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History of the Barr Smith Library

The Barr Smith Library in the Mitchell Building, North Terrace, ca. 1906

The Barr Smith Library owes its name to the Barr Smith family, a pioneer family in South Australia and benefactors to The University of Adelaide over many decades.  Robert Barr Smith graduated from Glasgow University in 1842 at the age of 18, and embarked on a business career as a commission and supply merchant to the colonies of Australia.  In 1854 he moved to Melbourne, and two years later to Adelaide, just twenty years after the proclamation of the Colony of South Australia.  In that same year, 1856, Robert married Joanna Lang Elder, sister of his business partner, Thomas Elder.  Through the family company Elder Smith & Co., Robert's interests quickly grew and diversified to include farming, pastoralism, trading and copper mining.  The company opened large areas of outback South Australia, and had property interests in South Australia, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales.  By 1890 the partners owned an area greater than Robert's country of origin, Scotland.

Stacks in the Library, Mitchell Building, 1906

Although the Barr Smiths and the Elders accumulated great wealth, they were also noted philanthropists, closely interested in the social and cultural development of the Colony.  The University of Adelaide was founded in 1874, and Robert Barr Smith served as a member of its Council for 19 years.  During his lifetime his donations to the University exceeded £20,000, including £9,000 for the improvement of the Library.  In 1899 the University Council resolved that its library should bear the name "The Barr Smith Library".

Following the death of Robert Barr Smith in November 1915, his family gave a permanent endowment to the University of Adelaide Library.

Construction of the Library in 1930

In January 1927 Tom Elder Barr Smith generously offered £20,000 to finance the construction of a separate building to accommodate the library named after his father.  Later the gift was increased to £30,000 to erect a building which would comfortably and splendidly accommodate the Library, and allow for future growth; a condition was that it should be completed within five years.

The Library is the architectural work of Walter Hervey Bagot, a prominent architect whose portfolio includes St Peter's and St Francis Xavier's Cathedrals, Bonython Hall and the State War Memorial.  Constructed of red brick with stone dressings, the Library's freestone portico leads directly into the massive and opulent reading room.

The Barr Smith Library, ca. 1945

A great deal of thought went into the planning of the building, and the architect, Walter H. Bagot, took advice from overseas authorities as well as those in the eastern Australian cities.  The building combined a reading room which contained books thought to be sufficient for the needs of most readers, plus a closed-access stack to conserve space.  The new building could hold a total of 150,000 volumes, with accommodation for two hundred readers and 15,000 books in the reading room.  There was also a comfortable common-room for professors.

Barr Smith Library foundation stone, laid by Mary Isobel Barr Smith, 29th September 1930

The foundation stone of the present Barr Smith Library was laid by Mary Isobel Barr Smith on the 29th September 1930, and the new building was officially opened on the 4th March 1932.  The building's classic Renaissance form was then thought to be highly adaptable, and also appropriate for Adelaide's Mediterranean climate. It was received not only as a fine addition to the University but also to Adelaide, and was described as palatial, beautiful, magnificent, imposing, ornate and splendid, although one contemporary newspaper article regretted that it was "far from the madding crowd... for its beautiful architecture, of which there is little superior in Adelaide, will not be readily seen by the general public or interstate or overseas visitors.  It would have made a fine addition to the several classically designed buildings on the North Terrace boulevard."

Frome Road vista of The Barr Smith Library, 2015

In fact, the view to the Barr Smith Library from Frome Road is now one of Adelaide's finest vistas.

The Barr Smith Reading Room

Interior of The Barr Smith Library Reading Room, 2015

The Reading Room was planned to hold 15,000 volumes and provide seating for 200 readers.  A ground-level bookstack provided capacity for 135,000 volumes, and a proposed stack extension (eventually begun in 1958 to a new design) was projected to bring total accommodation to 500,000 volumes, quoted at the opening ceremony by the mathematician, Professor John Wilton as "ample for one hundred years to come."  In fact, the Library grew much faster, both in area and in its collections.  It took just 37 years to reach 500,000 volumes, a further twenty years to reach one million volumes, with two million volumes exceeded in 1999.

Later additions to the Library building were made in all decades from the 1950s; the large southern wing completed in the early 1970s and the present entrance in 1984.

The Latin Inscribed Frieze

The inscriptions which appear on the Reading Room walls commemorate two major donations:

Robert Barr Smith filled the earlier library with books as gifts from himself and his heirs, A.D. 1892 onwards.

This refers to gifts of money made from time to time by Mr. Robert Barr Smith and supplemented by his heirs.  The money forms an endowment for the purchase of books for the Library.

Tom Elder Barr Smith has this library built at his own expense in honour of his father's name, A.D. 1930.

This refers to the gift of this building by the late Thomas Elder Barr Smith.

The Reading Room Portraits

The four portraits which hang on the western wall of The Barr Smith Reading Room depict Thomas Elder Barr Smith, Lord Howard Walter Florey, Sir Douglas Mawson and Sir Marcus (Mark) Laurence Elwin Oliphant.

Thomas Elder Barr Smith Lord Howard Walter Florey Sir Douglas Mawson Sir Marcus (Mark) Laurence Elwin Oliphant

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