Robyn Holmes
Publication date: 
Tuesday, 29 March, 2016

Why was it Sir Robert Menzies who laid the Library’s foundation stone 50 years ago on March 31, 1966? Senior Curator Robyn Holmes has scoured the Library’s collections to unravel a mystery.

Listen to the audio version of this article.

A modest foundation stone but a ceremonial finale

To the left of the main entrance steps of the National Library you will discover an unassuming, somewhat modest foundation stone laid by Sir Robert Menzies on 31 March 1966, 50 years ago, when the library building was still a five storey steel shell. 

Sir Robert Menzies laying the National Library Foundation Stone, March 31 1966

Sir Robert Menzies laying the National Library Foundation Stone  31 March 1966

‘Modest’ compared with the official plaque that marked the grand opening of the building by Prime Minister John Gorton on 15 August 1968. If celebrations that day belonged principally to the National Librarian, Harold White, the foundation stone ceremony represented the pinnacle for Robert Menzies. Notably the words ‘Prime Minister’ do not appear on the foundation stone for, Sir Robert Menzies, aged 71, was no longer Prime Minister. He had just resigned his office, handing over to Harold Holt on Australia Day, January 26, 1966, a fact which required an unexpected re-wording on the stone. 

So why did Menzies lay the Library’s foundation stone, overturning the protocol appropriate for Holt’s office? Both the new Prime Minister and Menzies and their wives appeared on stage with the Minister for the Interior Doug Anthony and the Chair of the Library Council, Sir Archibald Grenfell Price, but it was Menzies who retained the starring role.

Sir Robert Menzies speaking at the laying of the Foundation Stone, 31 March, 1966

Sir Robert Menzies speaking at the laying of the Foundation Stone  31 March 1966, nla.obj-136760449  

It was to be a celebratory and fitting finale for Menzies. For it was Menzies’ vision and leadership that provides the real back-story to the approval, timing, design and building of a “monumental” and “beautiful” National Library on its remarkable site on the lake: a ‘Dream library takes shape’, as The Canberra Times reported on the day.

Menzies never claimed the vision for the National Library as his own, neither the Library’s independent governance nor the building. For that, he acknowledged Harold White and Sir Archibald Grenfell Price as tenacious leaders amongst many cumulative library, parliamentary and national capital planning forces. He also cited in his speech on the day in 1960 that the legislation establishing the Library and the associated Australian Advisory Council on Bibliographical Services was a “statesmen-like act” of national cooperation. Yet Menzies’ conviction and authority to carry the day with Cabinet, to shape and override the decisions of the National Capital Development Commission, and to inspire the vision of why a great National Library mattered – all these are represented in the laying of the stone. 

The National Library: a symbol for the ‘knowledge’ nation

The National Library is a testament to the value Menzies placed upon the national capital as a symbol of nation-building, and the Library as a symbol for the transformational power of knowledge, thinking and the processes of the human mind.

In his remarkable speech (that he wrote himself and seems to have delivered only from notes) Menzies asserted with considerable force that the real value of the Library lay not in the monumental building, despite its symbolic beauty, grandeur and classical dimensions. Rather its true quality and international stature lay in the collections contained within the building. These were the “great interpreters of the past to the present… the present to the present… and the present to the future”. And, perhaps in a gibe at those who relied on mere statistics about the size of the collection to which “we must not succumb” he asserted that it was the “quality [the collections] exude, the use that is made of them and the value attached to them” that would determine the Library’s international status in the future. 

Menzies extolled the Library as a “source of light for scholars, thinkers, [and] of great international significance”, the corollary of governmental efforts made to forge research and scholarship in the nation. Books provided “moral and intellectual continuity and the great proof of civilisation”. Through the Library’s collections “we are learning from the past ... we are learning from each other, we are helping to instruct and inform the future; this is a most tremendous process in the human mind”. 

Listen to Sir Robert Menzies’ speech at the laying of the Foundation Stone, 31 March 1966. 

A national symbol of place

The concept of the building as a national monument equally preoccupied Menzies, who, as this untold story will reveal, was pivotal to the decision-making. Even more important was the site of the Library as a symbolic place.

