The Barr Smith Library is a memorial to Robert Barr Smith, who from 1892 bequeathed large sums of money to purchase books for the university library. After his death in 1915, the family made the maintenance of the library its concern.
Following his father, Thomas Elder Barr Smith became a member of the council in 1924 and offered £20,000 for a new library to relieve the congested state of the one in the Mitchell Building. He increased his gift to cover the expected building cost of £34,000.
Walter Bagot chose a classic style for the proposed library. The pamphlet describing the official opening of the Barr Smith Library stated: “The tradition that the mediaeval styles are appropriate to educational buildings dies hard; but it is dying. Climate is the dominant factor, and a mediterranean climate such as this should predispose us to a mediterranean, that is to say, a classic form of architecture.”
The design was influenced by those of Sir Christopher Wren for Kensington Palace and an addition at Hampton Court. Bagot brought his ideas back from England for adaptation to the local environment. The exterior was built in brick by H.S.C. Jarvis, and the Murray Bridge freestone portico was constructed by SA Monumental Works Ltd.
The decoration of the reading room was designed for restful effect. The “oak” furniture and parquetry were the deepest notes of a scheme that lightened gradually towards the ceiling. This was finished in tones of antique ivory and gold with a contrasting tint of soft green, itself an echo of the colour of the terrazzo frieze: “The detail of the acanthus and other plastic ornament with which the coffered panels of the ceiling are enriched has been heightened by a dark overglaze applied over a light ground, and then wiped off the highlights.”
Bagot intended that the facade with its portico facing Frome Road would head the main entrance into the university. The poplar trees in an avenue are a reminder of those plans.
The Barr Smith Library was officially opened by the governor Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven VC on March 4,1932.
Despite many additions to the complex since then, the main reading room is unchanged and its appearance is as calm and beautiful as ever, the decor, fixtures and fittings of the 1930s contrasting markedly with the severe utilitarian interiors of the more modern sections of the library.