Originally known as the Melbourne Public Library, this cultural institution occupies the block bounded by Swanston, La Trobe, Russell and Little Lonsdale streets. Established in 1853 by Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe and Supreme Court judge Redmond Barry, the State Library of Victoria (SLV) was one of a group of institutions intended to counteract the upheaval of the gold rush. For much of its history SLV shared premises with the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the Museum of Victoria (MOV) and the Public Record Office (PROV). The original building fronting Swanston Street was designed by Joseph Reed. Building commenced in 1854; the central section opened in 1856, the southern end in 1859 and the northern end in 1864. The portico and façade were completed in 1869-70.
Barry wanted a library that would inculcate civic virtue, not provide entertainment. Early acquisitions were dominated by the Graeco-Roman classics. Scientific books such as Gould's Birds of Australia (1840-48) and Audubon's Birds of America (1827-38) were acquired as reference tools. The Copyright Protection Act 1869 required a copy of every book published in Victoria to be lodged with the SLV. However, these provisions were not enforced for 'popular' publications, such as newspapers, until after Barry's death in 1881.
By the 1880s the SLV was the largest library in Australasia, and compared favourably with major libraries in Great Britain and the USA. Most of the books were on open access, but medical books, manuscripts and 'precious books of art' had to be requested from library staff. When the domed reading room was completed in 1913, the bulk of the collection was moved to closed storage and readers had to make specific requests for the material they required.
The Felton Bequest (1904) enabled the SLV to purchase medieval manuscripts, early printed books and other rare material. The Country Borrowers' Service, circulating reference books to other libraries, operated from 1859 to 1981. A lending library operated from 1892 to 1971. Under Ernest Pitt (chief librarian 1931-43) and Colin McCallum (chief librarian 1945-60), the SLV was heavily involved in the development of municipal libraries. During the 1980s and 1990s the SLV developed targeted services including a business information service (1988), an education centre catering to secondary schools (1991) and VICNET to provide an Internet host for community organisations (1995).
In 1950 the Centenary Celebrations Committee recommended that the SLV establish a distinct Australiana collection. The La Trobe Library building, housing Australian rare books, historic pictures and manuscripts, was completed in 1965. SLV staff began developing indexes of information and illustrations relating to Australian and particularly Victorian history, but the failure to renovate or rebuild contributed to perceptions of stagnation. During the 1980s publicity about priceless collections being stored in substandard facilities created a climate in which governments were willing to commit the vast sums of money necessary for major redevelopment of the State's three major cultural institutions, SLV, NGV and MOV. The SLV redevelopment was completed in 2003.