Meet Your Local FM: State Library Victoria’s Anthony English on the purpose of one of Melbourne’s founding institutions

by Helena Morgan
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When attending a concert at a theatre, passing by the local PCYC, moseying around an art gallery or museum, or experiencing child-like wonder at the zoo, have you ever stopped to ponder who is in charge of the management and operations of this bustling and beloved facility?

This year, Facility Management launches a new editorial series called ‘Meet Your Local FM’, where we talk with the facilities and operation managers, technical service and safety operators, and sustainability officers of iconic Australian institutions.

We’re diving deep to reveal a facility’s inner mechanics, along with the who and how of what it takes to keep these special spaces running so smoothly. We’re putting a face to a facility and debunking any assumptions surrounding this essential profession which many don’t know a lot about.

The writhing and heaving and colourful city of Melbourne is known for many things.

Obviously, the garden state’s capital city is inseparable from its coffee culture and unshakeable pride in being the sports centre of Australia. Melbourne also takes the cake for the largest operating tram network in the world and last year received the honourable moniker from the Economist Intelligence Union of the world’s third most liveable city.

However, a possibly unknown attribute to boot is the State Library of Victoria’s (SLV) ranking as the third most visited library in the world. Nestled in the heart of the CBD, the SLV encompasses 23 separate buildings and boasts an impressive and rich inventory of more than five million items – and counting – that includes two million books, journals and magazines, and thousands of newspapers. 

Christmas Projections on State Library Victoria for City of Melbourne and What’s On Melbourne, 2023. Photography by Adam Reynard.

A facility that keeps you thinking 

Established in 1854 as the ‘people’s university,’ the SLV’s purpose has altered over the years, now welcoming diligent students and workers, people determined to seek ancestry answers, and visitors just wanting to marvel at the space’s tranquillity, serenity and architecture. 

The SLV’s property manager Anthony English is delighted by the evolution of the library’s purpose. “I think the library has opened itself up to be more accommodating to a broader range of people – it’s now a hub of activities,” says English. 

While managing 23 buildings with a hefty maintenance “footprint” is challenging, English appreciates how the SLV’s changing purpose allows for experimentation in property management. “The library keeps you thinking, that’s for sure,” says English.

Hearty and mighty team

English has been with the library for 29 years and has worked on two major redevelopment projects, yet he has no formal qualifications in facilities or property management. His career trajectory has been characterised by constant learning and accepting opportunities that piqued his curiosity – a process of keeping his eyes and ears open. 

“My path was never a case of being deliberate and thinking this is where I want to go,” he says. 

La Trobe Reading Room, Dome balcony. Photography by Cameron Murray.

An industry start in a facilities operation kickstarted a progression to project management in infrastructure projects. “I dealt with a range of professionals – architects, quantity surveyors, building surveyors and structural engineers,” says English. 

This exposure to multi-industry collaboration contributed to English developing an appreciation for the strength of a team and all the moving parts necessary to galvanise a project into action. 

His role as SLV’s property manager largely involves discussions and information sharing with subject matter experts which makes his job innately collaborative. 

This reality shatters the assumption that a property or facilities manager is a lone wolf, as English places trust and faith in the expertise of his team, and feels privileged to “guide” and action requests.

The only certainty is variety 

A front-runner for a facilities management official slogan is that no two days are the same. Apart from meetings and maintenance duties, there is constant variety in English’s days.

For example, one day can be structured around waiting for a VIP to arrive, while another is absorbed by plumbing issues, meetings with Heritage Victoria or hashing out fire safety procedures with the building surveyor.

Tracie D. Hall lecture – Dangerous Ideas: The Right to Read Freely. Photograph by James Braund.

Additionally, every SLV department is involved in a property management decision. “We’ve got a conservation team, exhibitions teams and front of house – we cross over to essentially all departments,” says English.

Maintaining public-facing image

When addressing myths about property management, English believes the general public may be limited by a distorted understanding of the industry. The tireless efforts undertaken behind the scenes are often eclipsed by the wonder and magic of the library.

“The majority of people who come into our building only see all the shiny stuff – the bright lights and exhibitions,” says English. 

He believes the finer details and inner mechanics unbeknownst to the public are what distinguishes a well-functioning facility from an inefficiently operating facility, and this belief further motivates English to sustain the library’s pristine and presentable public image.

