The State Library of South Australia is one of several major cultural institutions located along North Terrace, on what is often referred to as 'Adelaide's cultural boulevard'. The Library occupies an eclectic series of buildings, from the historic Institute Building (opened 1861), the Mortlock Wing (opened 1884) to the modern linking wing, the Spence Wing, which opened in 2003, replacing the 1960s Bastyan Wing. The library has a history as long as the Province of South Australia itself. Before they left England in 1836, a group of educated intending settlers formed themselves into a South Australian Literary and Scientific Association and amassed a collection of books to form the basis of a subscription library in their new home. There was a brief hiccup on arrival, when the iron trunk containing the library fell into the Port River during unloading. The books had to be left to dry out in a warehouse for two years, but remarkably they survived - a few water stains notwithstanding. In 1838 they were placed in the Adelaide Mechanics Institute, then housed in a wooden schoolroom on the North Parklands opposite Trinity (later Holy Trinity) Church. There they formed the nucleus of the first 'public' library. It is clear from the choice of books that this first library had serious educative intent. Not for these earnest gentlemen (there were no lady members of the Literary and Scientific Association) the passion for novels that was growing in Britain at the time! Alas for any readers looking for mere recreation, these were all 'improving' works. But over the years the collection expanded and works of fiction were acquired in response to public demand.
This early library was not 'public' in the sense that we use the term now. In 1842 the collection passed to the South Australian Subscription Library, an excusive group of some 120 elected members, who each paid 21 shillings per year (in advance) to access the library. In 1848 they amalgamated with a rival group, the South Australian Library and Mechanics Insititute. This group was open to everyone in theory, but the subscription fee of five shillings per quarter effectively kept the membership low. However by this time there was a growing sense that access to libraries should be free, and in 1856 the South Australian Parliament legislated to create the South Australian Institute to house the library collection. Designated premises were built on North Terrace (the Insititute Building, opened 1861) with the proviso that the public was to be allowed access, even if 'access' at this point was limited to the reading room and for limited periods only. Subscriptions were still levied for the right to borrow books. Similar organizations proliferated throughout the suburbs and in regional areas on the same basis, in a system that continued until the 1970s in some areas.
Moves towards the creation of a free, state-wide public library service began in earnest from the 1930s, but progress was slow. In the interim the State Library established a range of lending services, sending books to local institute libraries and making other collections available on site. These included the Country Lending Service (from 1938) and the Children's Lending Library (1954). The first free local library was established in the new suburb of Elizabeth in 1957, but it was not until 1978 that the state government adopted an eight year program to place public libraries in all local government areas, on a shared funding model with local councils. The State Library of South Australia retains its role as a reference library, but oversees the Public Library Service, which still 'circulates' books from the central collection to member libraries.