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Supreme Court Library History

A brief history of the Supreme Court Library

Establishment of the Library

From 1841 to 1843 the Supreme Court of New South Wales for the District of Port Phillip was convened in Bourke Street. In 1843 a courthouse was constructed in La Trobe Street, backing on to the Melbourne Gaol.

News of Royal assent to the Act to separate the District of Port Phillip from New South Wales had been received in Melbourne on November 11, 1850. It would seem that from this moment Redmond Barry, who was appointed as the first puisine judge of the Supreme Court of the Colony of Victoria, determined to establish a library. A Library not only for the courts, but also for the legal profession in the new colony.

At separation Redmond Barry and William Stawell were commissioned by Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe to report on the future of the judiciary in the new colony. Their report resulted in the Supreme Court (Constitution) Act 1852 (officially titled An Act to make provision for the better Administration of Justice in the Colony of Victoria). The Act empowered The Supreme Court to make Rules and Regulations, which included provision for a library for the legal profession with all admission fees to be "lodged in the Bank, to the credit of the Chief Justice of the said Court on account of the Supreme Court Library fund".

On May 13, 1853 The Argus made an announcement that:

"His Honour Mr Justice Barry yesterday intimated that he would be glad if the Gentlemen of the Bar would nominate two of their body and select two of the other profession to meet him tomorrow at his Chambers, Supreme Court, at two o'clock to determine on such a selection of Law Books, as it might be judged necessary to form the contemplated law library for the use of the profession. His Honour likewise intimated that he had now a fund of £296 in hand from fees, etc., for the purchase of books”. This was the foundation of the Library Committee.

By the first meeting of the Committee in April 1854, books for the new library had been purchased and were on their way from London. A small room in the courthouse, which was formerly used by female prisoners, had been appropriated as a "temporary" library and a request made for shelves to be put up to hold the first shipment of 496 volumes.

At the second meeting of the Library Committee in May 1854, the first rules for the library were minuted and copies printed and pasted into each library book. These books are still in the Supreme Court Library’s collection.

By January 1855, the original courthouse had been re-modelled to include a new room for the library.

The new court building

Photo of gasolier and octaganal table

Work began on the new Trial Building at the corner of William and Lonsdale Streets in 1874. The building was finished in 1884 and was occupied by the Supreme and County Courts.

The Library – “The gem of the whole structure” (The Age February 23 1884)

On the opening of the new court buildings in William Street in 1884, The Age described the library as “the gem of the whole structure”. It is listed in the Victorian Heritage Register as being of “architectural, historical and social significance to the State of Victoria”.
The Supreme Court Library at 210 William Street is centrally situated in the court complex and surmounted by an internal dome covered by the external  dome which once dominated the Melbourne skyline. The library’s interior is a circular space under the dome, sparsely furnished but for a decagonal table surrounding a magnificent central gasolier, with reading recesses and rooms on each floor.

In 1999 the library building was refurbished and expanded to add two extra floors for shelving, offices and reading rooms – of contemporary design but in keeping with the original historic structure.

The Collection – “Works so valuable” (Supreme Court Library Minute Book April 24 1854)

The library building, furnishings and collection are valuable cultural assets for Victoria. The first library catalogue, produced in 1861, stated that the collection was to be “indispensable alike to the Jurist, the Lawyer, or the Scholar” and while the nineteenth-century Library Committee, under Barry’s direction, purchased mainly law books, the collection includes a substantial number of non-legal and non-scholarly titles. Some of the latter titles address surprising topics such as histories of wine, magic and “elegant recreations” for young ladies, at a time when young ladies were not able to attend university or practice law.

The oldest book in the collection is Statham’s Abridgement of 1490 and there are about fifty sixteenth and seventeenth-century titles held. However, since Barry’s death in 1880 the library has purchased few books other than law books.

The earliest books purchased for the library are often beautifully bound, according to the very precise instructions of Redmond Barry. The books were stamped to indicate the library’s ownership and originally with the motto “Nolumus leges Angliae Mutari”, meaning “We don’t want the laws of England to be changed”. Very quickly the spelling of ‘mutari’ was altered to ‘mutare’ and since then this motto, meaning “We don’t want to change the laws of England”, has been stamped on the library’s books.


On completion of the new library in 1884 the Library Committee turned its attention to its interior decoration. The first portrait to be hung was that of the first Chief Justice, Sir William à Beckett. This portrait had been acquired in England in 1867 and was hanging in the old Supreme Court before it moved to William Street.

The first two purchases for the new library were busts of Justice Sir Redmond Barry and Justice Thomas Fellows, originally to be placed in niches in the library gallery. Portraits of Chief Justices and Justices of the Supreme Court of Victoria have been added over the years, including a portrait of Chief Justice, The Honourable Marilyn Warren AC, who retired in 2017. This portrait is of a more modern style and frame.

In 2015 a portrait of William Barak was unveiled in the Supreme Court Library. The 1885 painting honours the achievements of this great Australian who was an influential spokesman for Aboriginal social justice. Other items of interest are also on display and much of the furniture is original. 

The Law Library of Victoria

In 2012 an agreement was signed to consolidate law library services in Victoria as the Law Library of Victoria, serving judges, VCAT members and legal practitioners. The Law Library of Victoria amalgamated the existing libraries and now provides access to many digital resources, with 24/7 access for the judiciary. In 2018 the Victorian Bar Library also became a branch of the Law Library of Victoria, with access to digital resources available in the Richard Griffith Library.

The Law Library of Victoria – “an historic opportunity to prepare all Victorian judges and lawyers for the future”
(Chief Justice Marilyn Warren, media release August 23 2012)

Sir Redmond Barry established the Library of the Supreme Court of Victoria in the nineteenth century to provide world-class provision of legal resources to legal practitioners. The Law Library of Victoria continues to do the same in the twenty-first century and into the future.

Read a full history about the Supreme Court Library

For a more comprehensive history of the Supreme Court Library, read the following book written by Dr Sue Reynolds. Books for the Profession: The Library of the Supreme Court of Victoria. Australian Scholarly, North Melbourne, 2012.

Five facts you may not know about the Library

  1. The Library has one of the largest law collections in the State, containing over 120,000 volumes.
  2. There have only been 7 Supreme Court Librarians in the history of the Library since 1866.
  3. Electric lighting was not installed in the Library until 1925.
  4. Level 2 of the Library was used for the lock up of jurors for jury deliberations until 1967 when the Juries Act 1967 allowed females to be empanelled on a jury.
  5. The library has been bequeathed the private law collection of Sir Ninian Stephen. KG, AK, GCMG, GCVO, KBE, QC. This collection is located on the first floor of the library.