Dublin City Public Libraries 1884-2009 transcript

Printer-friendly version

The following is a transcript of Dublin City Public Libraries 1884-2009: 125 years of service to the community, a talk to commemorate 125 years of Public Library Service in Dublin City by Deirdre Ellis-King, Dublin City Librarian as part of Local History Day 26th September, 2009. Audio

Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode, 'Dublin City Public Libraries 1884-2009', Deirdre Ellis-King, former Dublin City Librarian, commemorates 125 years of Public Library Service in Dublin City.  Recorded in front of a live audience at Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street on 26 September 2009.

Good morning everybody, I'm delighted to see so many people here bright and early on a Saturday morning looking forward to hearing about libraries which is so much a part of all our lives as well as being dear to our hearts.

The public library movement is now such an accepted part of everyday life in Dublin City that it is difficult to believe that it did not always exist. Yet, as we celebrate 125 years of continuous public library service in Dublin City, it is appropriate to remind ourselves that the origin of the public library system, often referred to as, a ‘university of the people’, emerged not from government decision, national or local, but from the decision of Dublin’s citizens, themselves, at a particular point in time. It should not be taken for granted, as its endurance, emerging from enabling legislation, has been dependent on successive generations of citizens. The legislation, requiring local authorities to provide public library services emerged under the provision of the Local Government Act 2001. The story of Dublin’s free municipal library service is a lengthy and complex one, deserving of being treated in monograph rather than in short paper form. Given the time limitation on this occasion, I intend therefore focusing on the early beginnings of Dublin’s free municipal library system. The accompanying slides offer some visual extension of the subject. I hope they will point to the sense of purpose of those involved in the early beginnings.

Firstly, and briefly, the origins of Dublin municipal library service must be placed in the social and educational context of 1884 and of preceding and subsequent years. It was a time when poverty in the city was extreme, when housing conditions were appalling, when illiteracy was the norm. 1831 saw the setting up of the state primary school system, then perceived as a social and essential tool assisting industrial progress, through its policy focus on literacy and numeracy. That focus is understandable in that in 1841, some 53% of the population were judged illiterate. Progress can be presumed in statistical returns which show that by 1860, some 804,000 students were enrolled in the national school system, this having risen from a figure of 107,042 in 1833. But, bearing in mind, the social context of poverty, of home illiteracy, of the need for children to work in order to contribute to the family income, this seemingly satisfactory situation must be viewed in a context whereby, in 1870, only 30% of those enrolled, were in daily attendance. The appallingly low levels of educational attainment in the beginning and early stages of the 19th century therefore will have spurred the flames of the public library movement in a context where education was not simply desirable. It would have been as essential in 1884 to fuel the manpower wheels of industry and services in Dublin, as it is in 2009, to fuel the wheels of the contemporary knowledge based society.

The beginnings can be traced to 1855 and to the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act of that year 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, of art. Critically, adoption of the Act enabled the councils to levy a rate of not more than one penny in the pound in any one year for the purposes of implementing the terms of the Act. The adoptive nature of the 1855 Act was significant. This ensured that the Local Authority was obliged to put the proposal to establish a library to a public meeting of ratepayers of whom a two thirds majority of those present and voting, was required, to allow the Council to adopt the Act. Clearly, then as now, somebody had to pay. It is not surprising perhaps that the enthusiastic press response to the potential implied by the Act, was not paralleled by swift response from the eligible councils, including Dublin City Corporation, because, it was the Corporation, in effect, which had to secure ratepayer agreement to meeting the costs.

Following much discussion and arguments, however, the scene for the free municipal library in Dublin was set on the 16th February, 1877, when the Municipal Council, on the motion of Cllr. E. Dwyer Grey, (Home Rule MP and the owner of the Freemans Journal), seconded by Alderman Peter Paul MacSwiney, (a former Lord Mayor, nationalist and one of the largest drapers in the City, his business taken over by Clerys in 1883) adopted the resolution: “That this Council will afford the householders of Dublin the opportunity of deciding whether or not they desire to avail themselves of the provisions of the Free Libraries Act, 1855.” On the 19th March, 1877, a meeting was held in Dublin’s Mansion House. It was a large and prestigious gathering, chaired by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Hugh Tarpey. It to the credit of those present, following the explanation given by Cllr. Edmund Dwyer Grey, that the meeting agreed to adopt the Public Libraries Act of 1855 and requested the Corporation to apply its terms to Dublin. Dwyer Greys explanation to the meeting recorded in the Freeman’s Journal of March 20th 1877, makes interesting reading.

