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A visit worth booking

A dozen members of Melbourne Bearbrass Probus have marvelled at the hidden, secret side of Melbourne’s famous State Library.

It’s one of the world’s oldest (from 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 3,800 books, it now has that many books about Bridge card playing alone. The total is three million books and items grow at 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. But there are also 40-metre rows of card index boxes – Dewey was more valued for his card indexing systems than for his cataloguing. For example, the Library via card indexing quickly gives you a sample list of Victorian murders 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.

Members even milled around in an “Elephant lift” in working order from the 1920s – the “elephants” referring to “Double Elephant” folios of plant and animal drawings. They even discovered one wall of the lift could be slid back for loading biggies.

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 life-size, hand-coloured and “in action”. A copy on the world market is now worth at least $US16m.

The Library got its copy from a private-school owner in Geelong who was going broke, and the Library’s founder (and also “Hanging Judge”) Redmond Barry beat him down from 200 pounds to 100 pounds for it.

Asked if the Library had suffered any thefts, 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.

Members were thrilled with the tour and are already plotting more Bearbrass trips to this intriguing and beautiful building.

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