‘So bright and so nice’: State Library to throw open doors after longest-ever closure

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James Seymour has spent a tumultuous year attending university lectures by video, cramped in his bedroom instead of under the dome that dominates the State Library's La Trobe reading room.

On Thursday morning, four months and 10 days after it shut during the second wave of the coronavirus, the library on Swanston Street will reopen to readers and researchers.

James Seymour reads under the dome in the State Library’s La Trobe reading room.Credit:Joe Armao

It is "by a mile", the longest closure in the library's 164-year history, chief executive Kate Torney said, overtaking the shutdown during Melbourne's first wave of COVID-19.

Normally, the library would take up to 5000 daily visitors, but it will be restricting access to 170 people at any given time when it reopens.

Mr Seymour, 24, had to buy a new desk (and upgrade his Wi-Fi) at the start of the first lockdown in order to operate out of his bedroom in the family home, where he now spends most of his days studying.

If it weren't for the pandemic, he would be visiting the State Library at least once a week to study for his master's degree in occupational therapy practice at Monash University.

"I always study in the dome, if there's space there, that was always where I'd love to go. It just makes it so easy because it's so bright and so nice in there and really quiet as well," Mr Seymour said.

He's on placement at the moment, also via video, but will be back at the library for his final six months of study.

"I've really missed being able to kind of disengage and go out to the library and say, 'This is that space where I'm going to work and get things done'," Mr Seymour said.

"This lockdown has kind of made me appreciate how lucky we are to have spaces like the library, and even all over Melbourne … Being able to access [those facilities] is such a privilege."

Mr Seymour would normally study at the library at least once a week.Credit:Joe Armao

Each room will be capped at 20 visitors for two 3½-hour sessions each day, at least until the next phase of lockdown easing is announced on Sunday.

"We understand this is a completely different experience," Ms Torney said. "And actually, a really exclusive experience if you're one of 20 people in that beautiful dome reading room, it's pretty amazing."

Ms Torney was standing by herself in the dome of the State Library for the first time in months on Wednesday, taking in the grandness of the heritage space.

"There's a contagion around the place. We're so excited to be back and we can't wait to throw open those doors and welcome the public back," Ms Torney said.

She plans to stand at the Swanston Street entrance on Thursday to welcome the first visitors, some of whom are "like family" to staff and visit most days.

"[The library] means different things for different people. There are some people who are here because they are writing books, there are some people here because they are doing PhDs, but there's some people here because it's just a beautiful space for respite and dreaming."

Ms Torney is especially looking forward to visitors discovering the $88 million renovations of previously closed spaces that opened last year, but which have been shut off for most of 2020.

Library spaces that will open from Thursday include the domed La Trobe reading room, the Ian Potter Queen's Hall, the Heritage Collection reading room, Hansen Hall, the Pauline Gandel children's quarter and Cowen Gallery.

James Seymour outside the State Library on Wednesday.Credit:Joe Armao

Walk-ins are allowed depending on how many people are in the building, but people who want to visit should book online to avoid disappointment.

Access to the collection will be via library staff, with no opportunity to browse, while the Russell Street entrance will be closed to manage foot traffic.

Visit the website to book a session at the State Library.

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