It’s time to reopen Fisher Library’s rooftop courtyard

There is a rooftop courtyard above Fisher Library, and the University won’t let you hang out there.

Fisher Library’s mid-century design has embraced generations of students, serving as one of the few common grounds for an increasingly fragmented University experience. To our University, its construction was a symbol of modernity, innovative and highly intentional. Moving the library from its old home in Maclaurin Hall and into a purpose-built structure signalled a shift away from the traditional sandstone University, which modelled itself off English institutions and centred around a singular quadrangle. Instead, the new Fisher Library would represent a modern Australian institution – one with a sprawling campus and an identity of its own. This library would have modern features to match: photocopying services, a book stack, and a rooftop courtyard.

On a rainy afternoon in March last year, while sitting in level 8 of the stack, I looked out through the narrow windows over a quiet campus clouded by rain. In this extended window-staring procrastination, I noticed what looked to be benches on the rooftop of the main library building. At further glance, it seemed there was a small balcony-edge around the rooftop. Spurred by childlike curiosity, my friend Thomas and I sprinted down the stairs to level 5, where all assumptions were proven correct. Crowning Fisher Library is a perfect rooftop balcony, with magnificent views of campus, Glebe and the city. But it is locked. 

In the year or so since, I haven’t gone a week without thinking about Fisher Library’s hidden rooftop courtyard and the potential it holds. Constantly on my mind are the memories students have previously – and still could – form up there. The archival photos that do exist are tribute to this idealistic vision of a generation forming their own intellectual identity. There is a certain symbol in the unique youthfulness of smoking, reading, and conversing atop a place brimming with millions of stories as they create their own. These are the things we are missing out on. Be it a bar, a study space, or just a few benches, the rooftop’s placement above the singular campus building which is uniquely frequented by those from all over, means it could be the common gathering place our student body so desperately lacks.

I’ve also found that I’m not the only student to have dropped all study at the sight of those benches.

Like my predecessors, I have been desperate to know: why would the University close the doors to Fisher’s rooftop? I’ve hatched campaign plans to reopen it, been on countless drunk rambles about the many prospective usages, and begged just about everyone who I think might have even a sliver of information about why it was closed to fess up.

The first step to taking up the fight to reopen Fisher Library rooftop is deducing why it was closed in the first place. A deep dive of the internet would produce a few theories – only two seemed reasonable.

The most common theory – one I’ve heard by word of mouth – is that students used the balcony to throw special reserve books down to be caught by friends standing in Victoria Park, in order to avoid being restricted by fines and 24-hour borrow times. Not only did raining books pose a safety hazard (I’m told by a source that there were a few near-death experiences), but the loss of never-returned items was financially damaging for the Library. This problem presenting as insurmountable makes sense in 1963, when books were borrowed under a pen and paper system and students could hide them under their jackets. However, the University’s first electronic book detection system was installed in 1972. The overdue and obvious fix is to simply place a book scanner at the door to the rooftop.

Others say the rooftop was closed because balcony safety standards changed, and heritage regulations prevented the rooftop from being renovated to meet them. At first this seemed to be the most likely theory, but upon further investigation it’s insubstantial. Not only was the gold cladding of the stack installed a near decade after Fisher’s opening, significantly impacting the exterior, but the library has since undergone notable structural changes. What’s more, the Library isn’t even on the state heritage register.

This theory also doesn’t explain how my Dad was able to access the rooftop when he worked at Fisher in the early 1980s. He told me that he remembers it was always closed to students, however staff could get out there – he and his co-workers would use the rooftop to smoke cigarettes and organise secret union meetings to plan wildcat strikes without bosses hearing. It seems incongruent that the roof would be locked due to safety standards, yet remained accessible to staff for some years. Nonetheless, they seemingly can’t access it anymore –- perhaps Dad ruined it for them all.

For a university supposedly campaigning around the on-campus student experience, not modernising the Fisher rooftop is a wasted opportunity. Its safety risks, removed from the heritage myth, may be true to some extent – I was informed by a University spokesperson that it is currently closed because there are “concerns the space does not comply with Building Code of Australia requirements”. (No surprise considering it’s been void of maintenance for a number of decades).

The music listening area at Fisher. Published in 2009 in The Fisher Library Centenary.

However, it seems at best amiss of the University to completely brush off any thought of a renovation. From its perspective, the cost of raising the height of the balcony railing and laying fresh tiles on the ground is simply an asset loss. But this lens of a transaction is what’s destroying these student experiences: why must it matter that reopening the rooftop might not raise our employability if it enriches our time on campus?

In all the pub table discussions I’ve had about the infamous rooftop, there is a nagging sentiment that it will never be reopened – simply because it’s fun. Fisher Library was the first of its kind. Designed by Government architects, the library was intended to serve as a breakthrough, ushering in a new era of the student experience. Embedded in its purpose was an ability for students to recreate, due to a new understanding that with recreation came leisurely intellect and a more engaged cohort.

It’s why for the first 30 years of the library’s history, it included a highly popular music-listening area, where students could pick from thousands of vinyl LPs and use headphones to listen to them on communal turntables. In a history of the Fisher Library published by the University, the area was described as having “pioneered the provision of recreational facilities in a university library”. This is also why a rooftop courtyard was purpose- built, where students could converse, read, smoke – all the things the University now seems to want us to not have time for.

Another person I interviewed brought the rooftop up with her parents, who went to uni just before my Dad worked at the library. Her Mum recalled how the watchful eyes of the stack’s windows, which overlooked it, made “shenanigans” more challenging. Her Mum was also a highly successful scholar, having enjoyed a learning experience only enhanced by said shenanigans.

It’s clear the University doesn’t value libraries in the way they did when Fisher was designed: as an incredibly important symbol of leisurely intellect, accessible to all. Why shouldn’t students be able to read on a sunny balcony, with no particular agenda? I say it’s time to mobilise. We deserve the Fisher Library rooftop that too many generations have missed out on.