Having noted that “The burgesses should resolve to tax themselves if they desired to have the act put into operation” Dwyer Grey went on to note that reports about libraries “in towns in England … were most encouraging, showing as they did, the large and increasing numbers of people who availed of the benefits of the free libraries, who went there in the evenings to read books, who borrowed books to peruse when at home.” The reports he noted, nearly all mention one thing which he regarded as perhaps being one of the best features of the matter - namely, that year by year, the books demanded by the readers at the libraries were of a higher class… commencing with works of fiction, the readers went on to travels and biography and they ended by reading scientific books, and in many instances, works of a very abstruse character That fact, according to Dwyer Grey indicated what useful media these libraries were, and how they raised the tone of the people.
Indeed, little has changed in that context, for Librarians and others make the same point today, in respect of the obvious progression in learning pathways which can be and are encouraged by people having access to books and other media. Dwyer Grey reminded the burgesses that libraries in England, were “absolutely free and thrown open to all citizens without charge”
“At present, he further reminded the Burgesses of Dublin, when a humble man left his lodging, the day being wet or cold, where was he to go in Dublin – where, but to the public house? That remark was greeted with applause. He continued, ought [not] some better place be provided than the public house? Ought they not give their humbler fellow-citizens the facilities, which the English people in their large towns had enjoyed for the past twenty years? (More applause followed). If this rhetorical question did not swing the desired result, his suggestion that tax currently applied to prisons should be diverted to libraries assuredly did.” “One penny [Dwyer Grey noted] of the sixpence at present given to support criminals in jails might be better given to a measure which would save many from the temptation that sent people into jails”. He left them to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to libraries. The citizens of Dublin said ‘Yes’.

So began a lengthy process leading towards the beginnings of Dublin’s municipal library service. The inadequacies of the Public Libraries (Ireland) 1855 Act, did give rise to issues of concern. These related to restrictions on borrowing powers, on the authority of the Council to form a Library Committee and, on the majority of citizen ratepayers required to adopt the Act. Some delay therefore occurred in implementation, but suffice it to note, that the Lord Mayor, urged the Chief Secretary for Ireland to ensure that the assistive amending acts of 1886 and 1871, as applied to England and Scotland, be extended also to Ireland. The Public Libraries (Ireland) Act 1877, which resolved the issues of concern, came into force in June of that year but for reasons of lack of finances and diverging opinion, it was 1883, before a Libraries Committee was formed. Its remit was to consider and report “as to the extent to which it would be desirable to avail of the Public Libraries Acts in Dublin; by establishing general libraries in situations convenient for the people.”

This Committee of nine members including, Councillors Charles Dawson, M.P, (by then Lord Mayor) and Edmund Dwyer Grey M.P recommended, in April, 1883, “that two libraries be established at an annual cost of 1,000 pounds; from the Borough Funds and that a Committee be appointed to establish and manage the libraries.”
The overseeing Committee whose objective was to bring the terms of the Libraries Act into effect was to comprise of a large body of 33 members, the Lord Mayor being ex officio, 20 members of Council and 12 citizens, not members of Council “whose literary and scientific attainments” would assist Council.

The adoption of the subsequent July 1883 City Council report, 12 with appendix headed, ‘Public Libraries’ under the name of Town Clark, John Beveridge, was central to the process which culminated, in 1884, in the opening of two libraries in converted Georgian houses in Thomas Street and Capel Street. Beveridge’s report offers an interesting insight into the thinking of the day. Having traced the evolutionary process of relevant legislation and debate, he provided a detailed report on existing library facilities in Dublin, including the situation regarding the resources of the embryonic National Library, established only in 1877 under the auspices of the Museum Act of that year, the Library of Trinity College, that of Kings Inns and The Mechanics Institute. Despite the fact that in all cases, the possibility of the ordinary citizen obtaining access was not, what we might now term, barrier-free, he deduced that, “It will thus be seen that in Dublin there already exists great advantages for the class of reader likely to avail of a Reference Library“. This remark encapsulates a somewhat unreal perception of the scale and scope of the then, existing facilities in Dublin. But, it also demonstrates a narrow perspective on the information needs of then, and future citizens of the City. Beveridge’s report in fact may be seen to have laid and indeed to support the seeds of opinion that Dublin did not need a central public library. It was this narrow perspective, acting as a limiting barrier on learning for the ordinary citizen, which fed the recommendation to Council in July, 1883, was that two branch libraries be opened and maintained.
Beveridge noted: “Each of the houses I suggest is in a thickly populated neighbourhood and each would not alone afford accommodation to Reading-rooms and for storage of the books of a lending library, but also for the officer in charge who should combine the duties of library clerk and [that of] caretaker.” It was expected that in addition to taking care of the books, the person appointed would be responsible for order and cleanliness. More pertinently, it was not considered necessary that the caretaker should be a man of erudition, as the Town Clark indicated that all knowledge necessary [would] be found in the Committee which it was proposed to constitute.

