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History of the State Library of South Australia: Construction and usages

Details the Library's interesting history from 1834, its buildings, legislation, Board membership, staff and exhibitions.


The background to the building of the Mortlock Wing was long and complex.

Only six years after the completion of the Institute Building in 1861, the need for additional space for the South Australian Institute led to Mr Abbott, Overseer of Government Works drawing up rough plans for a large room to be sited sixty feet to the east of the Institute building, and a set of foundations were laid.

Then the Colonial Architect RG Thomas was asked to design a parallel wing to house new library on the ground floor, museum above and lecture room in the rear. Woods dismissed the old plan and sketched a more imposing building than the 1861 building but still in the classical style. But chance intervened. The year 1866 closed with a financial crisis in London and in 1867 red rust and drought ravaged the South Australian crops, crippling the economy. The money allocated for the building was resumed by Treasury.

Five years later the economy was sound again and in 1871 petitions were put to Parliament for money to build. In September 1873 Sir Charles Todd led a Board delegation to the government to form a ‘Public Library of Reference’ distinct from the existing Library, which would leave the popular circulating library in the Institute Building.

In November 1873 the government held a design competition for a new set of buildings to house the public library, museum and art gallery, and approved the administrative separation of the three institutions. The prize was awarded to a sketch of a building of four wings designed by R G Thomas the erstwhile Colonial Architect, shown below. The building at left is the west Mortlock Wing, the building at right is the east South Australian Museum wing, the building at the rear was modified and is the glass fronted Museum wing, and the building in front was never built..

B 136 Architectural drawing of proposed block of buildings for the Public Library Museum and Art Gallery of SA, 1877-82.
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In 1876 the government began construction of the west wing on the existing foundations. Chance intervened again. The old foundations were discovered to have been built over an underground spring and as a consequence were waterlogged and useless. New ones were laid in the summer of 1876-77. No builder put in a  tender. The Colonial Architect was asked to find ways of cutting costs. Then a new Colonial Architect E J Woods further modified the plan.

In March 1878 tenders were called again and Brown and Thompson won the contract. Then the government included the library site in a list of possibilities for the new Parliament House, so building was delayed, but by August the government had decided on the present location for Parliament House, and building began on the new library. But it was discovered that the second foundations had subsided into an unknown subterranean creek that ran under them. The builders dug deeper and constructed a drain to keep them dry. On 7 November 1879 a foundation stone of Sicilian marble was laid by Sir William Jervois, the Governor of South Australia. A ceremony was held on a dais, under bunting the Volunteer band played and there was a guard of honour of the Volunteer infantry. In an ‘aperture under the stone’ a hermetically sealed bottle with copies of the Register and Advertiser, some coins and a document describing the ceremony was placed. The Song of Australia was played at the close.

During the building the basement crypt was used as a dormitory for police troopers from the Police Barracks next door. This building still stands next to the State Library on the eastern side. B 21528 1885

The new building was completed in June 1884 after 11 years and three sets of foundations. It was opened on 18 December 1884 by His Excellency the Governor Sir William Robinson GCMG – his speech can be read below - and was known as the Public Library. When the new Bastyan Wing was opened in 1967 the Public Library building became known as the Jervois Wing after Governor Jervois who laid the foundation stone. In 2003 it was officially named the Mortlock Wing.

Jervois Room

The Jervois Room on the ground floor of the Mortlock Wing has had many uses, including former use as the heritage materials reading room.

Lt-Gen Sir William Francis Drummond Jervois MCMB CB(1821-1897) was born on the Isle of Wight and during a distinguished military career he specialised in military engineering. He had postings in the Cape of Good Hope and British Kaffraria, and was appointed governor of the Straits Settlements in 1875. In 1877 he was asked to survey the defences of Australia and New Zealand, and on 2 October 1877 he was appointed Governor of South Australia. He laid the foundation stone of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery building in 1879, opened new railways and visited the far northern and southern limits of settlement. He was Governor until 1883.

More information on Sir William Jervois is in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Second gallery room overlooking North Terrace

On the second floor of the building, overlooking North Terrace, is a beautiful room which has had a range of uses.

An unusual feature of the room is the two highly decorative ‘Sunburners’ in the ceiling. The Sunburners were the original form of lighting in the room. They burned a mixture of acetylene and air and produced a brilliant white light quite different from the familiar warm glow of gas.

