125 years of Dublin City Libraries 1884-2009

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Dublin City Library & ArchiveOpening of the Public Libraries. 
The Freeman’s Journal, Thursday, October 2, 1884.

"Yesterday, at four o’clock, escorted by mounted police and the mace and sword-bearer, with the insignia of their office, the Right Hon. The Lord Mayor M.P, opened at 100 Capel Street the first public library and reading room, under the Public Libraries Act of 1855, which has been built in Dublin ...At a quarter to five o’clock his lordship, accompanied by his private staff and the civic officers, and escorted as before, arrived at 23 Thomas Street, where the second free library [was] situated ..In declaring it also open ...he hoped that all would be found sitting side by side, furnishing storing their minds with that knowledge, the possession of which ensured success."

The beginnings of Dublin’s public libraries can be traced to the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act of 1855 which empowered councils of municipal boroughs and towns with populations in excess of 5,000 or more, to establish free public libraries and also museums or schools of science and, or art.

Significantly, the legislation was ‘enabling’, its implementation requiring the agreement of at least two thirds of the burgesses present at a public meeting called by the council. Something amazing happened in Dublin on the 19th March 1877. A large and prestigious gathering comprising the burgesses of the city came together in the Mansion House. They listened to the arguments put by Councillor Edmund Dwyer Grey in moving a motion that “The burgesses should resolve to tax themselves if they desired to have the Act put into operation.” and they agreed to do so.

So began a lengthy process leading towards the opening of Dublin’s first free municipal libraries at Capel Street and Thomas Street in October 1884.

Heralding a city council policy of social inclusion and intention to support learning for all, both fundamental to the philosophy underpinning the public library movement, the day of opening saw Lord Mayor, William Meagher, emphasising his enthusiasm for the establishment of the free libraries. They were to be for “every class” and the only test for admission should be in “a decent exterior and becoming conduct”.

The scene was set for a public library system in Dublin which has developed in 2009 from those small, ‘book only’ beginnings in converted tenement houses, to a network of city-wide service points equipped with modern technologies and to a virtual service environment which could not have been imagined in the Dublin of 1884.

The story of evolution has had many chapters including those related to buildings, to collections and people, to be detailed elsewhere. But critically, the most significant chapter is that ever re-occurring one in which Dublin’s library service has continued to develop its services in accordance with the needs of its citizens of all ages, educational levels and social status, for learning opportunity.

Through books and modern media, through extending access to the global knowledge base and through complementary programming, it continues to make a difference in the lives of Dublin’s citizens. In noting that in 2009, the year of its 125th anniversary, it attracted over two million citizens to its services, it is appropriate to record our thanks to those burgesses of 1877 Dublin who had the vision to set in motion the evolution of what Thomas Davis described, as our public “university of the people”.

Deirdre Ellis-King

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