The State Library is, as the name might suggest, the pre-eminent library in South Australia and houses a wealth of material, with a particular emphasis on South Australia.

While the visitor is of course welcome to come into the library and read books, magazines and do things one does in a regular library that was not the purpose of my most recent visit. I was interested in the building itself (in fact three interconnected buildings) and in seeing what exhibitions were on.

The Library, today, comprises three buildings:
…The Institute Building
…The Spence Wing
…The Mortlock Wing – in my view, the most interesting part of the library for the average non-reading visitor. That is not to say that the remainder of the library is not interesting or, if you can read, the Mortlock Wing will not also be of interest to you!

The Institute Building

This beautiful Italianate building (main picture above), designed by Edward Hamilton, the Colonial Architect, was built in 1861.

Institutes (akin to Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Art) played an important role in the life of early (European) Australian communities. They housed libraries and reading rooms and served as adult education centres in addition to hosting regular soirees, lectures, recitations and concerts. Essentially they were the centre of a community’s cultural activities and that is exactly what this one was – often on a grand scale.

The Institute was a mainly private, male dominated, body where women borrowed books in their husbands name and rarely ventured into the reading room, where gentlemen relaxed and read the latest newspapers.

In the early days visitors were permitted to take their dogs into the library and the reading room. On the 16 July 1864 the caretaker’s dog was accidentally locked overnight in the reading room and caused considerable damage to the blinds and woodwork. From that day henceforth dogs have been banned from the library.

Over the years the Institute merged into the State Library and the various rooms therein are now used for Library and visiting exhibitions and, indeed, some rooms are available for private hire. Film buffs may be aware that scenes from Australian movies Shine and Gallipoli were filmed here.

The Spence Wing


On entering the State Library (entered via the Spence Wing) watch out for the Kaurma (local Aboriginal people) greeting stone with its spiral shaped greeting by Kaurna elder Lewis O’Brian. When translated from the local Aboriginal language to English it reads:

First I welcome you all to my Kaurna country, and next I welcome you to the State Library of South Australia. My brothers, my sisters, let’s walk together in harmony.

Picture 2 attached is from the State Library’s website – unfortunately my image was illegible.

The Spence Wing is the largest, newest (with the latest reincarnation having been completed in 2003) and main part of the State Library. In addition to providing an internal link between the Institute Building and the Mortlock Wing it is the hub of the library and houses its main book collection, periodicals, newspapers, etc – ‘50 kilometres of material’ – together with other facilities offered by a good library.

Of interest to the visitor here is the Treasures Wall (just inside the building and prior to you going into the main reading library – picture 3). The Wall itself is interesting and consists of 40 display panels featuring natural and manufactured materiel found in South Australia. These, according to the Library’s website, include “abalone shell, bluestone, coal, cattle hide, copper, green glass, gold, granite, grapevine prunings, iron ore, lead, limestone, opal, quartz composite, salt, silver, slate, steel: car duco, talc, wheat, wool and zinc.’’

Displayed on the Treasure Wall is material drawn from the library’s rich collection and variously includes books, photographs, manuscripts, artworks, etc. When I visited the display (which regularly changes) was entitled Art of nature. On display were rare early artistic depictions of Australian flora and fauna which, while pleasant enough, did not overly excite me – perhaps a good thing at my age.

Looking back at the details on earlier exhibitions there was certainly lots there much more to my taste so it’s a sorta pot luck what you get to see.

The tastefully modern glass lobby area houses a few bits of art worth a look, including the ‘floating’ plant fibre rope ellipse depicted in picture 4 attached.

Mortlock Wing


I indicated earlier that for me, and probably most other visitors who visit the library in a tourist rather than general user capacity, the Mortlock Wing is the most interesting.

Essentially it was built because the original Institute Building became to small to house the library of a bourgeoning city. The beautiful French Renaissance style building with mansard roof opened in December 1884, 18 years after the original foundation stone was laid. It took 18 years to build as the project was aborted twice, due to political indecision and architectural and engineering problems such that work on the final building only commenced in 1879.

In its early years the building was home to South Australia’s museum, art gallery and public library.

In August 2014, US Magazine, Travel + Leisure listed the Mortlock Wing as one of the top 20 most beautiful libraries in the world. On entering the Wing it is not hard to see why it was so chosen.


The absolutely stunning late Victorian interior has two galleries (so three levels) – the first supported by masonry columns with the second secured by cast iron brackets. Around the balconies are wrought iron balustrades, ornamented with gold leaf, while the walls are literally lined with beautiful looking books on ceiling height dark wood shelving. Atop all this is a glass domed roof allowing natural light to flow into the library.

