In the spring of 2001, I was living in Melbourne, Australia, studying journalism at RMIT University. When my boyfriend (now husband) came to visit me, one of the first places I took him was the State Library of Victoria — a large, stately library across from the university’s campus.
Within only a few months of living in another country, the library had become a familiar place I liked to visit. Even now it is central to my memories of Melbourne, and not just for its book borrowing, event offering and indoor space providing functions.
Protest marches were a weekly occurrence amongst the crowd I ran with, and the large lawn outside of the library was a prime location for us to gather and make some announcements before moving along to protest globalization outside of the Nike store (seriously, the Nike protests happened every Friday) or to make posters before we marched all around the city with a police escort to celebrate International Women’s Day.
According to the history of the library on the library’s website: “When the Library opened in 1856 a picket fence surrounded the lawn… [and] Library visitors entered the grounds through a gate on Swanston Street before climbing the stairs to the wooden front door that is still the main entrance.” In 1939 the fence was removed and the lawn is an open space accessible to all visitors.
The library covers a whole city block on Swanston Street from Little Lonsdale to La Trobe Streets, and is made up of 23 buildings. When I was there it was neighboured by a large skate park managed by the YMCA. The skate park was another key memory for me because there weren’t very many skate parks back home in Toronto and I was impressed at the large scale of the park and felt it was a symbol that Melbourne was trying to give public space to its youth. Today the skate park is gone and has been replaced by a shopping/apartment complex. The one Australian contact I kept in touch with when I moved back to Canada tells me that the complex is called QV (short for Queen Victoria) because it was formerly the site of the Queen Victoria Women’s Hospital.
One of the most striking aspects of the library, that still sticks in my mind, was a piece of art on the street out front. The art depicted a corner of a library building sticking out of the sidewalk which I always called “The Sinking Library.” Created by Dutch artist Petrus Spronk and entitled “Architectural Fragment,” the piece was commissioned for the Swanston Street Walk Public Art Project in 1992 and is actually meant to depict the library rising out of the ground, like an unearthed archeological find.
I suppose I wasn’t really a tourist in Melbourne. I was a newcomer trying to find my bearings in a new city. And the library helped me to feel at home.