Seven floors below Macquarie Street inside a secure vault are rows of rolling storage racks holding a trove of more than 1200 paintings dating back to the earliest years of colonial settlement.
There's an early Brett Whiteley of a wide-eyed beauty thought to be his mother, a bucolic rural scene bearing the signature of Eugene von Gu??rard???, portraits of emancipated convicts and a re-imagining of the death of Captain James Cook by John Webber, a rendition of which is carried in high school history texts.
The collection does not always represent the finest works of our age. Superior masterpieces can be sometimes found across the Domain from the State Library of NSW at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Dr John Vallance, the State Librarian, adores many of them as pieces of "documentary art", the 18th and 19th century equivalent of the press photograph if you like, for the way they individually and collectively humanise Australia's vibrant social history. Until his October appointment they had never been on permanent show.
Libraries have long been regarded as hallowed places of high literature, vellum and parchment, and little else.
But the personable former headmaster of Sydney Grammar School is determined to expand our perceptions of what a library looks like. From this temperature-controlled catacomb he is bringing out of storage the library's unique holdings of landscape and portrait paintings.
'Eviscerate' is the catch-all word he uses for his renewal plans to turn the library's collection "inside out". The library's most remarkable treasures, among them the First Fleet diaries, letters from Australian soldiers on the Western Front, a world map created at the beginning of the 18th century showing the western coastline of Australia, will also go on show for the first time in newly presented galleries in the Mitchell Building.
"What I want to try and do - with the expert help of my colleagues - is show people who live here where they came from physically because Sydney is very much a kind of knock-the-house-down-and-build-a-new-one type culture and we have very little idea, beyond myths in history books, of what lives were once like."
Vallance pulls out a painted scene of a high society picnic at Mrs Macquarie Chair with wealthy Sydneysiders splendidly dressed in wigs and hooped skirts, circa 1855. "It's what I mean by social history. I remember when Peter Corris started writing those detective pot boilers and what people loved was reading a book about their own city and places they understood."
Vallance walks about the underground repositories and the Mitchell stacks, the core of the library's research and reference holdings, with all the excitement of a child in a sweets shop. "I'm still learning. Everyday I set aside an hour or two to get into the stacks, I just prowl."
Retiring from Sydney Grammar after 17 years at the helm, Vallance was "going to be an artist and a gentleman scholar". "It was everything I ever dreamed of. Then one day I was working in my studio, feeling a bit lowly - I had been retired for six weeks - and I heard some steps coming up the drive and I thought, 'Oh good, someone's come round to visit'. It turned out it was a wallaby and I thought, 'If I'm feeling pleased when a wallaby comes to visit I need to get back into social life'. This job of State Librarian was advertised and I applied for it."
The new galleries are the library's first major building project in the Mitchell in more than 50 years, made possible by donations from major benefactors, including Michael Crouch, John B Fairfax, the Nelson Meers Foundation, Kim Williams, Rob Thomas in partnership with the NSW government. The project will make possible the return of the library's most beautiful heritage spaces as public space.
One of Vallance's first acts has been to introduce a new browsing section featuring the latest books reviewed in major journals. The busy bookstore is to be expanded to carry more contemporary titles. ''It's the book version of Imelda Marcos,'' Vallance says.
It wasn't so long ago that futurists were predicting the end of the library and indeed the book itself but both are proving stubbornly resilient. One million visitors came through the doors of the State Library of NSW in 2016, and Vallance is confident he can beat state government targets to boost visitation by 15 per cent over four years.
Increasingly, as fewer people attend church, and the bank manager lives in "the cloud somewhere", the library, says Vallance, is the one place were people can find a safe haven and be assured of a warm welcome. As a result, Vallance sees many, especially in regional areas, taking on the character of the old Schools of the Arts, morphing into places of cultural interaction and learning in addition to their traditional functions.
"When I was growing up one of the marks of the library, a school or a prison was that they all looked the same,'' Vallance says. ''What we are seeing now is a library growing up to reflect the needs of its own community. I've not been to a poorly used regional library. In Dubbo, Coffs Harbour, Tweed, Double Bay, Lane Cove or Fairfield the library is important whereever you go.''
Those quick to declare libraries on life support underestimate the very human need for social interaction, Vallance says: ''The whole area of education and libraries is undergoing a revolution we haven't seen since the time of Caxton and Gutenberg, it's that big. I'm in no way anti-technology but the fact of the matter is we are still people and we still have human social needs and human social intelligence is as important as anything else and that means you have to have physical contact, you have to have conversations with people.
''However good Kahn Academy is in helping you over the line with those quadratic equations you still need to know what it is like to talk to another human being, and you've seen here how social this library is. My school library was social. The boys were always playing poker I suspect but it was a place were you had to meet people. I'm a nerd and I felt comfortable in a library.''
Vallance is the son of the late Thomas Vallance, the world-renowned geologist and Australian historian of science, and grew up in a household of intellectual inquiry, books and high expectations. In the Reading Room of the Mitchell Library, Vallance studied the Higher School Certificate before heading to the University of Sydney and then to Cambridge University to complete his Phd and teach the classics. On the death of his father in 1993 he returned to Sydney and became the 11th headmaster of the prestigious private boys school.
At Grammar Vallance had an open-door policy to his students and fostered "courteous insubordination", the intellectual curiosity to disagree. It continues to irk him that students are unnecessarily patronised and not encouraged to think for themselves, a mistake he says he won't make with library users. "The short-term goal is to persuade everybody that the library has a potential relevance to their own lives because this idea that the library is for everybody is not empty rhetoric."
Prior to his appointment as State Librarian, Vallance served as a member of the Library Council of NSW, trustee of the State Library Foundation and director of the National Art School and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a reflection of his varied personal enthusiasms. He had a library built in his St Albans country retreat to house 10,000 books. His wife Catherine du Peloux Menag??, whom Vallance met in Cambridge, runs the St Albans Writers' Festival.
The couple have two boys, aged 26 and 22, both teaching or studying at university.
Vallance's home library comprises books from old classicists dating to the late 15th and early 16th century, as well as books from his father's and grandfather's libraries: "I was always eclectic. At 14 I was the youngest to get a radio ham licence in NSW. I played the harpsichord, but I did all these things as an amateur. I'm not claiming I was terribly good at them, but I absolutely loved doing them. My great dream was to be an artist but I never had the courage to sacrifice. I think artists are the most courageous people on the planet and I dream one day I may have the courage."
Vallance is a sculptor, seizing every spare moment to make steel kinetic three-dimensional structures based on life drawings. He also collects tractors. ''It's one of the reasons I enjoyed running a school and I love this job because in many ways it's the perfect job for someone with a focused patchwork range of enthusiasms.''
Each year Vallance sets himself the task of reading an old classic. He has just finished Moby Dick, a ''massive shaggy dog story all about the struggle of life'' and has rediscovered Dickens and Austen.The library is digitalising its records and making them available through its website but it is only through the original material, Vallance says, that we can feel "the living hand of the producer".
"A great library is a place where individuals and communities can find out who they are, where they are from and where they might be going. A great library introduces new generations to the pleasures of learning, exploration and reflection. A great library serves its readers, responds to their specific needs but never tells them what to think."