  believed would lead to the end of civilisation, or at least civilised shelf browsing. Nor did the design of the room escape criticism.

One inflamed reader compared the central hub and radiating tables to a panopticon penitentiary, complete with an all-seeing warder in the shushers’ desk. The shusher, unfortunately, is long gone. If the library ever decides to reinstate the post, I recommend the responsible person be equipped with tranquiliser darts. As for the symmetrical layout, it seems to me less a prison than a cog in some steampunk apparatus, spokes of oak and leather, a time machine for bibliophiles.

Off the reading room are the desks of the library fellows, beneficiaries of a program that provides a modest living allowance and somewhere to work to individuals wanting to drill deep into the collection in pursuit of information and inspiration. Since its introduction by former premier Steve Bracks, who pinched the idea from the New York Public Library, it has been a creative powerhouse for more than 100 writers, scholars and artists of every stripe and tenor.

Morris Gleitzman used his fellowship time to research a novel by  ‘‘ricocheting off the shelves’’.  He began to suspect the books were talking among themselves while he was home at night: ‘‘I’d come in the next day and there were vibes in the room.’’

The splendid Robyn Annear sifted though the rubble to produce a history of Whelan the Wrecker. Ross McMullin exactingly traced the biographies of Australian trail-blazers whose lives were cut short in the slaughter of Gallipoli and Flanders. Kevin Childs,writing a book on Aboriginal resistance, marvelled at the profound hush of the domed reading room in the early morning before the public were admitted. Oslo Davis and Judy Horacek drew stuff, and Chloe Hooper began work there in 2006 on what her application described only as ''Western District novel''.

Back when the only sound here was the soft creep of footsteps on rubberised linoleum, the green pools of the reading lamps steeped the room in studious tranquillity. When the room was refurbished 10 years ago, the copper covering on the skylight - installed when the windows proved leaky and sawdust had to be spread on the floor to soak up the drips - was removed and the space is now flooded with light. All is bright and white and pretty as a marzipan wedding cake. It's a heritage destination. And there's the rub.

The State Library is more than just a big, lavish municipal library. It is Victoria's collective memory. Maintaining the collection and the building that houses it (itself part of the city's cultural heritage) is an expensive business. The library is answerable for its funding to governments that are locked into a managerialist doctrine that finds no inherent value in anything that can't be counted and jargonised. Silence and civility cannot be quantified, enumerated, monetised, devolved or privatised, so can't be factored into the bottom line.

What can be counted are clicks on the turnstile, bums on seats and tour parties of kindergarten children. This is called access. Speak up for quiet and you are guilty of ''an attitude that seeks to exclude'', as a former state librarian put it. A similar argument was put to students at the University of Georgia who complained about a talking Coca-Cola vending machine in the library. They were accused of discriminating against the blind.

A gaggle of tourists on the gallery waves to their friends on the floor below. Before they decide to test the acoustics, I take my book down to the copy centre and photocopy my little nuggets of information. I've got what I came for. I can't complain. No visit to the State Library is entirely wasted. It's a work in progress. As it says on the panel of quotations from famous authors above the door of the domed reading room: ''Nobody has the last word.''

Out front, Governor La Trobe is parked on the lawn with a squashed galah on his hat, reading Fifty Shades of Grey on his Kindle. I go home and boot up.

Enchanted Dome: The Library and Imagination is at the library's Cowen Gallery until July 14, 2013. Free, Secular and Democratic, including architectural designs and photographs, begins in May.

This story Melbourne's dome away from home first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.