Trinity’s Old Library: ‘Ireland’s most beautiful room’ gets 21st century makeover

Pollution and dust have taking their toll on the collections and the fabric of the building

Trinity College Dublin has been rooted in the history and culture of these islands since it was founded by Royal Charter in 1592. Yet it is also an integral part of the modern Ireland that is confident in the education and skills of its people to meet the challenges of the future.

The Old Library is intrinsic to that narrative and has been a source of scholarship, inspiration and innovation for generations. Its world renowned treasures, including the Book of Kells and the Long Room, normally attract nearly one million people a year, making it one of the country’s most loved buildings.

Symbol of Ireland

It’s an absolute joy and privilege for me to work in one of the great libraries of the world which is the repository of so many riches including the Brian Boru Harp, the very symbol of the nation of Ireland.

Who could not but feel a shiver of delight walking into the Long Room, often called “the most beautiful room in Ireland”. Its soaring barrel-vaulted roof and wood-lined shelves are used regularly by Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland for their promotional campaigns globally. It’s in the Long Room that Trinity welcomes, on behalf of the people of Ireland, prime ministers and presidents, kings and queens, religious and other leaders from all around the world.


They get only a glimpse of the Library’s precious collections, numbering in the millions and spanning millennia, that have been in Trinity’s care for 400 years.

But we now face very significant conservation and environmental challenges. External pollution and dust accumulation are taking their toll on the collections and the fabric of the Old Library building. There is an urgent need to update environmental control and fire protection measures. The recent extensive fire damage to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the splendid Mackintosh Building in the Glasgow School of Art has, very sadly, underscored the urgency of this task.

Planning permission

This is why the planning permission to redevelop the Old Library, which was granted by Dublin City Council during the week, is so welcome. We have an exciting plan designed to safeguard the treasures for future generations. We know the development phase will cause some disruption but it will be worth it.

This historic redevelopment project will draw on the best 21st-century design and technology to safeguard the Old Library building and conserve its precious collections for future generations. It’s designed by the award-winning architects, Heneghan Peng who did such a wonderful job on the major conservation of the National Gallery of Ireland.

The plan includes urgent structural and environmental upgrades; and the redevelopment of facilities in line with the best library and museum experiences around the world. It will include the creation of a Collections Study Centre, a reimagined Book of Kells Exhibition, temporary gallery space and new visitor facilities.

We take our role as stewards of The Old Library very seriously. While conserving this magnificent 18th building and its collections, we will also make it more accessible to the Trinity community and public in an historic building reinterpreted for the 21st century. Trinity has made the Old Library Redevelopment Project, a centrepiece of our current philanthropic fundraising campaign, “Inspiring Generations”.

As a first phase of this ambitious project we recently completed the new Book of Kells display case and Treasury. It is a stunning display, presenting the Book as an exquisite jewel, combined with very technologically advanced protection measures.


I have been struck by the response of visitors to the new display at this time of pandemic and national unease. Someone wrote that it evoked a ‘sense of reverence’, while someone else suggested that it ‘raised the spirit of the nation’. The Book of Kells has come through Viking Raids and uprisings. Perhaps the long-term plans for the Old Library redevelopment can be seen as symbolising national resilience and rising above the immediate day-to-day challenges that we are all facing. The Book of Kells has survived 1,200 years and the Old Library has been a source of inspiration for nearly 400 years. We are working now to ensure that they persevere and flourish for the next centuries.

Helen Shenton is the Librarian and College Archivist at Trinity