June 24, 2020
People & Places

Beyond the bookshelves: SA’s Parliament Research Library

Tucked away inside South Australia’s corridors of power, the Parliament Research Library is more than just books. 

Parliamentary Librarian Dr John Weste has been working at the library for the past 12 years, “I can honestly tell you it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

When it comes to the discovery of lost treasures, the tale of a hound sniffing out a piece of history is hard to beat.

Out for an early morning walk with his owner last year, the dog discovered a pile of metal tubes in a Melbourne skip bin, containing the original and beautifully hand-coloured design plans of South Australia’s Parliament House from the 1930s. Precisely how a timeless piece of South Australia’s past ended up carelessly abandoned in another state, nobody knows.

It’s just one of the fascinating stories in Parliamentary Librarian Dr John Weste’s ever-growing collection delighting visitors to South Australia’s Parliament Research Library.

Home to a vast collection of rare books and documents, maps and one-of-a-kind curios spanning four centuries, the library is hidden away inside the endless corridors of Parliament House on North Terrace.

Once reserved for members only, the exclusive domain is now open to the public for tours on non-sitting days. 

“We’re called a special library,” John explains. “Here to provide services to Members of Parliament and their staff for research and reference purposes.”

“We’re not resourced for the public but over the past five years we’ve really pushed to open it up and have put a lot of effort into community engagement.”

One of the rare items on display at the library is a mechanical model of the solar system, known as an orrery, made in 1868.

Nearly 10,000 visitors went through the library in 2019, the highest number yet. At 167 years of age, this grand old dame is now keeping up with her public via Facebook and Instagram.

It’s clear John considers himself lucky to have called a corner of the library his “office” for the past twelve years.

“I can honestly tell you it’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. “I enjoy coming to work and no two days are ever exactly the same.”

Hosting the Ambassador of Afghanistan, delving into state records to research an MP’s request or meeting with the library’s conservator to discuss the best way to preserve a fragile item are all in his daily duties. Sometimes he even finds himself holding thrall to a pack of overexcited Hermiones and Harrys.

Among the more recent additions to the library’s public date card are a range of themed events.

“We have a group of MPs called Friends of the Parliamentary Library who organise Harry Potter and Halloween nights – they’re incredibly popular,” John says.

“We turn the Old Chamber into Hogwarts and the children come in dressed up, have a meal and then debate a Bill, have a vote and we read them a story.”

There’s no politics here, both the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition have been invited to read. “The library is a neutral space,” John says with a chuckle. “Completely bi-partisan.”

Visitors merely expecting “a lot of dusty books on shelves” may find themselves pleasantly surprised. Although there are more than enough gold-embossed tomes to keep the avid book lover content, there’s plenty in the library’s 700,000-strong item collection to entertain a wide range of tastes.

Premier Charles Cameron Kingston’s shotgun can be viewed by visitors.

Take the shotgun gifted to former Premier Charles Cameron Kingston for his 54th birthday in 1904, which hangs above the entryway in a locked cabinet. Or the 1868 orrery, a beautifully intricate clockwork model of the solar system, on loan from the Astronomical Society of South Australia.

“Over the past five years, we’ve put a lot of work into making it interesting and inviting,” John says.

“We form partnerships with external bodies to arrange displays and some of it is utterly fascinating material.”

One current display on loan from the SA Health Heritage Unit features a grisly collection of medical and dental equipment from centuries past – bone saws, cranial surgery drills, silk sutures preserved in glass phials. “Plenty of gruesome-looking stabby things from the 1800s,” John says.

A simple menu on display was donated by someone whose great aunt once worked in Parliament House and had the honour of cooking for the Queen during her 1954 visit, when she dined with the state’s long-running Premier, Sir Thomas Playford.

“One of the delights offered to Her Majesty was mock turtle soup,” he says.

“It matters not whether you are six, 60 or 100, people find that as interesting and engaging as anything else. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or valuable or old.”

Dr John Weste’s reverence for the Parliament Research Library extends to keeping several pairs of shoes that he only wears within its walls.

With most history immortalised on paper, prone to age and acidification, the library is fortunate to have a skilled conservator on hand to care for such fragile items. In keeping with the times, however, the library also holds digital-born items, such as media monitoring, in digital format, which now forms the bulk of the collection.

A skilled conservator is on hand to care for the library’s historic book collection.

However, there’s no beating seeing an original item and taking in that distinct aroma of aged paper, which John finds both “comforting and reassuring”. Like any fond parent, he claims no favourites among the collection. 

“I’m merely the custodian,” he says. “People have ideas of what a library is, but this place is about as far from your stereotypical library as can be.

“I invite people to come in and see it for themselves.” 

Public tours are held on non-sitting days at 10am and 2pm.


This story first appeared in the April 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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