Imagine what Menzies’ dream looked like in 1966 as he laid the Library’s foundation stone, remarkably the first of the big national monuments on the newly filled lake to be completed by the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC). As he laid the stone, Menzies reflected: 

“I’d like to live long enough to be ushered in on a wheelchair or onto a boat on this lake, to see this building in all its white beauties standing here reflected in the lake ... to see a Parliament House of noble dimensions and to see a High Court in the place that’s been described.” 

What was this symbolic concept of place? 

Standing on the lake was to be Parliament House at the centre, a symbol of freedom and democracy. It was to be flanked on either side by two monumental buildings of lesser scale and representing the independence of the judiciary – the High Court – and the independence of the mind – the National Library. Behind those two buildings would sit Treasury (developed at the same time as the Library) and the Administrative building (now the Sir John Gorton building) designed to serve the arms of government. 

The National Capital Development Commission’s concept for Parliament, the High Court and the National Library on the site of the lake.

Richard Clough (1921-2014), The National Capital Development Commission’s concept for Parliament, the High Court and the National Library on the site of the lake, nla.obj-143708596

Harold White articulated the excitement and perspective of the Library:

“This relationship of the Legislature, the Judiciary and of a National Library has impressed many of us … as a symbolic one, of special significance in a country which has long been devoted to Parliament and the Law, but only recently convinced of the need for research and inquiry to support our national growth.”

This tri-partite symbolic plan was the accepted view in the NCDC’s total civic design of the Parliamentary Triangle from at least 1960. This was despite the competing recommendations that had been made for the site of Capital Hill for a permanent Parliament – seen by some as the dominant landscape for a ‘Capitol’ much like Washington and once considered, but dismissed, by Walter Burley Griffin. 

Perspective from proposed lakeside Parliament House.

Richard Clough (1921-2014), Perspective from proposed lakeside Parliament House, nla.obj-143693028

The decision on where to site a ‘great National Library’ was intrinsically linked to where Parliament House was to be located. A small often unobserved design detail in the Architectural Briefs for the Library’s building in 1961, found in Harold White’s papers, affirms this view. A tunnel was originally intended to link the Library to Parliament House, so that collections could be readily delivered from the National Library. Menzies’ personal papers testify to his own extensive use of the Library’s collections and in his ‘Foundation Stone’ speech he passionately affirmed that a life without books was unimaginable: clearly he himself understood the perspective of users, scholars and researchers. Here was a Prime Minister deeply engaged with the functions and meaning of the Library. 

Initial plan for National Library site with High Court site reserved on opposite flank

National Capital Development Commission, Initial plan for National Library site with High Court site reserved on opposite flank, Records of Bunning and Madden 1961-1988, nla.obj-246194188

The backdrop: Menzies’ Parliamentary Inquiries

The story of the National Library cannot be told without understanding this nexus between an independent Library and its symbolic and symbiotic relationship, as both a building and collection, to Parliament. Menzies had been responsible for establishing two Inquiries that directly and fundamentally impacted the decision on where and when to build a new National Library. 

The first, a Senate Inquiry on the Development of Canberra in 1955, resulted in the establishment of the National Capital Development Commission in late 1957. The second was the Commonwealth Inquiry into the National Library. Having been established as part of the Parliamentary Library, at Federation in 1901 and modelled on the US Library of Congress, the National Library was overflowing and scattered in 15 buildings around the city, radiating from its inadequate Kings Avenue building.

First National Library building in Kings Avenue

William James Mildenhall (1891-1962), First National Library building in Kings Avenue  c. 1901-1948, nla.obj-141451099

It was this Inquiry, led by Professor Sir George Paton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, which recommended the formal separation of the National and the Parliamentary Libraries.

On 10 November 1960, Menzies himself introduced the National Library Bill into the House of Representatives, identifying its separation of functions as a “national institution independent of Parliamentary connections”. Yet in 1960, there was still no commitment to a new building. The NCDC’s priority was to build – or at least plan - the new Parliament House. However, though agreeing with the NCDC’s plans for the now preferred lakeside site, Menzies political judgement was that the general populace would not support such expenditure for Parliament: thus, also, no new Library.