In that observation lies a measure of how far we have come in 125 years. The committee over the years were undoubtedly men of erudition, (names like Findlater, Pim and Thom, synonymous with Dublin business, and the names of scholars and academics such as William Archer, Librarian to the National Library and John Kells Ingram, Librarian to Trinity College, leap from the pages of Committee minutes). But, it seems inconceivable from a current day perspective, that the erudition of the Committee could reasonably be expected to have been exercised, to the benefit of the library user, from the committee room.

However, all stories have beginnings and the driving force of intent by the Corporation and merchants of the city, to offer opportunity to the citizens had begun. Given the merchant background of many involved, it is likely that their intentions were perhaps enlightened by a realisation that the competitive nature of artisans in France, Germany, Belgium and Great Britain, were "generally attributed to the possession, [as recorded in the Irish Builder (May 16, 1884)] of superior educational facilities, among which may be included, easy access to the best books on Art, Science and Technical industries.” Dublin needed educated citizens at all levels, as it does in 2009, if the City was to be able to compete with other cities in a context of internal and external market opportunities. It must be noted, of course, that the levels of required education in 2009, have risen from the levels of 1884, to a knowledge and skill requirement base, then unthinkable.

The honour of being the first free municipal library, its Librarian being Patrick Grogan, went to Capel Street. This was opened on the morning of 2nd October 1884. Thomas Street, was the second library opened, its Librarian, Matthew D. Weir, that same afternoon. Happily, both were men of erudition, Grogan having had experience in the library of Maynooth College and Weir with the library at Clongowes Wood College. However, with regard to the buildings, as early as 1904, these same libraries were judged inadequate and indeed, inappropriate, “the Lord Mayor declared at the opening of Kevin Street Library, that he was always opposed to the policy of fitting old tenement houses up as libraries”

As in any evolutionary context, the inadequacies of the earlier buildings would of course have been evident as the Corporation and citizens were exposed to the ‘state of the art’ purpose-built library at Kevin Street, its first Librarian John P. Whelan. Kevin Street was intended to focus on scientific and technical subjects. With the opening of the Central Library in the ILAC Centre in 1986, the buildings at Capel and Thomas Street ceased as points of public service, but nevertheless, their historic presence remains as a seminal reminder of the evolving landscape of library history in the city and a symbol of new recognition of the importance of extending learning opportunity to all citizens.

Significantly, in opening the libraries, Lord Mayor, William Meagher, emphasised his enthusiasm for the establishment of free libraries. It was he said, “intended for every class”. He further suggested, as recorded in The Freeman’s Journal, that “The humble workman and the son of the merchant, if they chose, could sit side by side while improving their minds by the study of authors whose acquaintance they would be liable to cultivate in these libraries”. This underlying principal of the public library system, was met by acclamation “Applause also greeted his words that “ the only test for admission should be in a decent exterior and becoming conduct” of those who entered. When we remind ourselves of the backdrop of educational deficit generally amongst citizens in 1884, the absolute poverty in which many lived and the difficulties of civic endeavours to provide services within a very low income base, the reports of these early beginnings convey, I believe, a palpable sense of the Corporation, its officials and the Burgesses, wanting to do something which would improve the opportunities open to ordinary citizens.

