Looking back over 30 years of Eltham Library

Liz Pidgeon

20 May, 2024

Eltham Library 1994

Eltham Library and Community Gallery is a popular cultural focus for the Eltham community.
It celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year.

The construction of Eltham library in 1993

Under construction, 1993

The long-awaited Eltham Library and Community Gallery was officially opened on Sunday 22 May 1994.   We look forward to its 30th Anniversary Celebrations in June.

A successful grant application in October 1992 with the Federal Government enabled The Shire of Eltham to bring forward its long-term plan to build a new Eltham Library and to replace the library which had been established but outgrown its space at the Shire of Eltham Offices in 1971. The site opposite Alistair Knox Park was chosen between the historic trestle bridge and Shillinglaw Cottage near Eltham Central Park.

Architects Gregory Burgess and Peter Ryan from Gregory Burgess Pty Ltd designed a building after considering Eltham’s tradition as an artistically aware and environmentally active community. The setback, height of walls and roofs, materials and colours were sympathetically chosen to complement the historically significant setting, including the use of locally handmade mud bricks, especially made for the building.

After it opened, Eltham Library soon became one of the busiest in the Yarra Plenty Region with queues building up at the information and loans desks. Eltham hosted the launch of the Internet service in 1996 and our fifth birthday was celebrated with guest Joan Kirner, retired Premier of Victoria. Other guests through the years have included: Malcolm Fraser, Gabriel Gate, Peter FitzSimons, Julie Goodwin, Sofie Laguna, Kathryn Gauci, Bruce Pascoe and Graeme Simsion, Jackie French, Rosalie Ham, Thomas Keneally, Toni Jordan and Frock Hudson.

Pre-Skyhooks Band Reuben Tice have played in the children’s garden, a youth music event took place in 2005. Other performers have included community choirs, the Salvation Army Band and members of Opera Australia.

Eltham writers and knitters and crafters meet and share their stories. Hundreds of children have enjoyed Storytime sessions and School Holiday programs and Santa visits (and his arrival on a motorbike) and the opportunity to read to a reading dog.

The library has been decorated for football finals, Anzac Remembrance, Halloween, 16 Days of Activism, Valentines Day, Christmas and of course many book displays.

“After today there will be many thousands who will use it both as a library and a place of learning and enjoyment but also a centre of enjoyment of life in Eltham… when you look around there is not too many straight lines in this building, but they all seem to come together and finish in the right place and that’s what learnings about. Learning rarely progresses in a straight line but this design and concept comes together in something that is really exciting – whether it is the colours the materials the way in which things fit to the walls.. something in it for everyone.” 

- Peter Staples MP Opening speech

In 2011, a $1.25 million upgrade included a new children’s room with outdoor area and an expanded online learning space and more computers. A well-loved and used reading lounge with fireplace now occupies the space where the original circulation and information desk was situated. This upgrade was launched with the appearance of popular author Matthew Reilly.

The Children’s Garden has had several upgrades including the installation of the Dreaming mural by Simone Thomson in 2021.

In 2014 the library became a temporary refuge centre during bushfires in the Warrandyte area.

The Community Gallery has included too many exhibitions to count over the years from works from the Shire of Nillumbik’s own collection to recognisable and local artists. It remains an important platform for emerging artists. 

In 2020 the library “took over” the Gallery space for the popular click and collect service for patrons who could pick up books in their five-kilometre radius during the Pandemic lockdowns.

In 2013, Eltham Library was the first library in Victoria to get an automated book returns system, two years later an after-hours returns chute was installed using similar (but updated) technology. In March 2023, book sorter Bessie, was retired. 

Bessie’s sleek, state-of-the-art, smaller replacement was dubbed ‘The Big Labookski, AKA The Dude.’ The Australian made machine was even built with a local touch, with an Eltham resident and library user contributing their electronic engineering expertise to its design. This machine can process as many books as can be returned at one time as items travel along a conveyor belt and into trolleys for return to the shelves or captured for a hold.

Special collections include the Local History Collection and the French and German Collections.

The uniquely designed carpet lasted the distance until the recent upgrade but the newly minted current version with its lighter tones has lifted the spaces.

Circulation and information desk, 1995

The building was designed to integrate not only the library, but community meeting and exhibition spaces and a small coffee shop. The Eltham Toy Library continues to be based in the building.
The building makes extensive use of low maintenance natural materials and aims to achieve low energy consumption through maximising natural light and the use of such passive energy measures as mud brick walls and verandahs. Materials used include: clay brick base and well protected mud brick walls, radially sawn stringy bark external classing, decking and balustrading, stringy bark external cladding, Victorian Ash ceiling linings, recycled hardwood verandah posts, window and door frames, copper cladding, guttering and downpipes, raw steel posts and beams, blue steel automatic doors and partitioning.

Platy is the tactile platypus sculpture carved from the root of a Bunya Pine by wood artist Peter Carrigy. This sculpture was a gift from the councillors of the then Shire of Eltham in 1994 to the children’s section of the library, with the intention that it be placed where it could be touched, explored and experienced by young children of current and future generations.

View historical photos in our Flickr Album!

Join us for an evening of fun with a 90's Trivia Night on Thursday 20 June in the lead up to our Anniversary Celebration on Saturday 22 June

Eltham Library was the last major project undertaken by the Shire of Eltham before local government amalgamations took place in December 1994. It remains a landmark in the Shire of Nillumbik and a welcoming community hub.

Photo sources: Yarra Plenty Regional Library and Eltham District Historical Society

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