As John Wylie AM ends his tenure as President of the Library Board of Victoria, we reflect on the impact he made on State Library Victoria and how his vision ensures that the Library will remain a cultural touchstone for generations to come.

The Ian Potter Queens Hall

A decade ago State Library Victoria was a vastly different place to what it is today – in look, feel and funding.  

That was before John Wylie AM took the reins as President of the Library Board of Victoria. With his last official day at the helm on 23 May 2021, after nine years in the position, we take a look at the enduring changes he’s instigated; changes that leave the Library well-placed to serve our diverse community now and into the future.  

Leading by example  

Labelled a ‘master negotiator’, Wylie was instrumental in raising the funds needed to realise the ambitious once-in-a-generation transformation of the Library that saw heritage spaces reimagined, public space increase by 40% and seating capacity increase by 70%. 

In initial conversations with the then leaders of the opposition, the Hon. Daniel Andrews and the Hon. James Merlino, Wylie expressed a big, bold vision alongside the sums showing what was needed to achieve it. The politicians agreed so amiably almost on the spot that Wylie, a self-proclaimed ‘financial-type’, left with just one question –‘Why didn’t I ask for more? 

By promoting an innovative public-private funding partnership model, Wylie was able to leverage funding for the $88.1 million Vision 2020 redevelopment project. The Victorian Government provided $60.4 million, with the remaining $27.8 million being sourced from philanthropists and charitable organisations.  

In addition to encouraging others to fund the redevelopment, and leading by example, Wylie and wife Myriam Boisbouvier-Wylie personally donated $8 million, which enabled the creation of a world-class exhibition space – Victoria Gallery and the Isabella Fraser Room (named after the Library’s first female employee). Their donation encouraged other philanthropic foundations and individuals to endow new and refurbished spaces in the Library. 

Kate Torney OAM, John Wylie AM, Myriam Boisbouvier-Wylie, The Hon Danny Pearson. Photo by SDP Media.

Raising aspirations and realising dreams 

State Library Victoria CEO Kate Torney said it wasn’t just securing the money that was Wylie’s greatest gift to the Library, it was making sure ‘that our aspirations were absolutely huge’. 

‘When John succeeded in reaching a deal with the state government which involved the Library raising one third of the $88m which was needed to realise the Vision 2020 aspirations, I think he might have overlooked that librarians and former ABC journalists don’t know how to ask for money. So he had to teach us,’ she said. 

Addressing the room at Wylie’s farewell function last Tuesday, Torney said he taught her and the team to dream big, be brave and to proudly stand tall as an institution which can count itself among the best in the world. 

By promoting an innovative public-private funding partnership model, Wylie was able to leverage funding for the $88.1 million Vision 2020 redevelopment project.

Under Wylie’s leadership, the Library exceeded the philanthropic funding target for Vision 2020 and has developed a fundraising capability and philanthropy support base which will benefit the Library well into the future. 

Nurturing a slow-cooked lamb 

Having served on the board of two of Melbourne’s greatest meeting places: the Melbourne Cricket Ground and State Library Victoria, Wylie mused on differences between the two iconic destinations: ‘It’s a bit like the difference between a big mac and a slowcooked lamb,’ he said.  

‘The MCG is your big mac; it’s instant gratification. You go down there and your team is going to win in the next three hours or you’re going to go home disappointed. Whereas the Library, as Paul Keating once famously said, it’ll do you slowly. It’s a great delicious dish. 

Both share a great sense of equality and a great sense of belonging when you’re there.’ 

But in another key difference Wylie argues no other cultural institution is as economically important as the Library for the 21st century knowledge economy and (when it recovers) the state’s number one export market, international education.  

‘Public organisations like these need to be nurtured and nourished. They can’t be taken for granted,’ Wylie said. 

An eye on the future  

As well as the refurbishment of the Library’s incomparable heritage spaces, Vision 2020 saw the creation of innovative new spaces for children and entrepreneurs, and the development of new services that meet the evolving needs of Victorians.  

Through Wylie’s role as Chair of the Vision 2020 Library Redevelopment Project Steering Committee, the Library acquired digital innovations to share experiences with audiences in regional areas and equip Victorians with the skills to master the digital technologies necessary for participating in today’s workforce and society.  

As a direct result of Wylie’s work through Vision 2020, the Library now can support and nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators, creators and leaders through new, dedicated spaces, programs, services and technology. 

With John and Myriam’s tireless support of the redevelopment of State Library Victoria, Melbourne’s position as a UNESCO City of Literature and its reputation as a world-class centre for culture, arts and events continues after Wylie’s presidency.  

Vision 2020 gives all Victorians a reinvigorated, world-class library that supports the social, creative and economic goals for all. It continues the State Library’s important work extending access and social equity to everyone allowing all to reach their full potential, reflecting the philosophy of the John and Myriam Foundation. 

Continuing a tradition of community empowerment through access to knowledge 

For more than 160 years, State Library Victoria has helped change millions of lives by providing free access to the world’s best knowledge and new creative technologies.  

When the Library’s inaugural Chair of the Board of Trustees, Sir Redmond Barry, opened its doors in 1856, he declared it to be the ‘people’s university’. Designed to be a ‘great emporium of learning’, a place of knowledge, creativity, enterprise and innovation. Under John’s leadership, the original vision has grown through his championing the need for universal access to information and leading a once-in-a-generation project to create spaces, programs and collections to be valued and loved by all in the community. 

With the combined efforts of the John and Myriam Wylie Foundation, State Government, philanthropists and community, State Library Victoria was opened on schedule and with additional public space to accommodate growing numbers of visitors, researchers, students, and Library members, thus, fulfilling John’s wish for access to world-class space, with excellent resources for all.  

New ways to connect with the Library  

The final piece in the Vision 2020 puzzle was put in place in March this year with the launch of the Library’s new membership program.  

With paid packages tailored for students, families and culture lovers joining the evergreen free Access membership, Library-users can now enrich their experience by accessing even more aspects of the Library.  

Benefits include VIP tours, talks and exhibition previews for culture-lovers, complimentary tickets to school holiday programs and special children’s author talks for families and value-added access to services for students. 

It’s not a new concept but much like the building’s physical transformation, it helps position the institution as a ‘Library for the future’. It takes the place of the Friends of the Library program which has been the only paid membership program for individuals for the past 55 years. 

It’s a new way for Victorians to support an institution dedicated to nurturing knowledge, curiosity and life-long learning.  

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