So, Dublin’s university campus of the people, its public library system, was established, although without adequate book stock (Its book stock, on the day of opening, comprised a very large number of volumes donated from gentlemen interested in the “education of working classes of Dublin”) or staff who remained to be recruited. Its remit was that it be free and open to all without restriction. The importance of the occasion, and probably, as Hardiman tells us, the reason for premature opening of both buildings, can be deduced from the fact that the Annual Conference of The (British) Library Association, took place in Dublin that year. This was attended by many Chief Librarians of UK cities such as Birmingham and Leeds whose assistance had been freely available to the Corporation during the library planning process. The formal opening of the Libraries by the Lord Mayor was integrated into the conference programme.

Indeed the Irish Builder of Oct 1st, 1884, informs us that the Lord Mayor invited the members of the Library Association to a ‘conversazione’, which I imagine as a kind of literary salon, at the Mansion House. I am glad to acknowledge that Lord Mayor Evelyn Byrne, hosted, in October 2008, a similar event in the Mansion House to honour the 80th anniversary of the, Library Association of Ireland of which I had the honour, then, of being President.

The benefits arising from public library service at Thomas Street and Capel Street led to demands for further services. The opening of Charleville Mall Library on Dublin’s North Strand, its first Librarian being Patrick J. Hoey, followed in 1899 and growing evidence of use at that library resulted in plans for an extension in 1910 assisted by a grant provided through the Andrew Carnegie, United Kingdom and Ireland Trust. The extension was intended to accommodate a Childrens Library and a dedicated ‘Ladies Reading Room’. Interestingly, the inclusion, and opening in both Charleville Mall and in Pearse Street, of a childrens library in 1924, when Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was Chair of the Libraries Committee, resulted in the recruitment of Lady Assistants. The closed shop of male Librarians, in place since 1884, was now opened to women. We can only speculate as to why a need was determined to include a dedicated Ladies Room but, clearly, woman too, were using libraries in great numbers, reflecting both social change and the educational and employment demands of a growing urbanised society.

Significantly, the Charleville Mall extension also included a dedicated room intended to house the magnificent Library collection of historian and member of the Library Committee, Sir John T. Gilbert, who died in 1898. Andrew Carnegie, an extraordinarily generous philanthropist who assisted library development across the United States, Great Britain and Ireland, also assisted the development of Pearse Street, then known as Great Brunswick Street. Formally opened in 1909, and promptly closed again because no money was available for books or staff, Pearse Street this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. But, the incipient Pearse Street library building is part of the story of diverging opinion about whether or not to provide a Central Library for Dublin.

The story started with the Corporation Libraries Committee. First appointed in 1883, this included among its members, people of drive and influence such as Cllr Edmund Dwyer Grey and persons of scholarly renown such as John Kells Ingram, Librarian of Trinity College and William Archer, Librarian to the National Library. Despite the obvious wealth of scholarly competency, Committee membership did not include a professionally qualified City librarian whose focus would have been on the overall information needs of Dublin’s citizens at all levels, popular lending and the equally necessary and complementary reference and research facilities. This result was a decision of the City Corporation, to focus on provision of branch libraries, without regard to the provision of what was later recognised to be a key aspect of public library development in Dublin – a central library. Certainly, the failure in the early days of library development to appreciate the need for a central library and subsequently, in later years to fail to retain an appropriate city centre location, has left the City Council still grappling with the issue today.

Sites for example, at Waterford Street and at Lord Edward Street were suggested. Specifically in 1900, it was proposed that a site at Lord Edward Street, in the ownership of the Corporation, would encompass both the City Library, which would house the Gilbert Library, then recently acquired, and also interestingly, a Municipal Museum. The matter was reported in the Irish Times of January 1901, as being “ a pressing necessity” as the Libraries Committee proposed to expend 28,000 pounds to erect a central Public Library. Plans had been drawn up by then City Architect, C.J. McCarthy, for a three storey building with basement, to include Reading Room, Newsroom, Lending Department, Ladies Room, Offices, the Gilbert Library, forming a nucleus for the Reference collections and, rooms for a City Museum. The Irish Times, declared that “ it is high time to complete the work begun in 1884 by the erection of a Central Library worthy of the City “ A report was presented to the Corporation, but, as on previous occasions, opinions differed.

