World of the Book: State Library of Victoria permanent exhibition

A Library Planet post by Fiona Kells

Established in 1854, barely 20 years after the city of Melbourne was founded, the State Library of Victoria is Australia’s oldest public library and one of the world’s first free libraries. (See Jes Layton’s 2019 Library Planet post on the State Library of Victoria for more information.)

A highlight of the State Library of Victoria is its permanent exhibition, World of the Book. When this exhibition first opened in 2005 as Mirror of the World (it was renamed World of the Book in 2017), it was greeted with wonder and delight. Few people (local or international) had any idea of what treasures the State Library had managed to acquire during its more than a century-and-a-half-long history.

Entrance to World of the Book exhibition.

World of the Book explores the history of book design, production and illustration from ancient times to the present day. At any one time, there are more than 200 items from the State Library’s rare books collection on display. Most of the items have never previously been exhibited, and the works are regularly rotated so that new treasures from the collection can be showcased.

The Books and Ideas section of the exhibition.

In its present incarnation, the exhibition focuses on books that broke the mould or changed the world. It begins with a tiny Southern Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet (c.2050 BCE) – recording taxes paid during the reign of Shulgi – and progresses through five themes: Books and ideas; Books and imagination; Exploring the world; Art and nature; and Artists and books.

The Exploring the World section of the exhibition.

On display are medieval manuscripts, early printed books, rare sacred texts, books of philosophy, superbly illustrated natural history and botanical works, modern artist books and fine press editions, works on architecture and landscape design, modern fiction, children’s books, graphic novels and comics. The exhibition is beautifully presented, with every item carefully displayed and accompanied by clear and informative labels.

Illustrations from Canto 10 of Dante’s Inferno by Tom Phillips (London: Talfourd Press, 1979–83).

Highlights for me included a 15th century illuminated manuscript of Jerome’s Commentaries on Isaiah with quirky marginalia; a selection of Eragny Press books printed by Lucien and Esther Pissarro; pirated printings and bootleg editions of modern literary and pop culture classics by James Joyce, Bob Dylan, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound; Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament (1856 & 1868) and Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra (1842-45); a display of works commemorating the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri; and a colourful collection of Australian crime pulps.

The display of Australian pulp crime fiction.

It was a wonderful way to pass a couple of hours during what has been one of the dreariest of Melbourne Springs. And it was not my first visit. I have dropped by World of the Book many times previously and have never been disappointed.

World of the Book is a free exhibition. It resides in the Library’s Dome Galleries on Level 4, overlooking the La Trobe Reading Room. Bookings are required for the hour-long free guided tours. The exhibition’s curators are Anna Welch (Senior Librarian of History of the Book and Arts) and, until his recent retirement, Des Cowley (formerly Principal Librarian of History of the Book and Arts, and co-author of The World of the Book).

A view over the balustrade of the La Trobe Reading Room.

Can’t get to Melbourne? Enjoy the exhibition online:


One Comment Add yours

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I too have visited this wonderful exhibition many times, but that tiny cuneiform tablet never fails to move me. The invention of writing is to me the supreme accomplishment of mankind.
    (But wait, there’s music, and art, and oh well….!)
    I have taken schoolkids, visiting friends and fellow booklovers to see the World of the Book, and always we marvel that those dead white men so often berated had the foresight to build our beautiful library, and that it’s free. Of all the reasons why I love Melbourne, the SLV is the most important.
    Thank you for sharing the photos!

    Liked by 1 person

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