The Melbourne Athenaeum Library – worth climbing the stairs

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There is a majestic feel to the Athenaeum Theatre on Collins Street, in Melbourne’s CBD.

With its large windows framed by decorative Corinthian columns and distinctive pediments, framing the goddess Athena, the Victorian building constructed in 1842 was originally the Mechanics’ Institution.

Inside the Melbourne Athenaeum Library in its heyday, in the 1950s.

If you ask staff, they can show you the minutes from the time it was first opened.

While the current performance at the theatre is the Rocky Horror Show, it is the Melbourne Athenaeum Library, located on the first floor of the building, that is both informative and, in a sense, entertaining in its own right. Where else, for example, would one see a relic of the telephone switchboard where the name of Miss Winchcombe – the longest serving librarian who notched up 48 years’ service – can be found.

The library is a lot quieter today than in its heyday of the 1950s, when it boasted more than 8000 members.

The demand for books at that time is reinforced by the timber blocks perched on the 1930s reception counter – such as T-Z and R-S. The then number of regional subscribers was also impressive, with a separate room with gold letters over the door saying “Country Subscribers”.

“There were two full-time librarians sending off parcels of books,” says librarian James Baker, who has been working at the library for almost a decade.

“Originally, there was a lawn out front and the building was stepped back, before it was extended by architect Charles Webb in the 1850s, and later reworked by Smith & Johnson,” he says.

Unlike some libraries that are now “bookless”, the Melbourne Athenaeum Library carries many older titles from the 1950s and ’60s, as well as some more recent releases.

Rather than tapping into a computer screen to find a title, today’s 800 members, as well as those who drop in for the first time and sign up, can browse the many books on the built-in timber shelves. Some date from the 1920s and are marked by subject, from arts to biographies.

There are also books in the library’s archive from the 1850s that can be shown on request.

If you are lucky enough to be granted a private tour – as was my privilege – one can see a concealed fireplace behind a stack of books.

Other delights include the original lift that takes one up to the top level that was formerly an art gallery until the 1970s, and now used as a performance space for events, such as candlelight choirs.

If you choose to use the lift – reportedly Melbourne’s oldest working model dating from the 1930s – make sure you read the sign: “Please look to see that the lift has levelled with the floor before stepping in”, even if the change of levels is only millimetres, rather than metres.

Seeing the lift’s interior is worth it, with its fine marquetry walls and the original light fitting. Nearby, hovering above the coffee station, is a relic of earlier gas fittings in the form of a mermaid with an outstretched arm.

While there are numerous tables and armchairs to spread out books, magazines and newspapers, there are also delightful displays by a number of artists who have put a cheeky spin on a particular book.

Whether arriving via the lift or stairs, the Melbourne Athenaeum Library is worth a visit.

Artist Nicholas Jones has manipulated the pages of an old title – sourced from a second-hand store – to create a sculptural object, and Ruth Johnstone has produced a miniature of a bookshelf and trestle table, laden with books. There is also an ingenious tunnel book with a series of cut-paper panels by artist Kysko Imazu.

For those with a sense of humour, one is drawn to the books refashioned by The Little Librarian, perched on the reception desk.

In one of Louisa M Alcott’s books, tilted Little Men, the pages have been partially cut out to display a man fishing, with an aluminium fish hanging from its line and attached with the words “Paul was always good at fishing. He couldn’t help being so a lure-ing”.

However, it is not just book enthusiasts who have joined the throngs in discovering the pleasure of the Melbourne Athenaeum Library.

Well-known singer/songwriter Tim Rogers, from the band You Am I, emailed the library this treasured note: “The Ath is Melbourne’s best-kept secret and, while I secretly desire to keep it so, and sequester its finest comfy chair, I whisper its charms and graces to all acquaintances.”

Stephen Crafti is a specialist in contemporary design, including architecture, furniture, fashion and decorative arts.

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.

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