Friday, June 22, 2012

Libraries of Dublin

The image above is of the cages for readers at Archbishop Marsh’s Library, still looking much as they did in 1701.  The skull adds a nice touch, don't you think?
Our recent trip to Ireland turned out to be something of a busman’s holiday for my librarian husband and me.  In Dublin, we made the obligatory trip to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, but we also visited the National Library of Ireland, Archbishop Marsh’s Library, and the Chester Beatty Library; these three libraries, also in Dublin, are not a typical tourist destination (i.e., we saw no tour buses parked outside), but are well worth a visit even if you're not a librarian.  

The National Library of Ireland is housed in a stunning nineteenth-century building, one of the good things the English did for Ireland, as a guard told me.  The reading room is very handsome, but the collection is very much out of date, and the whole facility is in need of updating and sprucing up.  Not surprisingly, there are many sources, both print and online, for genealogical research.  In the ground-floor gallery, there was a major, comprehensive exhibit devoted to William Butler Yeats, one of Ireland’s greatest poets.  I wish I had had more time to devote to it. 
To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with Trinity College.  We waited in line about twenty minutes to buy tickets so that we could see the Book of Kells, which I hear is not bad compared to the waiting time in high season.  There is an exhibit in the space leading up to the case where the Book of Kells is displayed, but it was so crowded that it was difficult to see, let alone read, the signage.  The display case itself isn’t particularly well designed to facilitate traffic, and there was a huge cluster of people leaning over the Book of Kells; between the crowds and the (appropriately) low lighting, it was hard to see much.  Nor could I linger as long as I would have liked.  It was, however, a thrill to see the actual physical volume which embodies so much history. 

We then proceeded upstairs to the Long Room of the Trinity College Library, and were treated to a special exhibit on the history of the Old Library, which was founded in 1592 by charter of Queen Elizabeth.  Rare books and manuscripts that are significant to the development of the collection of the Old Library are on display, as are artifacts relating to the construction of the Library.  Most of the visitors didn’t linger over the display cases, so we had a chance to look around and talk to the very friendly guards, who were proud of the beautiful facility where they worked and happy to answer our questions.  For instance, we learned that starting in 1845, all of the Library’s porters (i.e., shelvers) had to take an oath before a magistrate that they would safeguard the collection.  The porters started out as cleaners in 1708, but in 1732, when the Library moved into its new building, the porters assumed new duties pulling books for readers, reshelving, and supervising readers who had to sit in certain designated areas in the Long Room.  At first, readers sat in bays between the windows, but eventually, large tables were installed in the middle of the Long Room, and this is where readers had to sit.  According to a regulation promulgated in 1842, only the porters were allowed to retrieve books for readers.  All of the readers had to be registered, and they too had to take an oath that they would handle the materials with care.   

Trinity College Library began to experience space issues fairly early in its history, and the problem was exacerbated when it became a legal depository library in 1801, a status it retains today; Trinity College receives a copy of every book printed in Ireland and the United Kingdom and it has the largest collection of any library in Ireland.  To deal with the space constraints, James Henthorn Todd (1805-1869), the visionary library director and respected scholar, devised what I think might be the earliest version of compact shelving of at least the earliest of which I am aware.  Todd removed the tables between the window bays in the Long Room and installed bookcases in the space; these bookcases were hinged and swung out on metal tracks, allowing storage of twice the books in the same space.  Some are still operational and in use today.  Another way space was conserved was shelving books by size, oversize books at the bottom, smallest books on top, just as is done today in mass book storage facilities.  Todd is known for several other accomplishments in addition to his ingenious shelving innovation.  It was he who turned Trinity College into a major research library and expanded readership beyond the College itself.  He appointed catalogers and asked foreign scholars to assist the catalogers in their work.  In fact, Todd considered his greatest achievement to be the printed catalog of the collection.  Librarians who visit Trinity College Library should be sure to visit the gift shop, which is full of library-related merchandise and has a robust online presence.

Archbishop Marsh’s Library was built in 1701 and was Ireland’s first public library.  Because the Library was founded by a clergyman, it is not surprising that its collection (about 25,000 books, most from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and about 300 manuscripts) is very strong in religious works.  However, it also includes books on medicine, law, science, travel, navigation, mathematics, music, surveying, and classical literature, some printed by the earliest English printers.  During our visit, digitization projects were under way in a public area, and we also saw conservation work being done on the premises.  What was particularly fascinating was the Library’s appearance—it has barely changed in over 300 years.  To quote the Library’s brochure,

The interior of the Library, with its beautiful dark oak bookcases each with carved and lettered gables, topped by a mitre, and the three elegant wired alcoves or “cages” where the readers were locked with rare books, remains unchanged since it was built three hundred years ago.  It is a magnificent example of a seventeenth century scholars’ library.  Originally many of the books were chained.  Each book had a small metal clasp attached to a chain on the end of which was a ring, which ran on a wooden rod attached to each shelf. 

We were the only visitors and this meant we could take our time, linger over the nicely displayed special exhibit (Marvels of Science), and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.  Archbishop Marsh’s Library is near St. Patrick’s Cathedral and was used by Jonathan Swift when he was Dean of St. Patrick’s; he also served as governor of the Library.  Marsh’s Library has a small exhibit devoted to Swift, which features his death mask and other memorabilia, as well as first editions of A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels, and complements what is on display at St. Patrick’s.
Finally, we visited the Chester Beatty Library, which is part of the Dublin Castle complex and housed in a renovated eighteenth-century building.  Beatty (1875-1968) was a wealthy American industrialist who moved to England and later settled in Ireland.  Beatty collected widely, including manuscripts, early printed books, icons, miniature paintings, stamps, and snuff bottles as well as other objets d’art.  Like J.P. Morgan, Beatty wanted to buy only the best, and had the money to do it.  I was particularly interested in the first-floor gallery devoted to the Art of the Book, which includes a large collection of Korans, Chinese jade books, which are extremely rare, Japanese scrolls, illuminated manuscripts ,and early printed books, as well as superlative Old Master prints.  The second-floor gallery is devoted to Sacred Traditions, and the focus is on religious books and manuscripts from most of the world’s major belief systems.   Everything was impeccably presented, with helpful labels in English and Gaelic that provide context and history for each object.  There is an attractive gift shop and a café that seemed very popular.  Visitors have money to spend because admission to the Chester Beatty Library is free.

For two librarians, Dublin provided a wealth of riches, much more than we had anticipated.  It also offered great theatre, good food, and stunning Georgia architecture to admire on our rambles.   

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

I just enjoy your posts like this so much, Marie! Thank you!