Written by Kirby Fenwick
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Melbourne wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t attempt to wade into the history of a library that has existed for more than one hundred and seventy-five years. A library that sits above the street, a quiet place where a reader can retreat from the chaos of a city and dive into the pages of a book.
This is how I find myself at the Athenaeum Library late on a Wednesday morning.
Historic buildings exist beyond their four walls; often leaping into myth and legend, their hallways and stairwells are littered with ghosts of the past. I think about this as I climb the wide, carpeted stairs of the Athanaeum Theatre Melbourne, headed for the library on the first floor. I wonder what ghosts remain in this library, what memories linger spread under layers of paint and squashed into the gaps between floorboards.
At the top of the stairs a pair of glass doors with the words ‘Library and Reading Room’ etched on them open into a cool and calm space. Stepping through these doors almost feels like stepping back in time. The Athenaeum Library has that quiet, confident feeling so often present in buildings with a past. To the romantic in me, it feels as if the library is cognisant of its place in the world, aware of its mantle of oldest library in the city, and resolute in living up to its position.
I amble among the stacks and my eyes drift towards the cast iron pillars, painted the colour of rust, and the soaring ceilings with their elaborate cornices. Tall, dark timber bookshelves line the walls and stand to attention in rows. Comfortable chairs and wooden tables of various sizes and shapes and colours are dotted around. In the middle of the room, pushed up against the Collins Street wall, sits the library desk—photos from the 1940s in the foyer downstairs reveal it to be an original feature.
Established in 1839, the Athenaeum is a private library that has operated continuously since its inception. It has weathered the peaks (including a high of 7579 members in 1950) and lows, contending with momentous changes in the world and yet holding onto its certain charm. Today, members enjoy books clubs and screen clubs and the library engages with local events like Melbourne Rare Book Week and partners with Sisters in Crime Australia, supporting the Scarlet Stiletto Awards.
I take a seat near one of the tall windows that face Collins Street, and pull out my notebook. Around me the muffled noises of a library continue: the rustle of a newspaper, the sound of a book being returned to its place on a timber shelf, the stamp and beep of a new borrow.
Outside the window, I’m distracted by the colour and shapes of the world. The thought of ghosts enters my mind again and I wonder how many readers have sat in this exact spot, the light of a brilliant summer’s day in Melbourne streaming through the window.
As I get ready to leave, I notice a framed poster partially hidden by a glass-walled display case. It looks like an early advertisement for the library, it mentions 9am-10pm opening hours and spruiks the fact it’s open on public holidays and Saturday afternoons for members to read or change books. At the bottom, it says this: ‘a perfectly lighted, ventilated and centrally heated, artistically decorated and comfortably furnished Reading Room combined with a Circulating Library’—some things never change, and nor should they.
Back outside the glass doors, I pick up a membership application. The Athenaeum Library has a generous and storied history. It was a part of this city long before I walked these streets, and I hope it will be here long after I’m gone.