Roisin Walsh, the cities first Chief Librarian, attributed the decision not to accept the 1901 proposal to establish a Central Library, for reasons, which she described, of a “false notion of Dublin’s Library facilities”. This notion can be observed as originating in the earlier 1883 failure to recognise that the facilities then in Dublin, including the National Library, based on the Library of The Royal Dublin Society and transferred only in 1890 to its present location, did not and would not, have the capacity, or indeed the remit, to deal with the reference requirements of a significant, and expanding urban population. The negative aspects of the earlier thinking continued to pervade later thinking on the subject. Speaking in 1937, Walsh posited, “The greatest need of Dublin in the future will be for a central library such as other great cities have. In playing with the idea of a central library for 50 years, she noted, “The town has been neglected for the gown.” Of course, the problem lay in the failure to appreciate, in terms of library facilities, the complementary nature of both town and gown. Instead of following the example of the big United Kingdom cities such as Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow, in recognising the need of its citizens for a major central public reference resource, available to all without restriction, Dublin decided instead to continue the policy of building only District Libraries.

Not even an offer made by Andrew Carnegie in 1903, of £28,000 towards the building of a Central Library altered this view. The Libraries Committee, reflecting then current opinion, proposed as an alternative that the grant be spent on a branch library in Pearse Street (then Great Brunswick Street), the extension of the two libraries in Capel Street and Thomas Street and a further new building in Drumcondra. (The latter was not built until 1936.) After some negotiation, the Carnegie Trust eventually agreed that the grant might be expended on the branch libraries, hence the opening of Pearse Street Library rather than a central library in 1909. The end result was, that in 1920, Kevin Street having opened in 1904, the Dublin City service consisted of five district libraries, all independently organised and operated, all with their own sub-committees, all with individually selected and geographically distributed collections. No cohesion existed in terms of reference service provision.

This is not to deny that the librarians in those early built libraries were all people of clear ability with a professional approach to the work of building significant book collections. Indeed, much material acquired in the early 20th century, forms today part of the focused and expanded reference collection related to Dublin and Ireland. But, until 1931, when Roisin Walsh was appointed Chief Librarian, there was no overall acquisition strategy having regard to the requirements of a capital city in accumulating and maintaining stocks of essential reference works, and other much needed materials. There was no unifying policy. Nevertheless, despite financial difficulties besetting the Corporation, the librarians themselves, from their bases in Capel Street, Thomas Street, Pearse Street, Kevin Street, and Charleville Mall, demonstrated considerable professionalism and enthusiasm in proving the value of libraries in the community.

The evidence of professional development is clear. Open access to book stock, highly controversial in its day, was pioneered under the direction of its first Librarian, David Barry, in Pearse Street in 1914. Indeed, it was introduced in Dublin Libraries generally, ahead of its introduction in many large United Kingdom systems. The value of extension activities, for example, exhibitions and lectures allied to the idea of promoting book stock, was also realised, and some attempts were made to exploit resources and broaden the educational base of the library operations. In 1903, for example, and again in 1907 a lecture series was organised in the District Libraries with contributors including such well-known people as Count Joseph M. Plunkett, who spoke on the subject of typography. Granted such activities were not practised on the level or scale we know and target at specific groups today, but the fact that they existed at all, given the limited resources available, is a measure of professional activity in the best and earliest traditions of public library involvement in adult education, made accessible to everyone, as Lord Mayor Tarpey, speaking in 1884, had hoped. The public libraries were rooted in a philosophy of seeking to broaden the minds of all citizens especially those in need of basic education and access to the world of knowledge. This can be further observed in the scheme, for example, introduced in 1903, through which the Corporation, under the supervision of the Librarians, distributed around three thousand books to the city’s sixty primary schools. The intention was to add to the school collections as finance allowed. However due to financial difficulties, it was quickly found necessary to abort the experiment.

Finance seems destined to be a continuing part of the story of public library services for a similar scheme, funded by the Department of Education and Science at national level, since 1973, was aborted only this year for the same reason.

The financial problems affecting the Corporation Libraries in the historical context of the early 20th century can only be briefly noted but the roots of difficulty can be established in 1893 when the legality of the method of funding the libraries gave rise to serious concern. Consequential on legal opinion obtained in 1893, Dublin Corporation funded its library service not from a specially struck rate, but from the Borough fund to an amount exceeding the product of the Library rate of one penny in the pound. Circumstances arising from the Local Government audit of 1906 heralded a crisis in that the views of the Local Government auditor on the matter of financing the libraries was in conflict with the previous opinion received by the Corporation. The Auditors view was that the Libraries expenditure should be restricted to the level of income achieved from a one penny in the pound rate and should not extend, as had been the practice, to additional resources from the borough fund. This extraordinary situation resulted in several Corporation members on the Estates and Finance Committee being personally surcharged for various items of expenditure incurred in excess of the income, which might have been derived from the one-penny rate.