While the ground floor of the library is given over to exhibition space (see below) the galleries remain reading areas retaining their original desks and chairs for readers.

That said, there have been two changes within the library – firstly additional power outlets such that today’s student/reader can power up their laptops and other devices which, for some reason, strangely do not appear out of place in this library of yesteryear. I am sure you will agree, not a bad place to study.

The other addition, electric lights, is a much older one. When the library (then called the Jervois Wing) was originally built it was lit by gas lamps – electricity being deemed to costly at the time. The Board’s annual report for 1910-11 noted:

‘The baneful effects of gas upon the leather bindings of books is a well-established fact, to say nothing of the vitiated atmosphere necessarily inhaled by students and others who visit the Public Library at night time. It is therefore hoped that an early installation of electric light in these buildings will be made’

Electric lighting was installed in 1914 though apparently two of the original gas lamps are still installed in an office on the second floor.

The thing that draws most people’s eyes on entering the Mortlock Wing is the clock seen standing over the main hall on the balustrade of the first gallery. This was not part of the original library design but a quick addition or rather a gift from astronomer, meteorologist and electrical engineer Sir Charles Todd in 1887. It was crafted in London by clock-makers Dent and Sons and still quietly ticks away to this day, just needing to be hand wound and adjusted on a weekly basis by library staff.

Back to the main hall or ground floor. As noted earlier, this area is given over to exhibitions which seem to be of a semi permanent nature and offer a window on the history and culture of South Australia. The bays house small displays on a range of topics including the beginnings of the State Library itself, the discovery and exploration of the South Australia, and the arts, architecture, social reforms, sport and religion in South Australia. To be honest, I was so entranced with the building and its book stock that I didn’t spend much time looking at the exhibits though one display that caught my eye was the Library’s collection of wine literature, especially in so far as it confirmed – though a quote from the Bible, final picture – that my consumption of wine was good for me. Timothy, chapter 5, verse 23 exhorts one to:

“Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities”

The Mortlock Wing also houses two smaller libraries neither of which were open on my visit though I did manage a peek into the first of them. These are the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia Library (open Tuesday-Friday 10am-1pm) and the Symon Library (open Monday-Friday 12-2pm). The Symon Library is pretty much that – the private collection of Joasiah Symon (some 10,000 volumes) complete with shelving and furnishings from Symon’s estate. While there is a focus on legal books (Symon was a late 19th century barrister – (and wine judge!) and State Attorney General) the collection also reflects his interest in Shakespeare, travel, history and biography. All in all, referred to by the library as an excellent example of a ‘gentleman’s library’.

I should point out to any reader who may be a cricket fan that the Bradman Collection – memorabilia donated by, and related to, Australian cricket legend (Sir) Donald Bradman – which was formerly housed in the State Library is now substantially housed in the new cricket museum at the nearby Adelaide Oval.

Opening Hours – noting all parts closed on public holidays

Spence Wing
Monday-Wednesday 10am-8pm
Thursday and Friday 10am-6pm
Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm

Mortlock Wing and Institute Building
Monday-Sunday 10am-5pm

Café (which I did not visit and thus cannot comment on)
Monday-Friday 7am-5pm
Saturday and Sunday 10am-3pm

Entrance Fee : Free

Address: North Terrace
Directions: Corner North Terrace and Kintore Avenue
Website: http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au

For my next Adelaide – NORTH TERRACE review click HERE.
For other Adelaide reviews click HERE.

10 thoughts on “The State Library of South Australia

  1. Just popped over and read it! Charlie the robot book trolley would be worth meeting 😉 Also the tapestry and windows sound worth seeing even if you haven’t pictured them. I love looking round Libraries, even small branches, but try to limit myself when travelling. John doesn’t mind but I don’t want to give him too much excuse to drag me to lots of engineering related sites…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I asked during the tour yesterday as to why the behind the scenes tour (where you meet Charlie) only took place during the day on a Thursday when people (like me) were working. Sadly the response was that staff cuts prevented them running it at the weekends.


    1. Coincidentally – yesterday I happened to be in the Canberra National Library admiring a photography exhibition and some old Chinese propaganda posts when a tour started – which I jumped onto. Had been meaning to do it for a while .. that is 17 years now lol. Nice insight to that library on which I wote a review some time ago…. https://ramblingwombat.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/national-library-of-australia-real-treasure-here/
      Just noticed I have not added pictures of the gorgeous stain glass windows and tapestries which liven up an otherwise fairly boring looking building.


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