Saturday, 23 January 2021

Linen Hall Library

The Linen Hall Library was founded in 1788 by a group of artisans as the Belfast Reading Society and in 1792 became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge.

It adopted a resolution in 1795
"that the object of this Society is the collection of an extensive Library, philosophical apparatus and such products of nature and art as tend to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry".
It began to acquire books (with a particular focus on those relating to Irish topics, publishing, for example Ancient Irish Music by Edward Bunting in 1796) and also other items which could be used to advance knowledge.

Linen Hall Library from Wellington Place (Image: Timothy Ferres)

The society declined in the later 1790s however, as it owned no permanent premises and struggled with official attempts to control radical thought.

In 1802, the Library moved into permanent premises in the White Linen Hall (from which it took its name, though legally it is still the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge).

The Library struggled, however, through most of the 19th century.

It became more conservative, attempting to exclude students from Queen's College and debating whether or not to include fiction.

As the Library's centenary approached it was hit by another setback as it lost its premises in White Linen Hall to make way for the construction of the new City Hall.

The Library moved into a warehouse at Donegall Square North (previously used for linen), which was designed by Charles Lanyon and his firm, and which the Library occupies today.

Linen Hall Library (Image: Robert John Welch)

At the same time it made the transition from being a private company to one with public duties with regard to care for its collections.

This was also a period when the Library became much more ambitious, collecting books with a new vigour and implementing many cultural programmes.

By the end of the 1970s the Library was on the brink of closure, with large amounts of material (including an extensive collection relating to the Troubles) but a poor building, few users and serious money problems.

In response, the Department of Education threatened to withdraw its grant and in 1980 proposals were made to close the Library permanently.

After 1980 a fight began to save the library.

Linen Hall Library, January, 2021 (Image: Timothy Ferres)

It was decided that it should begin to allow and encourage free public reference access and to concentrate particularly on Irish studies, politics and culture, both because it was already strong in these areas and so as not to compete with the expanded Central Reference Library.

The move was successful: the number of subscribers began to increase and the library increased its role as a cultural centre, both facilitating research and fostering close links with the wider community.

It quickly became apparent that lack of space was holding back the library's revival.

After spending ten years exploring various options, the Library acquired a 999-year lease on the upper floors of some neighbouring property in 1996.

This was followed by an extensive fundraising campaign to pay for the development of this new property.

Construction began in 1999 and was completed in time for the opening in September, 2000.

The Librarian of the Linen Hall Library in 2013, John Killen, commented,
"In 1793 we printed our first catalogue and there were 137 titles. We now have the best part of a million books on these premises. We have become computerised, all our catalogues are now on computer and on the web we have digitised a number of our collections. It's all down to content and the library has oceans of content."
First published in May, 2013.

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