The fixtures have been partially dismantled but at the tops of the mica-lined, trumpet-shaped inner flues part of the pipes which carried the fuel into the room can still be seen. Originally these pipes extended a few inches below the trumpets and divided into four or six spokes. On the end of each spoke were knobs the size of door handles each containing about four little pipe jets. When the gas was turned on the jets were lit with a long taper. Each jet then produced a ball of brilliant white light about one inch in diameter. The pair of Sunburners, each with sixteen or twenty balls of light reflected in the mica lining, illuminated the large room with ease.

Sunburners were imported to Australia and were quite rare. Today few sets survive. Danvers Architects, which restored the Mortlock Wing, have also restored to full working order a bigger pair in the Barr Smith Theatre at Scotch College. The Theatre’s Sunburners are occasionally lit - with firemen standing by! A photograph of the Barr Smith Theatre’s Sunburners in operation is on display in the room.

In its early years the room housed the Public Library but also the Art Gallery and the Museum, which were originally part of the one organisation.

In the early 1880s the National Gallery, as it was then known, used the room to exhibit paintings. The picture rails are still in place. In the late 1890s the Museum kept fossil bones from Lake Callabonna - including those of the giant diprotodon - and archaeological specimens from Egypt here.

The Public Library took over the room in 1902. Shelves were fitted and thousands of out-of-date and little-used books were stored here until 1942. During the Second World War the room was the home of the bustling new Research Services section of the Library.

From 1945 to 1967 it became the Periodicals Reading Room, and from then until the building was restored in 1985 it was the meeting room of the Royal Society of South Australia.

From 1987 to 2003 the room housed the J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection. Today, it houses the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia as a Library tenant.

Uses of the building since 1884


The chamber of the Mortlock Wing from the Annual report of 1900-01.

The National Gallery opened in the unfinished building in 1881 in the southern tower during the building process and moved to the (now demolished) Exhibition Building in 1889, and then in 1900 to its own building.

The Public Library's books were in four alcoves of the ground floor on the east and west sides. On the first gallery were periodicals and parliamentary material, and on the second gallery were bound newspapers and patents. The Library had 23,000 volumes to begin with, formed from 12,000 books of ‘sterling merit’ selected from the 26,000 books in the Institute library together with 11,000 volumes purchased for the reference collection.  There is an 1883 printed catalogue of the collection, then a card catalogue was produced in 1884 for the new Public Library which was considered a great leap forward. There were six library staff.

The Museum had part of the ground floor and the basement. The museum exhibits including a small whale skeleton were on the ground floor and the taxidermists were in the basement - shown in this photograph in the Library Bay. The tiger in the image is on display in the South Australian Museum.  At the rear of the building was a macerating tank used by the taxidermists to remove flesh from the bones of the exhibits they were working on. At one stage the library staff emptied the tank and replaced it with water as a swimming pool!  The Museum moved out into its own building, the unsightly but cheap red brick North Wing in 1895 and the East Wing in December 1915.

The basement was fireproof, ‘part of which can be utilised as a summer reading-room’, the remainder for storing books, newspapers and current literature. ‘The building will be amply ventilated and heated on the most approved principles’. The heating was by hot water pipes connected to a boiler in the cellar. The ventilation system was simply the windows. Charles Todd drew up plans to light the building with electricity (as Melbourne’s public library was) but the government baulked at the cost and the building was gaslit until May 1913.

The current Jervois Room overlooking North Terrace was to be the News Room but the newspaper reading room stayed in the Institute Building so it became the periodicals room, although it temporarily housed the art gallery in 1882.

The first gallery was a popular place to study for University students in the 1940s and 50s in the days when the Library was open to 9.30pm, even on Saturday nights. The former Libraries Board chairman and novelist Dr Peter Goldsworthy AM is quoted as saying he used to study there and it was a great place to meet girls! This was confirmed by the Library's caterer Epicure receiving a Venue Hire request from a young woman who wanted to get married in this building because her parents met while studying there.

The chamber housed the Public Library until 1967 when the new Bastyan Building was built as the State Library, after which it was the Periodicals section.

In 1986 there was a huge community interest in South Australian history and research in the state’s Jubilee 150 year. Restoration of the building occurred in 1985 as a Jubilee 150 project by Danvers Architects, consultant architect to the South Australian Department of Housing and Construction. The $1.5 million project was jointly funded by the government and the community. The balustrades were heightened as part of earthquake remediation, because people are taller today and the balustrades were outside the Building Code.

