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Enjoying Melbourne’s State Library’s Secrets

A dozen members of Melbourne Bearbrass Probus have marvelled at the hidden, secret side of Melbourne’s famous State Library Victoria. It’s one of the world’s oldest (est. 1856) and still busiest libraries, with its design echoing the Library of Congress and the British Museum Reading Room. The official guided tours “below decks” are rare events.


From the library’s initial collection of 3800 books, it now has that many books about ‘Bridge’ card playing, alone. The collection now boasts 3,000,000 books and items, growing by 20,000 a year. If laid end-to-end, the books would stretch 96km.


Lots of rooms underground were stashed with odd furniture awaiting repair, as if for a garage sale. There were also 40m rows of card index boxes: Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal System) was more valued for his card indexing systems than for his cataloguing. For example, using the card indexing system, the Club members quickly found a sample list of Victorian murders from 1949-75, with name of person murdered, where the body was found, date found, who was charged with the murder, when they were charged, and sentencing details.


The twelve Probians even milled around in an “elephant lift,” in working order from the 1920s. The “elephants” refer to “Double Elephant” folios of plant and animal drawings. The visitors discovered one wall of the lift could be slid back for loading the oversized Double Elephants.


The library’s most famous “Double Elephant” is a John Audubon folio: “Birds of America,” from a set of 100 folios (38in by 26in) with each of the 435 birds featured life-size, hand-coloured and in-action. A copy on the world market is now worth approximately $US16m.


The library obtained its copy of “Birds of America” in the mid-19th Century. A private-school owner in Geelong was having financial difficulties and was hoping to offload it for 200 pounds. The library’s founder (and also “Hanging Judge”) Redmond Barry talked him down to 100 pounds for it.


When asked if the library had suffered any thefts, tour guide Norman thought a moment and said, “Yes, in 1991 someone stole one of Australia’s largest gold nuggets that was on exhibition here, the 8kg ‘Pride of Australia.’ It had been recently found at Wedderburn in 1981. It was worth $250,000 when the smash and grab people made off with it, and I doubt anyone will ever see it again.” If you have it, please return to the library’s Lost Property office.


Melbourne Bearbrass Probus Club members were thrilled with the tour and are already plotting more Bearbrass trips to this intriguing and beautiful building.