A remarkable chapter: Trinity College Library Dublin – A History

A former librarian of the university brings the past of his great library to life

Masterpiece: the Long Room. Photograph: Design Pics/Perspectives/Getty

Masterpiece: the Long Room. Photograph: Design Pics/Perspectives/Getty

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Trinity College Library Dublin: A History


Peter Fox

Cambridge University Press

Guideline Price:

In July 1967 I was close to completing my first year as a graduate student in English at Trinity College Dublin. On the 12th of that month, from a window of House 34 on New Square, I watched President de Valera arrive across the square to perform the opening ceremony at the college’s new library building (now known as the Berkeley Library).

I was of course aware that I was witness to an important moment in the college’s history, but I could have known nothing of the complex negotiations that had preceded the president’s presence, symbolic as it was of the State’s support for the college in a decade when Ireland seemed full of possibilities for new kinds of politics, north and south. It is one of the many virtues of Peter Fox’s fascinating new book that it pays close attention to the political contexts in which the library was required to conduct business since its foundation.

The story of how and why the State came to provide financial support for the construction of Trinity’s new library building in the 1960s is a fascinating one that throws light on why the Ireland of that period urgently needed a new kind of civic life. As Fox recounts it, plans had been afoot for some time to link the college’s library with the nearby National Library of Ireland. A new building on Nassau Street could be a shared resource.

The problem was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s refusal to allow Catholics in his diocese to attend Trinity. It was envisaged that a building could be designed to allow readers entrance to the National Library without the need ever to enter the college. When Taoiseach Seán Lemass raised the proposal with McQuaid, the archbishop effectively vetoed it. When Lemass carried this news back to Trinity it was probably, as Fox suggests, to sweeten such ill tidings that he indicated government willingness to help with the costs of a new library building in the college itself.

Such bizarre proceedings were as nothing compared with the machinations that, in the early 18th century, brought about state funding for the architect Thomas Burgh’s masterpiece in Library Square, with its famous Long Room.

In proof of loyalty (upon which funding depended) to the Protestant succession, the university was encouraged by the Protestant archbishop of Dublin to elect the prince of Wales as chancellor in 1716. By 1717, to ensure further funding of the building , the provost was forced into resignation and was replaced by “an avowed Whig”.

Fox’s book is by no means all high politics and statecraft (although it has its share of these). As is proper with the college’s former librarian and archivist, who retired in 2009 as librarian of the University of Cambridge, his primary concern is with books and manuscripts, their acquisition, storage, cataloguing and availability to readers.

Fox tells us that for the most part it is not purchases “that have made the library great but donations that it has received, either of important collections – Ussher, Gilbert, Fagel – or of individual treasures such as the Book of Kells”. On how important collections and treasures came into the library’s possession, Fox’s book is hugely informative and thoroughly researched.

Short of funds

Many problems related to how books were acquired. As a legal-deposit library entitled to receive a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and Ireland, it was confronted by the problems of how to ensure it received the books to which it was entitled and then of how to deal with that large number of books.

Of particular interest is Fox’s treatment of the topic of legal deposit and of the way, as copyright Act followed copyright Act, Trinity, along with other legal-deposit libraries in these islands, struggled to protect a status under attack from publishers.

Significantly, it was Irish independence that raised acute problems, as some publishers in Britain did not see why they were required to deposit books in a library abroad – which prompts the speculation that were Scotland to achieve independence the issue might be revisited.

By the early 20th century so many books were awaiting catalogue that the library was forced to give books away, some of them to hospitals and to troops fighting in South Africa. Many of these were undoubtedly novels, which, along with books for children, had always posed a problem for the library. Were they appropriate works for an academic library to hold?

A fear occasionally raised its head, indeed, that “undergraduates might spend their time in ‘useless reading or in the perusal of pernicious books’ ”. In the Victorian era a gift to the library of an American edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was declined as of “an obscene and immoral character”.

After the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 decisions of this kind were taken for the library by the Censorship Board. Thereafter, until a more liberal regime was established, banned books had to be placed in a special press and could be issued to readers only with the personal permission of the librarian.

It was during the conscientious librarianship of Herbert Parke (1949-65) that the problem of the legal-deposit backlog was most efficiently confronted. A typist was appointed to help list the 10,000 novels received since 1945. From 1951 a grant for such cataloguing was renewed annually, and by 1954 “entries for several thousand plays and books of poetry were now in the catalogue and over 10,000 cards had been produced for novels, children’s books and ‘The pamphlets’ ”.

As a student of English in the 1960s I benefited greatly from this essential work, for which I am grateful. As I am to all those who over four centuries helped to build the remarkable Irish institution so ably studied in this excellent book.

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