The financial situation was grave, but it was further exacerbated when in June 1908, the Corporation adopted a resolution accepting the paintings of Hugh Lane and, to quote, “authorised the Estates and Finance Committee to hire and maintain temporary premises in which these valuable works of Art can be preserved and exhibited pending the erection of a permanent building in a suitable locality. The annual cost involved was not to exceed the sum of 500 pounds already authorised by the Council“. The Estates and Finance Committee then discovered, probably to their relief, that the Public Libraries Committee (arising from the relevant Public Libraries legislation) was the authority authorised to deal with a Municipal Gallery. The story of the Municipal Gallery and the Lane pictures is of course well known, and I don’t intend to digress to that subject, but it must be stated that the decision by the Corporation to accept the Lane pictures, impacted severely on the library service. It was impossible to maintain even the public libraries adequately on the product of a penny rate, and certainly not both. The result was that the libraries closed in 1908 for a period due to lack of funds. They were only reopened when Patrick Lennon, City Councillor and a merchant in the city, a victualler, contributed 350 pounds to keep them open. The loan was to be repaid when finance again became available. However, irreparable damage was caused because, as Henry Dixon records, “No books were bought, none replaced, none rebound”.

The financial issue was of course a corporate, rather than a library specific one and it led to the City Treasurer indicating that “all authorisation from the Libraries Committee to the Finance Committee should be signed by the members of the Corporation, and that the signatures of non-members of the Corporation, [those who] traditionally [were] members of the Committee since 1883, [held] no authority” for payment. It is possible to infer a suggestion of conflicting and incompatible interests or priorities amongst members on the Libraries Committee particularly in a context of competing interests for limited resources. Given the number of members, 33 in total, that is not surprising. In any event, re-organisation of the Corporation Committee structure was the end-result. In 1909, not, we might imagine, without controversy and upset to many, all non-Corporation members, were removed from the Libraries Committee. The administration was left to a small number of people more directly concerned with library operations.

Buildings are of course only part of any story of development and in the case of Dublin’s municipal libraries, the collections are certainly a key part of the evolving story, as indeed are the people who made it all possible. The times prior to 1930 were difficult financially and otherwise, but the remarkable foresight of Corporation officials and members of the Libraries Committee must be noted in the decision to purchase, in 1900, the collection of Sir John T. Gilbert, Historian, Archivist and Bibliographer, for a sum of £2,500. Writing about this in 1939, Roisin Walsh rightly described the collection as “the foundation of what may be one of the greatest ornaments of the city”. As City librarian, in 2009, I equally see it as being one of the Cities most important and tangible cultural assets, containing as it does many rare books about Dublin, about early Dublin printing, examples of 18th century Dublin book binding, political pamphlets. Books about Ireland are also included and indeed the collection which includes the incunabula, ‘The works of Terence’, printed in Venice in 1483, extends beyond these shores to indicate the far reaching effect, on one Dubliner, of a thirst for knowledge. This thirst for knowledge is now extended through Dublin’s free municipal library service, to all Dubliners and visitors to the City. Perhaps, the most significant cause for reflection on this collection is that it inspired continuity of acquisition. The depth of the City Library Dublin and Irish Collections, which includes the Gilbert library has of course been extended on a priority basis dating from its re-location to Pearse Street in 1936. Priority attention continues to be given to the reference resource in 2009, through the acquisition, new or second-hand, by purchase or donation, of books, maps, prints and drawings, theatre programmes, newspapers, photographs, political ephemera, almanacs, directories and special collections related to the city and its history.

The story of Dublin’s early modern library service began with the passing of the local Government (Dublin) Act, 1930. This Act extended the boundaries of the City to take in parts of the rural County of Dublin and the townships of Rathmines and Pembroke. With it, the plan of the Commissioners, in office from 1924-1930 headed by P.J. Hernon (later City Manager) to aim towards a centralised public library system was set in motion. The task of co-ordinating the five independent libraries in Capel Street, Thomas Street, Charleville Mall, Kevin Street and Pearse Street and also the newly absorbed Pembroke (whose one-time Librarian was author, Frank O’Connor) and Rathmines Library was given to Roisin Walsh, former Dublin County Librarian, and the City’s first Chief Librarian. Appointed in 1931, this remarkable lady (in whose house, incidentally, the political organisation, Saor Eire, was founded, she was a member of Cumann na mBan) had the difficult job of creating the centralised system with all the problems inherent in working in reverse order, from outside to the centre, and with formidable people who had, until then, ‘Chief Librarian’ status within their independent, albeit, local bases of operation. A substantial level of organisational re-structuring and considerable extension of the branch system took place in Roisin Walsh’s time, from 1931-1949, as Chief Librarian, with opportunities offered through the Andrew Carnegie Trust.

