The history of the University of Sydney Library spans over 110 years, and is interwoven with the University’s identity, scholarly pursuits and community. This year, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of our beloved Fisher Library. Take a look back through its history with us.
“Fisher Library is more than just a building; it’s a core part of the student experience and a symbol of the University of Sydney’s – and Australia’s – commitment to education and research.”Vice-Chancellor and President Mark Scott
Who was Thomas Fisher?
Born in Sydney in 1820, Thomas Fisher was the son of former convicts John Fisher and Jemima Bolton, who met whilst serving as assigned convicts in Parramatta. Upon his parents’ passing in 1832, Fisher was cared for by a friend of his father’s who was a bootmaker. By the age of 21, he had left school, become a bootmaking apprentice, and set up his own business – T. Fisher. Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Boot and Show Manufacturer – in Pitt St.
Fisher never married and went on to invest profits from his businesses in property. Living close by to the University of Sydney in Darlington, Fisher was known to walk through the University grounds and talk to staff and students.
Upon his passing in 1884, the University received £32,000 (equivalent of more than $3.5 million today) left in Fisher’s will for:
“establishing and maintaining a Library for use of the said University for which purpose they may erect a building and may purchase books and do anything which may be thought desirable for effectuating the objects aforesaid.”
This generous bequest makes Fisher the largest benefactor of the Library to date.
The original Fisher Library (now MacLaurin Hall)
Above: Construction of the interior of MacLaurin Hall, University Archives REF-00009928
By the time Fisher’s bequest was received, the need for a dedicated Library space was greatly apparent. Construction on this original Fisher Library commenced in January 1902 and took nearly eight years to complete.
The building’s architecture was created to complement the neighbouring Great Hall, which has been designed by Edmund Thomas Blacket, the official Colonial Architect to NSW from 1849 to 1854. Features include an awe-inspiring cedar roof, an ornate gothic stone facade, and seven-storey fireproof steel and glass bookstack. When Fisher Library opened in 1909, the Daily Telegraph proclaimed it to be:
“the finest piece of Gothic architecture in Australasia worthy of any institution in the world”.
At the time of its build, the original Fisher Library could seat 250 readers, about one-fifth of enrolled students at the time. It was thought that the building would be sufficient for many years to come. However, this was not the case.
Above: Fisher Library (now MacLaurin Hall) photographed some time before 1960, Library Collection
The need for a new Library building
Despite the sizeable investment and build of the first Fisher Library (now MacLaurin Hall), the demand for the Library outgrew the space by the 1950s. Following the post-WWII economic boom, and coinciding with the Menzies era, there was a palpable demand for education.
An unprecedented number of students – particularly ex-servicemen – enrolled at the University, and soon the Library was bursting at the seams. Undergraduate books were in short supply, the reading room was crowded and noisy, and staff were overwhelmed.
By 1954, the University’s Senate recommended that the construction of a new Library be prioritised. They estimated a cost of £1,000,000, which they submitted in 1956 to the government’s Sir Keith Murry’s Committee of Enquiry into the Future of Australian Universities. It was agreed that the cost was to be covered by the Federal and NSW Governments in equal share.
Above: Fisher Library – Perspective Drawing – View from Quadrangle Front Lawn, University Archives REF-00088260
The University Librarian from 1959 to 1962, Dr Andrew Osborn, campaigned vigorously to transform the Library. Although born in Australia, Osborn had spent most of his professional life at the Harvard University Library, the largest university library in the world. Osborn’s vision for a new Library building reflected his knowledge of modern library design in the United States.
This was a radical departure from the gothic and ornate identity of the original Fisher Library. Whilst the new building contributed significantly to Osborn’s vision of a contemporary research library, he was disheartened by the University’s ongoing operational funding. He resigned before the building was completed to pursue another passion – education for librarianship.
Above: foundations of Fisher Library with structural steel installation, January 1961. Rare Books and Special Collections, 378.994S M.Li 302.
Above: Library staff and Fisher Library architects. University Librarian Andrew Osborn pictured third from the right. Rare Books and Special Collections, 378.994S M.Li 302.
A revolutionary new Fisher Library (our current building)
The new Fisher Library was designed by joint architects Ken Woolley (NSW Government Architect Office) and Tom O’Mahoney (O’Mahoney, Neville and Morgan), and was one of the most significant and successful public architectural projects in Sydney in the 1960s.
After a period of planning and design in 1958-59 the work on Stage 1 commenced. This first stage encompassed the horizontal five-storey undergraduate wing, which was competed at the end of 1962 and officially opened on 6 September 1963. The second stage, which encompassed the vertical nine-storey stack was completed between 1964-1966.