Menzies, the ‘National Capital’ and the Library as the first national monument

The first stage of the ‘National Capital’ development was the creation of the lake and bridges across the Molonglo flood plain, creating a new level of cohesion for the evolving city. The lake was integral to the planning vision and rapidly gave purpose and meaning to other developments. But it was the Library that was the first national monument to be built on the lakeside.

National Library site being shaped, Canberra.

Richard Clough (1921-2014), National Library site being shaped, Canberra  ca. 1909-1981, nla.obj-143710896

How did the Library building come to be a priority in this complex web of national capital development? At least some of the answers lie with Menzies himself.

The inaugural Commissioner for the NCDC was Sir John Overall, previously Chief Architect, whom Menzies appointed in February 1958. In a memorable Library oral history interview with Mel Pratt in 1973, Overall provides fascinating insight into the “sorrowful state” of Canberra’s housing, schools, community infrastructure and transport, and the lack of commercial enterprise in the 1950s. Equally he recalls the divisions in Cabinet and the divided government bureaucracy managing Canberra and its public service workforce that led to Menzies’ decisive leadership “to design, develop and construct Canberra as the National Capital of Australia”.

Though the story of the ensuing heady construction program is well known, Menzies’ personal motivation emanated from a more intimate perspective. Overall recalls that in 1955 Menzies’ daughter Heather was marrying diplomat Peter Henderson and they were planning to return to Canberra from the Australian Embassy in Djakarta. Menzies and his wife Patti walked the broken or non-existent pavements looking for a suitable home for them. Menzies, Overall remarked, did not really “know Canberra” even though he lived in the Lodge. Instead, what Menzies found during his walks “appalled” him and it was this personal investigation that stimulated him to set up the 1955 Senate Inquiry into the future development of the national capital. 

Menzies had also personally approached the most influential British planner Sir William Holford in London in 1957 to provide advice to the Commonwealth, especially on the development of the Parliamentary Triangle. While the Senate Inquiry Report had argued a preference for the Capital Hill site for Parliament, it was Holford who recommended the development of the lake – the symbolic, functional and visual centrality of the lakeside would form the prime site for the new Parliament and its related buildings. The NCDC affirmed these principles in their Report on Sir William Holford's Observations on the Future Development of Canberra, A.C.T, 30th June, 1958.

Holford was silent on the matter of the Library site. The talk of the day had become rather more pragmatic . One prevailing view was that the National Library should “take over Provisional [Old] Parliament House when the Parliament transfers to its permanent home”. The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate had first recommended this in 1956, in a private submission to Menzies on ‘The Case for a Permanent Parliament House’, a submission discovered in Harold White’s papers. Even Menzies had succumbed, despite the continuing advocacy, perseverance and protestations of Harold White and his cohort of supporters for a new grand building. 

From June to August 1958, Alister McMullin, President of the Senate and Chair of the Parliamentary Library Committee, John McLeay, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and members of the Library Committee vehemently supported Harold White in an exchange of letters with Menzies. They urged the Prime Minister to act as a matter of urgency both on the separation of the National Library’s governance, collections, staff and records from the Parliamentary Library, to bring the 1952 plans for a new National Library building up to date and to agree on a suitable site. Harold White later recounted in a 1967 speech just how long a suitable library building had been in the offing. This dated back to the ceremony presided over by Prime Minister Lyons on 24 November 1934, when Governor General Sir Isaac Isaacs and Poet Laureate Dr John Masefield laid the foundation stones for the Library building in Kings Avenue. Christine Fernon recounted this epic story in National Library News on the 40th anniversary of the building: in Harold White’s words, the Library building  “staggered out of the Wilderness”

Laying of the foundation stones for the National Library building, Kings Avenue, Canberra, in 1934

A. Collingridge ( -1942) Laying of the foundation stones for the National Library building by John Masefield and Sir Isaac Isaacs, Kings Avenue, Canberra, 1934, nla.obj-136780848

By 1959, Cabinet had agreed that the commencement of a National Library building could be included in the NCDC’s plans but only in the latter part of a five year period. By 1960 Cabinet still took the view “that it would not appropriate … for the Government to give an indication of adding a new and substantial library building to the Canberra programme.” 