Finance as ever, was the key restraining influence in the decade following her death in office in 1949. Walsh’s successor, Patrick Stephenson, in office until 1960, was a member of the old IRA, interned in Frongoch in 1916 for his part in the war of independence. In this context, I can only conclude that both he and Walsh and indeed other members of the library staff including John Whelan, librarian of Kevin Street, who reputedly hid guns in the library, as did Stephenson, during the war of independence, were the product of their time. Their successors have had less colourful extracurricular careers. In this the 75th anniversary year of the Old Dublin Society, I should note that Stephenson served as President of that Society. In the financially challenged post-war era, he concentrated on building collections, particularly the Dublin collections in which he had a great interest.

The immediate period following, which, as with the contemporary period, I will mention only briefly on this occasion merely to connect the early beginnings with the 125th anniversary of Dublin’s public library service in 2009. It may be described as the beginning of a new modern era, which was heralded in 1961 with the introduction of a system of government grants for library development under the guise of the Public Libraries (Grants) Act. 1961.The grants scheme allowed a new wave of building development in Dublin under the direction of City Librarian, Mairin O’Byrne who was in office from 1961-1984. Service improvements were enabled and in 1980, the introduction of automated cataloguing and stock circulation control heralded a changing library environment in which information technologies opened the possibility of new and ever expanding information access. Importantly, the City Archive was formed in 1978 within the ambit of the City library system.

The contemporary era, dating from 1985, coincides with my own appointment as City Librarian. In a repetition of history, the late 1980s and 1990s were overcast by recession. Yet, it has been one in which opportunities were taken and challenges including those set by legislative change, were met and overcome. One challenge in particular, related to charging for public library service. No small measure of thanks is due to those who accepted the arguments for continuation of a free access to Dublin’s libraries so that, on this 125th anniversary date, they remain, free, to the individual citizen. The contemporary era has seen significant progress in building infrastructure, in programming activity and demonstrably, in the application of information technologies to library management systems and to public services. Critically, major investment was made in the 1990s in technological infrastructure, which enabled automated circulation stock control and development of an on-line public access catalogue. Public access computers are available at all service points. Broadband and wi-fi internet access at all branches extends individual horizons. Databases have been developed and are available locally and on the Internet. The library website is ever expanding with digital content created from the library collections. All enable access to information in a context and through media, which would have been unimaginable to Dublin’s citizens of 1884. Yet, based at Pearse Street, the Dublin and Irish collections comprise a core reference and study centre, which addresses the increasing needs of research students at every level. The collections, in essence is what public library service is about.

In that context, I will conclude by making reference to the refurbished and new-build Pearse Street facility, re-opened in 2003. This encompasses the Dublin & Irish Local Studies collections, including the Gilbert Library. It also encompasses The City Archive, a conference facility, café and a 100 seater Reading Room. The building, which, this year, celebrates 100 years of continuous public service, is now the citizen’s gateway to the collections built over 125 years of professional activity. It is a place where information technologies, and print, meet to afford an unparalleled level of access to knowledge to the citizens of Dublin. It is a bridge between 1884 and 2009, spanning 125 years of continuity in visionary purpose and of public service.

Just in conclusion I would say that as we celebrate 125 years of service, we continue the philosophy of the early years, which was based on the life long learning opportunities available to all, that remains fundamental to the public library movement in Dublin of 2009. I believe it is that essence of belief, which heralds a continuing relevance in public service as we move into a future, which we can only imagine where we will fit at this moment in time. Thank you.

Thank-you for listening to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. To hear more, please subscribe on iTunes or SoundCloud. You can also visit our website - dublincitypubliclibraries.ie and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


An excellent article . I worked there for 4 months in 1980. Pembroke and Pearse Street back-room.I wish I had stayed there. It was a happy place


Add new comment