In honour of a substantial bequest from John Andrew Tennant Mortlock, the Libraries Board of South Australia  resolved that a percentage of the South Australiana Collections would be relocated in the Jervois Wing and named the Mortlock Library of South Australiana to acknowledge his gift to the people of the state. The Mortlock Library opened in 1986.

Legend has it that Jack Mortlock came into the Public Library  with an orchid or a rose enquiry and was so impressed by the excellent service he received, likely from Jean Whyte who went on to be Professor of Librarianship at the University of New South Wales, that the Library became a major beneficiary of his will.  His bequest is invested and has generated nearly $10 million worth of projects to preserve and make accessible the South Australiana collections. And in an amazing connection, the architect of the Mortlock Wing was also the supervising architect of the Mortlock home, Martindale Hall – the colonial architect Edward J Woods.

A chronic shortage of storage space for the Library prompted the 1999-2004 building redevelopment and saw the functional use of the Mortlock Wing change again. The redevelopment brought with it an assessment of collection storage requirements. The efficiencies and environment required for heritage storage dictated the relocation of the small percentage of South Australiana collections in the Jervois wing, together with the rest of the South Australiana collections, to the newly developed Spence Wing in state of the art storage facilities. All this material is now accessible through the Information Desk, with co-located services that include family history, newspapers, government publications, indexes, microfilm and fiche reader printer equipment, public PCs, photocopiers and, for rare heritage material, controlled access in the Somerville Reading Room.

As part of the naming of buildings after the redevelopment in July 2004 the Libraries Board approved retaining the name Mortlock for a building rather than a collection. The Jervois Wing was consequently renamed the Mortlock Wing and the Mortlock Collection of South Australiana recognised as part of the heritage collections of the State Library of South Australia; thus ensuring a strong presence of the name Mortlock on North Terrace. The name Jervois is used for the southern room of the Mortlock Wing.

The Mortlock Wing now accommodates a range of public functions and services, including exhibitions, conservation and reformatting services, study spaces on the first gallery with wireless internet access, the Crawford Room and the Sir Josiah Symon Library - a fine example of a 19th Century gentleman’s library. The Mortlock Wing also provides a home for several tenants:  the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia and the National Archives of Australia.

Crawford Room

The Crawford Room is on Level 2 of the Mortlock Wing and currently being used by the National Archives of Australia.

Mr Sidney Crawford (1885-1968) founded Adelaide Motors Ltd and then established Commercial Motor Vehicles Pty Ltd of which he was chairman and managing director until his death. In its first year of trading, C.M.V. paid bonuses to its workers, but no dividends to its shareholders. Staff continued to receive the greater share of the firm's profits. He dedicated his book Hauling for profit to truck drivers. He advised federal and state governments on economic matters and was a member of the Commonwealth War Workers' Housing Trust during World War II. In 1947 Sidney Crawford established the C.M.V. Foundation, a charitable trust which fostered educational and cultural activities for children by supporting kindergartens and library services. In the 1960s he and his son Jim (who succeeded him as head of the business) donated money and vehicles for South Australia's first mobile libraries.

Mr James Allen Crawford (1922-1999) continued in the role of philanthropist businessman after his father's death. He became a member of the Libraries Board of South Australia in 1972 and was Chairman from 1977 until 1987. The report of the Library Services Planning Committee, which he chaired in 1977, was supported by Premier Don Dunstan and led to a program to increase the number of public libraries in the state, especially in the Western suburbs of Adelaide and in country areas. Jim Crawford was an important friend to public libraries and the Jim Crawford Award recognises achievement in the state's public library network.

Symon Library

B 3988 - Sir Josiah Symon

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The Symon Library is now housed on Level 3 of the Mortlock Wing.

The Symon Library is named after Sir Josiah Symon (1846-1934), lawyer, scholar, politician and Federationist, who made a bequest to the State Library of some 7,500 books reflecting his interests in Shakespeare, travel, history and biography. The collection also came with some shelving and furniture from Manoah, his family home at Upper Sturt, including the desk on which Sir Josiah worked on the Australian Constitution prior to Federation. More information on Sir Josiah Symon and his collection can be found in the Benefactors and donated collections Library Guide.