What changed Menzies’ mind between then and August 1961, when Menzies himself brought a submission to Cabinet at the request of the Council of the National Library? (Cabinet Submission No 1333, August 21, 1961)

Almost certainly he had private meetings about the matter. Sir John Overall reported in a note on the National Library, 11 July 1960, that Library Council Chairman Sir Archibald Grenfell Price had a long conversation with the Prime Minister about the building. “He reported a sympathetic hearing. It was agreed that preliminary planning should proceed, to the extent of defining a program and establishing the site.” Cabinet finally gave in on September 12, 1961 in response to Menzies’ submission. They agreed to appoint an architect to design and prepare working drawings, although they made no commitment beyond approval of the initial design phase. (Cabinet Decision 1589)

It was Menzies decision!

Menzies clearly intervened personally and abruptly in the decision to bring forward the National Library building in the NCDC’s plans and priorities, as well as to escalate the size, scope and magnificence of the building on the prestige site it stands on today.

While official records document the decisions, the ‘behind the scenes’ story of why and how Menzies influenced the planning is never quite revealed, leaving some elements to speculation and imagination. Manuscript collections, Cabinet papers, submissions and committee minutes, unpublished reports, architectural plans, building specifications: all can be scoured to piece together the official sequence of events. But it is oral histories that fill in some of the gaps and add personal nuance to the story.

Peter Biskup’s interview in 1988 with (Thomas) Dan Sprod, at the time the Library’s liaison officer for the building project and later chief Librarian at the University of Tasmania, provides the most potent source for Menzies’ intervention. Despite the distance of time and a slightly faltering memory, Sprod recalls the development of the architectural briefs for the building, in which “Harold was up to … his ears” advocating for a large building that would accommodate long-term collection expansion. Sprod reflects, however, that the NCDC “was trying to cut us down to the bare bones, and instead of a grand building, we were going to have a very utilitarian building [perhaps on a different site.]”

“We had two meetings on consecutive days. And on one meeting … the NCDC through Overall was going through this deprecating business of knocking us down and clipping our wings. The next day we had another meeting, and Overall started talking and I sat there, and it took me a while to realise that something had happened overnight.

And … without even saying, look we’ve looked at this again and we think you’re right, he was starting to accept all the Library’s arguments for a grand monumental building on a prestige site.

… I didn’t tumble to it for a while. And, of course, what had happened overnight was that Overall had been called in by Menzies and told that the National Library was to be a grand building, a flanking building for the Parliament House, and to balance the High Court building, which was not then even planned, but you know, anticipated but not planned.

… definitely that was the reason why the National Library’s got that grand building today. It was a personal decision by the Prime Minister of the day."

Even Harold White was caught unawares. While overseas in late 1961 he was called upon to make a “sudden and difficult decision” about a much grander size estimate for the building and how much land would be needed. He was very glad to have advice from Dr Keyes D. Metcalf, an international expert on library planning, to ratify White’s estimates, based on his rapid consultations with staff at the British Library. Menzies had most certainly intervened!

Total proposed development showing [future] additional wings during original planning for size of land and building

Total proposed development showing additional wings during original planning for size of land and building  c. 1960, nla.obj-136827452

Towards the laying of the foundation stone

By 1962, the firm of Bunning and Madden under chief architect Walter Bunning had been appointed, the site was finalised, and on March 12 1963 Cabinet approved the working plans .

As the architectural concepts unfolded, the noble, monumental and classical style of the building was much in accordance with Menzies’ taste. His approval over the years of treasured collection acquisitions also betrayed his love for and interest in all things ‘classical’. In approving acquisition of the academic bibliophile Sir David Nichol Smith’s collection in 1962, for example, Menzies added a note in his hand: “As this is 18th century, I cannot say NO.” Menzies also had a hand in approving the art-works, including the commission for tapestries and sculptures for the building art.