Left: Two first year arts students, Patricia Finlay and Anne Bevis, stand out the front of the Fisher Library stage 2 construction sign, October 1965. Rare Books and Special Collections, 378.994S M.Li 302.
Right: Construction of Fisher Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, 378.994S M.Li 302.
As gothic and ornate as the original Fisher Library had been, the new building is markedly mid-century modern. The building features open floor plans and minimal ornamentation, with large surfaces of pre-oxidised extruded bronze (as featured across the exterior of the Library stack) and sandstone (sourced for its colour from Piles Creek Quarry). At the time of its construction, it boasted interior advancements such as rubber floor tiles and the largest reverse-cycle air-conditioning plant in Australia.
“The Fisher library is probably the first major university library in the world planned simultaneously, yet separately, for both undergraduates and the senior scholars. It had been designed for construction in stages so that the building can grow as the need for book storage and accommodation grows.”New Fisher Library. (1963). Architecture in Australia, (December), 71.
The new Fisher Library also featured specialist spaces for a new age, such as lounges, photocopiers, and the highly popular music listening area. Located on level 4, students could use headphones to listen to any of several thousand LP records. The roof terrace was also a popular space for students to relax and, after a successful student-led campaign in 2022, it will re-open later this year.
Above: students in the music listening area, 1970s, Library Collection.
“What would be without Fisher Library? It was the place to gather on the rooftop. I had my first kiss there. Romantic memory. It was the place we studied together… We met to plot and plan everything from cappuccinos to anti-apartheid marches. I did both”.Susanne, alumna
The new Fisher Library revolutionised the academic and student experience, bringing education out of the gothic and traditional space of MacLaurin Hall and into the post-war modern world. The building won both the RAIA Sulman Award and the RIBA Bronze Medal in 1962, making it the only University building to win such prestigious awards to date. The building also went on to be heritage listed in 2008.
Above: Fisher Library at night, 1972, Library Collection.
Above: View of the Fisher foyer from level 4, 1980s, University Archives REF-00088230
Above: Students using the new online card catalogue in the reference area on Level 3, Fisher Library. Rare Books and Special Collections, 378.994S M.Li 302.
The future of the Library
Since its opening in 1963, Fisher has been the go-to space for students and academics to study, research and gather. In addition to scholarly endeavours, Fisher is the meeting place for protests and rallies, as well as love and friendship.
I was working in Acquisitions in 1965 when a mutual friend brought in a fellow university research assistance and introduced us in the Accessions Room… We have now been married for over half a century.”Judy, former Fisher Library staff
A lot has changed since the 1960s – the telephone booths and music listening area are no longer in use – but spending time in Fisher has remained a quintessential part of the University experience ever since. In 2023, Fisher Library alone receives 5,802 average daily visitors.
Above: Fisher Library, 2023, photo by Sarah Lorien
Above: Students in Fisher Library, 2023, photo by Matthew Vasilescu
The Library has also expanded to 13 sites across Camperdown campus, the Conservatorium of Music and Camden Commons. The Library facilitates not only academic research but also has dedicated TechSpaces for ideation and creation with 3D printers, CNC router and workshops on topics such as generative AI.
The Library’s collections have also expanded online, including Digital Collections and the Sydney eScholarship Repository (which has had over 1.5 million downloads in 2023). Continuing in the direction set by the new Fisher Library of enriching student life, the Library now has dedicated Peer Learning Advisors and runs year-round events including Welcome Week and Exam Ready programs.
Fisher Library has adapted and changed in accordance with academic needs as well as student profiles. It has provided consistent and flexible services to students, scholars and the general public during extended hours and in a vibrant and reflective environment. I am sure that Fisher will continue to hold a special place in generations to come.Philip Kent, University Librarian
Above: Library staff, 2023, photo by Sarah Lorien
60th anniversary celebrations
To celebrate Fisher Library’s 60th anniversary milestone, we invite you to join us for a range of celebratory events on Monday 6 November 2023 including Reflections on Fisher: the history, significance and life of our Library seminar, exhibition displays across the Library, drop-in printmaking on the Piscator Press, display of our rare book anniversary acquisition, and a rooftop afternoon tea and cake cutting.
Docomomo Australia. (2023). Fisher Library. Viewed on 25/10/2023 https://docomomoaustralia.com.au/fisher-library-1962-nsw/
Howells, Trevor (Ed.) (2007). University of Sydney Architecture, 77.
New Fisher Library. (1963). Architecture in Australia, (Dec.), 71-75.
Redford, N. A. (2006). Accommodating the University Library. Record: The University Archives, 15-18.
Shipp, J. (Ed.)(2009). The Fisher Library Centenary, 1909-2009. https://www.library.sydney.edu.au/about/uslhistory/downloads/FisherCentenary2009.pdf