History of the Library

The State Library of NSW began as a subscription library in 1826.

Free Public Library, corner of Bent & Macquarie Sts, Sydney, 1877

The naming of the Library

The State Library of NSW is the oldest continuously operating library in Australia. 

The Australian Subscription Library, established in 1826, was renamed as the Australian Library and Literary Institution in 1853. In 1869 the NSW Government purchased the collection and building to form the Sydney Free Public Library, the first truly public library for the people of NSW. In 1895 the Free Public Library was renamed as the Public Library of NSW. In 1907 David Scott Mitchell bequeathed his collection to the NSW government and the Mitchell Library, built to hold the extensive collection, opened in 1910.

In 1975 the Library was renamed as the State Library of NSW. 

The building of the Library

In December 1827 operations began in rented premises in Pitt Street, and for the next two years the Library changed locations a number of times, from George Street, then Bridge Street, Macquarie Street and Macquarie Place. In 1845 it finally moved into its own new building on the corner of Bent and Macquarie Streets.

By 1869 the subscription library was hopelessly in debt, and the New South Wales Government was persuaded to buy it for £5100 (£1500 for the books and £3600 for the building). In September 1869, the Sydney Free Public Library opened its doors with a stock of approximately 20,000 volumes,

The Mitchell Wing 

The Library soon outgrew its premises, and a new wing was built in the mid-1880s. By the turn of the century this too was outgrown, and plans were prepared for a completely new ‘national’ library building. The stimulus for this was David Scott Mitchell’s offer of his immense and unrivalled collection of Australiana to the people of New South Wales. One condition of his offer was that a new building be erected to house the collection as a separate library. Work on the Mitchell Wing started in 1906 and was completed in 1910.

The Dixson Wing

It was another 20 years before more building took place on the site of the library. The Dixson Wing, completed in 1929, was added to the south side of the Mitchell Wing to provide storage and gallery space for the extensive collection of historical paintings presented by Sir William Dixson.

The completion of the Mitchell Building

In 1939 work began on the central portion of the building, which includes the portico, the ornate vestibule with its reproduction of the Tasman Map in marble mosaic, and the main reading room which was to provide access to the collections of the Public Library of NSW. The building was ready for occupation in June 1942 and the Bent Street reading Room was closed. 

In 1964, the final section of the sandstone Mitchell Wing, uniform in style, was added to the south east corner. 

The Macquarie Street Wing

Work began on the Macquarie Street Wing in 1983 and it was opened in 1988 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The new building, designed by Mr Andrew Andersons, linked up with the Mitchell Wing above ground by a first-floor bridge and below ground at a number of points. Access to the State Reference Library, formerly known as the Public Library of NSW, was transferred to the new building and the reading room in the Mitchell building was repurposed to provide access to the Mitchell and Dixson collections. 

Key dates

1826: The Australian Subscription Library, precursor of the State Library of NSW, opens in Pitt Street. It moves three times until finding a permanent home on Bent Street in 1845.

1869: The NSW Government assumes responsibility for the Library, which becomes the Sydney Free Public Library. Focus changes to a reference collection, with a strong emphasis on Australian material.

1895: The name changes to the Public Library of New South Wales, articulating its role and the importance of its collection.

1898: David Scott Mitchell offers his entire Australian collection and a substantial endowment to the NSW Government on the condition a new building in constructed to house it.

1910: The new Mitchell Library (the northwest corner which now houses the Friends Room opens to the public on 9 March with a reading room for the study of items from the Mitchell Collection.

1919: Sir William Dixson offers to present a collection of paintings to the Public Library, provided a wing is constructed to house it. 

1929: The Dixson Wing (the southwest corner facing the statue of Matthew Flinders) is opened.

1942: The Public Library extensions to the Mitchell Library Building are opened, including the magnificent vestibule, glassed ceiling reading room and the Shakespeare Room. The collections, staff and services of the Public Library are relocated from Bent Street to the expanded building, now called the Public Library of New South Wales. The Mitchell and Dixson collections continue to be used in the original Mitchell Reading Room and the public library collections are read in the Reference Library Reading Room (known as the Mitchell Library Reading Room since 1988).

1964: Mitchell Library Building completed with the construction of the Domain Wing on the southeast corner.

1975: The name changes to the State Library of New South Wales.

1988: The Macquarie Street wing opens with a new reading room (now the State Reference Library). The Reference Library Reading Room becomes the Mitchell Library Reading Room in which the now very large Mitchell Library Collection, including special collections, are studied by those holding a reader’s ticket.

2013: AMAZE: The Michael Crouch Gallery opened in the Mitchell Building.

2014: The State Reference Library is renamed the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room.

2018: The Library completes its first major building project in the Mitchell in over 50 years — opening the Michael Crouch Family Galleries and John B Fairfax Learning Centre.