Then and Now: Barr Smith library

The treasured space standing the test of time.

Merry Wickes

For almost 130 years, the Barr Smith Library has been treasured by students past and present as the University of Adelaide’s iconic centre.

From the serenity of the Barr Smith Reading Room, to the ever-helpful staff, the Library is more than a place to study and access resources, it’s an opportunity to escape the pressures and noise of student life.

When speaking with alumna and Barr Smith Library donor Merry Wickes, and current student Cecilia Wang, who works at the Library, there is no doubting the much-loved space will forever hold a special place in our community’s hearts and minds.

Merry Wickes

Bachelor of Arts (1973), Honours (1975)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, my university life revolved around constant daily movement between the Napier Building – where my lectures and tutorials were held; the Refectory and Cloisters – for food and snacks, catching up with friends and the wider university activities; and the all-important Barr Smith Library – the centre for my academic studies.

And just beyond the Library, and in view through its windows, was Union Hall (where the Braggs Building now stands) with its downstairs coffee shop. For a brief time, you could take a break from library studies and sip a cappuccino there with friends.

"The Reading Room is one of the few areas of the Library that remains very much as it was 50 years ago."Merry Wickes

Being rather studious and ‘bookish’ then, much of my time was spent in the Barr Smith Library. Most days, after lectures or tutorials, I would join fellow students queuing to search the long wooden boxed card index catalogues to find books and journals (no online resources then). Or I would hang around the Reserve Desk near the front entrance to place requests for one of the multiple copies of the most in-demand books and articles for the week’s assignments, and then wait for them to turn up. And of course I remember seeking research assistance or photocopying help from the wonderful and ever helpful librarians and staff.

Then I’d find an empty desk in one of my favourite quiet corners to pile up borrowed books and scrawl notes and hand write essays. Or, on cold and wintry Adelaide days, I’d head to the glorious and beautiful Barr Smith Reading Room. Best of all were foot warmers in long metal tubes hidden beneath the desks to keep students cosy. It’s still possible to see remnants of the tubes under some desks, though sadly long disconnected from a heat source.

The Reading Room is one of the few areas of the Library that remains very much as it was 50 years ago. While everywhere else in the Library now buzzes with the sounds of students chatting amongst themselves, the Reading Room remains a remarkably quiet space just as it has always been, a place where you still feel a little intimidated to talk in more than a whisper.

While there have been so many changes within the University, I think for many students, the Barr Smith Library remains an academic and research hub on the campus, and one I still love to visit. To be able to contribute, in some small way, to this favourite place continuing to be well resourced and central to university life is a special pleasure.

Cecilia Wang

Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Health Sciences (expected 2022)

Cecelia Wang

The great thing about the Barr Smith Library, and what makes up some of the best experiences I’ve had, are the staff who are always there to help when you need it.

I remember when I first started at the University and I was nervous to ask for help. I initially went to ASK Library with a general question about where I could find books for an essay. They were not only able to help me find relevant sources, but recommended I make a time with the liaison librarian who would help me on the path to write an excellent essay. I ended up doing very well with that assignment. I go to the Library quite regularly to do work and I’d say I spend up to eight hours a week (apart from the times I work there) to study. The Reading Room is so quiet and calming, it really helps when I’m feeling stressed about finishing an assignment. Whether I need a break from studying and a comfy place to relax, or looking to finish something for a fast-approaching deadline, it’s a great space.

I absolutely love the quiet Reading Room on level two, which some people call the Harry Potter room. The space is very old and gives a sense of nostalgia and awe, which I always find inspirational. I also love how well the Library is organised. For me, it’s a place where I can count on getting the help I need from the vast amount of resources it offers, whether this is on the shelf in the Library, online or from the friendly staff.

When I first started using the Library, I used to commonly get lost because it’s so big. And I still do on the rare occasion.

"I absolutely love the quiet Reading Room on level two, which some people call the Harry Potter room. The space is very old and gives a sense of nostalgia and awe, which I always find inspirational."Cecilia Wang

After using the Library for a while, I decided to find out how they make everything happen behind the scenes, so I started working there.

It’s an amazing place to work. Everyone is wonderful and an expert in problem-solving and making sure the library runs smoothly and efficiently so people are able to get the help they need. I don’t think everyone realises how much work and effort goes into managing the vast amount of resources the Library offers. Every detail is incredibly important and everyone works together to make this happen.

With more than 2.5 million resources – including books, CDs, digitised content and almost 1.2 million electronic resources – the Barr Smith Library supports more than 21,000 learners and is committed to maintaining its position as South Australia’s premier research-intensive University. Those wishing to learn more about opportunities to support the acquisition of invaluable resources can visit:

Story by Dalice Kennedy
Photos by Meaghan Coles

Tagged in lumen summer 2020, lumen