“The library is a draw card for the city as it’s such a beautiful building. We want to share it with people because buildings like this are not made anymore,” says English.

Modifying how we use spaces 

The large task of managing 23 buildings is enhanced by the fact that each building has a different purpose.

“You’ve got to be able to modify your systems and the way you use spaces,” says English.

For English, a tenet of facility management is possessing an acute understanding of the space, in addition to effectively executing the objectives and purpose of the space. He also cites a rewarding challenge in catering to the diverse users of a multi-purpose space and anticipating the needs of future users. 

“Working in a hybrid environment is sometimes difficult because there are competing priorities,” says English. The multi-purpose nature of the space renders an overarching maintenance strategy insufficient, as the SLV is not exclusively a museum, a gallery, a collection storage facility or a library, yet a combination of all four in one facility.  

However, each day is like a blank canvas for English and it keeps management interesting and stimulating. 

Kids Takeover Summer 2024 Circus. Photograph by Eva Gorobets.

Immersive and educational experiences 

The SLV is proud to play a part in facilitating the realisation of various values such as universal education, social justice, freedom of expression, sustainable communities, economic growth and participative democracy. 

English is inspired by the library’s witness to intense research, study and learning, alongside public fascination with the SLV’s extensive collection, staff expertise, programs and events. 

The levels of public engagement are dependent on the epoch and socio-political climate that may prompt fluctuations in visitation. Throughout the past two years, 2.07 million people visited the library, of which 79 percent of visitors were under 35 years old and 51 percent were from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

Visitors can book a meeting room or studio, make use of the online databases that have access to platforms such as JSTOR, ProQuest and Pressreader, partake in storytelling workshops and catch exhibitions such as the recent The Rest Is Up To You: Melbourne Fringe Festival 1982-2062.

Other SLV staples include sneaking a peek at Ned Kelly’s armour, the Jerilderie Letter and a 4000-year-old clay tablet from modern-day Iraq inscribed in cuneiform, one of the world’s earliest forms of writing. The Redmond Barry Reading Room is home to librarians ready to answer any and all questions. 

In-person and online visitors are also able to immerse themselves in the copyright-free database search that contains high-resolution advertising posters, vintage postcards, maps, architectural drawings, photos and audio files. 

Winter Kids Takeover 2023. Photograph by Jarrod Barnes.

Performing maintenance on heritage buildings 

English explains how although some of SLV’s buildings were constructed only 25 years ago, the entire library is bestowed with heritage status. Maintenance is guided by a conservation management plan prone to constant amendment and reworking.

“The whole site is deemed to be of heritage value”, he says. “The conservation management plan allows us to identify the types of work that we can do without impacting the heritage value.” Maintenance and management on heritage buildings inevitably produces a ripple effect – if you’re doing maintenance in one area, it affects work carried out in an adjacent area. 

And while English admits that there are difficulties in managing a building drenched in heritage value, such challenges encourage the team to achieve outcomes in different ways. 

As with many cultural facilities profiled in Facility Management, the SLV is never “shut down,” says English. Maintenance tasks are not exclusively conducted during the 10am to 6pm opening hours, yet require completion before and after hours. Additionally, property   management involves preparing for nighttime events such as the upcoming Evening with Anne Enright and Art After Dark. 

La Trobe Reading room. Photograph by Cameron Murray.

Privy to intimate displays of human nature

English has many highlights over his almost 30-year career at the SLV, namely working on two major redevelopment projects. When he began working at the SLV, the facility was in the midst of a redevelopment project that started in 1990 and eventually finished in 2007 and involved renovations of existing buildings and the construction of new spaces. 

Vision 2020 – which involved renovating 15 of SLV’s spaces – saw English function in a manner akin to a messenger between departments. “I was heavily involved in the interaction between the library operations and the construction program, which was fascinating,” he says.

La Trobe Reading Room. Photograph by Cameron Murray.

For English, working at the SLV is a fruitful and surprising exercise in observing human nature, and seeing how people coexist in a historically rich and dynamic multi-use space.

“It’s always interesting to see how people do things – everyone’s got their own style,” says English.

The days range from quiet to busy and filled with impromptu meetings and quickly lending a hand, hotly anticipated events and flurries of excitement. Although English has the official title of property manager, he is grateful for the many cogs in the management and maintenance team of Australia’s oldest library. 

Photography supplied by State Library Victoria unless stated otherwise.

Lead Image: SLV property manager Anthony English.

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