Documenting Dublin’s History: John T. Gilbert as a book collector
Published on 29th May 2023
The annual Sir John T. Gilbert Commemorative Lecture returned this May with a talk by Dr Máire Kennedy. Entitled, "Documenting Dublin’s History: John T. Gilbert as a book collector", Dr Kennedy discussed Gilbert’s approach to collecting written sources and what his remarkable library represents for the city of Dublin. Sir John T. Gilbert died on 23rd May 1898 and we were delighted to mark the 125th anniversary of his death with a lecture by a librarian who was custodian of his library for two decades.
Dr Kennedy’s lecture highlights aspects of the Gilbert collection, examines the context in which it was created, and considers its enduring legacy for the city of Dublin. The talk was followed by a discussion with Dr Maire Kennedy, Dr Katy Milligan led by Dublin City Archivist Lorraine McLoughlin.
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John Thomas Gilbert (1829-1898) can be considered one of the most important nineteenth-century collectors of books and manuscripts relating to Irish history. His fifty years of focused collecting resulted in one of the finest Irish historical libraries of the period. After his death, Dublin Corporation
purchased his library for the citizens of Dublin and the 9,000 or so items are now housed in Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street.
Gilbert collected books and manuscripts relating to Dublin. A particular strength of his library is its focus on the growth, development and governance of the city. He captured the social and cultural history of the city by collecting theatrical memoirs, biographies, histories of buildings and
institutions, texts of eighteenth-century plays and librettos, and newspapers. The works of Irish writers, especially the neglected Catholic writers, were of paramount interest to him, and he tracked down rare volumes from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, published in Ireland or the continent.
Historians today can be thankful for Gilbert’s commitment to original historic sources, the building blocks of history narratives. His goal was to source the primary materials on which to base his historical writings, and to make historical materials available in facsimile, or in modern editions, as a foundation for the work of other writers.
Dr Máire Kennedy worked as a divisional librarian with Dublin City Public Libraries, now retired. Her PhD (National University of Ireland, 1995) examined Irish print culture of the eighteenth century. An author and editor of several books, Máire has published widely in Irish and international journals, and writes a blog on book history at mairekennedybooks.wordpress.com.
Dr Katy Milligan is an Art Historian specialising in 19th century and 20 century Irish art. Her current research interests range from a study of exhibition cultures in 19th century Irish cities to urban paintings by Irish artists at home and abroad. Since finishing her PhD in 2015, Katy has held positions at National Gallery of Ireland, UCD School of Art History and Cultural Policy, the University of Surrey. She is currently based in the Special Collections section of UCD.