An invitation to a hoarder's fantasy

Tue, Jul 19, 2011, 01:00

Only one per cent of the National Library’s eight million items – including rare books, etchings and maps – is properly stored. But a massive restoration project called Clean Sweep plans preserve 50,000 titles and the public is invited to watch

IN THE musty west wing of the National Library, nicknamed “the chimney” for its potential to go up in flames, a crisis quickly becomes apparent. There’s not enough storage space, many books are filthy or falling apart and there is plenty of back-catalogue work still to be done.

From first-editions of James Joyce’s Ulyssesto a copy of The Idiot’s Guide to Irish History and Culture, it’s all here, but the conditions are such that 10 previously unknown letters written by Sir William Orpen, one of Ireland’s greatest painters, were found in a box of solicitors’ papers last December. “There are eight million items and less than one per cent is stored appropriately,” says Fiona Ross, the library’s director. “So much of what we have in the National Library is invisible. People don’t know what we have. We don’t even know what we have. Ironically for a library, there is no data. Wedon’t know how many times people have requested these books. We’re working on paper dockets and after 134 years, they’re still being thrown away at the end of the day.

“And if you don’t know how much interest there is in any given book, how can you know if you’re storing it properly?” Beginning today, the public will be granted a peek at the National Library’s “Clean Sweep” project: a much-needed operation to clean and preserve iconic and rare books dating from the early 1600s onwards.

By December, over 50,000 titles will have been cleaned and sealed into tailor-made protective boxes and transferred to a purpose-built storage facility – if one can be funded. If not, the books will have to be shipped out to rented storage facilities around the M50.

“We’re a Cinderella institution in some respects,” says Ross, who speaks quickly and passionately in the kind of hushed tone befitting a library. “Because we don’t have the visitor numbers and because it’s seen as academic or a little bit elitist, we have suffered. Obviously, that’s not fair. We’re the custodians of the nation’s memory. We have all the paper, the photographs, the maps and we continue to collect it all on behalf of the nation. It needs to be stored properly but it’s not.”

For 10 years, there was a plan for a book depository. It was on the agenda every year but even in the boom times, it just didn’t get the funding. Ross, a former stockbroker who took over as director in March 2010 knowing the mammoth challenges she’d face, reluctantly admits that the library never pushed its case hard enough.

As Ross glides through rooms and floors, at pains to point out exposed wiring and the potential views and spaces going to waste, we come to her least favourite part: pointing out where the proposed depository would have gone. It’s a small car park behind the library’s other building at 2-3 Kildare Street, where rare manuscripts are being stored as a temporary and emergency measure. Directly opposite is a huge, privately-owned office block that lies empty. “Believe me,” she says with a sigh, “I fantasise about using it all the time.”

To wander through the darkened rooms, overflowing with pages and boxes, is to step into a hoarder’s fantasy. Though Ross says that the library falls far short of BS5454 (the British Standard for the preservation of archival material), its sense of purpose is palpable. Two kilometres of shelf space are added each year, designed to hold items such as Martyn Turner cartoons and information leaflets that most people would throw out; each item kept for its potential value in hundreds of years’ time.

Downstairs, a team of four in white lab-coats and latex gloves are going through their daily target of cleaning, restoring and preserving 200 books. They’re eight weeks into the Clean Sweep process and the small, blood-red trustees’ room is crammed with trolleys and cleaning stations.

Giada Gelli, an Italian preservation assistant, is carefully dusting titles from 1842-53, some faded and sooty, some with a split spine held together with white ribbon. Once each title has been surveyed, catalogued and measured for a custom-fit cardboard casing, it will become a “happy book”: cleaned, re-housed and sitting behind a caged shelf.

From 2pm to 4.30pm each weekday, visitors can get a close-up glimpse of a trophy title having its lifespan extended or ask the team about how to preserve their own precious collections in danger of deterioration. Forgotten treasures are guaranteed to be discovered along the way, though the risk of accidentally causing irrevocable damage is just as constant.

“It’s inevitable with such old material,” says conservator Nikki Ralston, who is overseeing the project. “But the staff are well-trained, they’re sensitive to the process and there’s actually a great sense of ownership involved. You’ll often hear us refer to the collections as ‘the gifts, the gifts’ and just to go through it all is such an exciting opportunity. We’re uncovering a gem each day and keeping a blog of what we find because we want to get that sense of discovery across to people.”

Ralston nods at two preservation assistants in the corner delicately leafing through newspaper cuttings from the Irish Civil War, kept for surveillance measures by British security forces in Dublin Castle. “You see little notes like ‘removed for libel trial’ and you realise how tantalising these little pieces of history can be.”

See nli.ie