The history of the design, the architectural plans and the building stages are well documented in the personal papers and records of the architects and the NCDC, though the sketches through the development phase are sadly lost. The architects’ report on their overseas travel to examine the finest monumental buildings in America informed their thinking. The Library’s functional requirements, the monitoring of collection growth throughout the period, the engagement of the expert consultant from Harvard, Dr Keyes D. Metcalf, the consultations and the commissioning are all part of the Library’s history that can be found and explored through the Library’s manuscripts, pictures and official records, most notably in Harold White’s and Walter Bunning’s personal papers. 

From the announcement of the architects and the public release of the model and drawings, the Canberra public became enthusiastically engaged in the new lakeside building, all glowingly reported in The Canberra Times. The commencement of excavations on 24 April 1964 was accompanied by an image of the hole: ‘Foundation work has started on the new National Library’. By 25 July 1964, the Canberra Times reported ‘Workmen yesterday began pouring concrete in the construction of the new National Library’. The building work must have started almost instantly after Doug Anthony announced the contract with the builders on 17 April, 1964. 

The building in progress, early 1966

National Capital Development Commission, The building in progress, early 1966nla.obj-147040235

By the laying of the foundation stone in 1966, the steel shell was in place, with five storeys above ground and two filling the space below. 

The steel shell of the building, five storeys above ground, June 1966

National Captial Development Commission, The steel shell of the building, five storeys above ground, June 1966nla.obj-147040387

Invitations were printed and sent; protocols and complicated lists of guests from all over Australia flowed between Parliament and the Library; arguments took place about seating plans, with Harold White indignantly relegated from the dais to the front row.

Invitation and Entrée Card, Foundation Stone Ceremony

Invitation and Entrée card for Bessie Rischbieth to Foundation Stone Ceremony, Papers and objects of Bessie Rischbieth, MS 2004, nla.obj-250831564

But on the day, hundreds of excited individuals gathered for a momentous celebration, to the plaudits of all.

The Foundation Stone celebrations in the unfinished foyer

The Foundation Stone celebrations in the unfinished foyer  1966, nla.obj-136760604

The official speeches by Doug Anthony, Prime Minister Harold Holt (based on speech notes sent by Harold White) and Sir Grenfell Price recount the context, the statistics, the epic story, the key players, all recorded in sound by the Library for posterity. Yet the day belonged to Menzies. After the event, the inner few retreated for an informal buffet dinner at the White’s home in honour of Sir Robert and Dame Pattie.

50 years ago was the half-way point towards completing the National Library building. But, for Menzies, it was the culmination of his own vision: a vision dreamed not only by librarians and scholars, but by a Prime Minister prepared to shape, guide and support his national monument, his testament to the importance and value of knowledge, worthy of a national capital and on behalf of his nation.


I wish to acknowledge the assistance of former Manuscripts Librarian Graeme Powell in the research for this article.

Papers, records, photographs and publications

  • Papers of Sir Robert Menzies, 1905-1978, nla.obj-233710278
  • Papers of Sir Harold White 1926-1990, nla.obj-247071683
  • Papers of chief architect Walter Bunning 1932-76,
  • Papers of Sir John Overall 1949-1994, nla.obj-246139582
  • Records of Bunning and Madden, 1961-1988, nla.obj-246194188
  • Records, photographs and publications of the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) including cartographic materials in 1959 and in 1962
  • minutes of the National Library Council
  • Richard Clough and Australian Overseas Information Service. 1909, Collection of slides illustrating the design, construction and landscaping of Lake Burley Griffin and adjacent national areas of Canberra, ca. 1909-1981, nla.obj-143689661
  • National Capital Development Commission. Collection of photographs showing construction work at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1966, nla.obj-147040224

Oral histories

  • Sir John Overall interviewed by Mel Pratt in the Mel Pratt collection, 1973,
  • Harold White interviewed by Gavin Souter, 1984, nla.obj-215419490
  • Harold White interviewed by Peter Biskup , 1988,
  • George Clark interviewed by Jan Lyall, 2008,
  • Dan Sprod interviewed by Peter Biskup, 1988,
  • Doug Anthony, Prime Minister Harold Holt and Sir Robert Menzies speak at the laying of the foundation stone of the National Library of Australia, 1966, nla.obj-193014697