The best room in Ireland.
THE OLD LIBRARY: TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN, 1712-2012.
DUBLIN: FOUR COURTS PRESS, 2012. Hbk 50 [euro].
THE OLD LIBRARY: Trinity College Dublin 1712-2012 is a collection of fifty essays marking the tercentenary of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. This, of course, is far from being the first companion on the subject. Four Courts, the publisher of this book, has already published Essays on the History of Trinity College Library, Dublin (2000), edited by Vincent Kinane and the late Anne Walsh, and there have been others. This, however, is a heavily illustrated tome--there are over 250 color and black-and-white illustrations integrated into the 480 pages of this hardback volume. Editor W.E. Vaughan terms the Long Room "the most magnificent room in Ireland," ranking it close to Coimbra (Portugal), "probably the most beautiful university library in Europe." For all that, though, the Old Library's history has been "a history of vicissitudes rather than steady progress" (ix). The scope and purpose of this volume, therefore, is to introduce (or re-introduce) its extensive collections to a broad public, inside and outside the academic trade.
Beginning with the Book of Kells, the chapters proceed chronologically through the collections, using the expertise of practitioners, librarians and academics alike. Such an approach could make for a slightly disjointed mosaic of unrelated, but interesting, articles. Fortunately, Vaughan has ensured that the contents include a number of chapters (by various contributors) which provide a historical spine for the book, narrating the key developments in the material history of the Old Library while situating them in the broader history of education at Trinity College Dublin. It falls to former librarian Peter Fox, in the first chapter, to take us on an imaginary tour of the Old Library at various points in its history from 1712 to 2012. The Copyright Act, 1801, which had given Trinity College a right to claim a copy of all books and journals published in Britain and Ireland, was also the most significant benefaction in the library's history and drove the need for ever more book space. From a base figure of 15,000 books in 1732, the college library now contains over 5 million printed volumes and welcomes half-a-million visitors to the Long Room each year (17).
The threads of the institutional history are picked up again by Elizabethanne Boran and Ellen O'Flaherty. Boran gives us a painstaking reconstruction, complete with bar charts, of book-borrowing in the early years of the Old Library's existence. O'Flaherty paints a vivid picture of Trinity College in 1712, using college records; like gold dust, she finds a matter-of-fact board meeting minute which notes the provost and fellows turning up for the laying of the library's foundation stone on 12 May 1712 (93). John G. Byrne shows how library science can be interesting in his description of the sophisticated 1872 print catalogue and its recent migration online (217). W.E. Vaughan recounts the foundation of the Conservation Library in 1974 and the decades of work by Anthony Cains, technical director, and William O'Sullivan, keeper of manuscripts, who together refined methods of conservation: Cains had worked on the rescue of Florentine library material after the dreadful flooding of the Amo in 1966 (423). This core history of the library is interspersed with chapters of a more personal nature: Kenneth Milne, Raymond Jordan and Susan Parkes treat us to reminiscences from the student's, conservation librarian's and teacher's perspectives, all of which bring to life the Old Library and the 1937 Reading Room of yore, not just as sites of serious study but also as social hubs--and hubs for the mixing of the sexes--in the 1950s. Indeed, the fifty contributors deserve individual mention, yet this would make for tedious reading and blunt the serendipitous surprises that await purchasers of the book. Before reading Bernard Meehan and Susie Bioletti's look at Mark's Passion narrative in the Book of Kells, for instance, I would never have guessed that ink could be so interesting!
As a former student of history at Trinity College in the late 1990s, it is particularly cheering to see members of the TCD history department, past and present, as well as several history alumni, contributing chapters which show their scholarship but also their alertness to the possibilities of research-led teaching. Such teaching gave us young scholars the confidence to approach, for independent research, the immense collections on our doorstep. Considering the 1641 Depositions, for instance, Micheal O Siochru emphasizes the public educational dimension in the now-completed digitization of this unique record. Fellow historians of Ireland Patrick Kelly and Robert Armstrong also contribute, as does historian of revolutionary France Joseph Clarke in an essay on caricature during the Napoleonic Wars (164-83). (Clarke's essay should be read alongside the contiguous chapter by Nick Robinson on some of the vicious caricatures of the Irish in fashionable London at the same time.) Heather Jones, who writes on the library's war memoirs, is herself one of a generation of successful doctoral students who have now taken flight and work on First World War studies; the interdisciplinary Centre for War Studies, operated in collaboration with University College Dublin and the Trinity Long Room Hub, draws from that cohort.
As an undergraduate, meanwhile, I recall our Reformation Europe class meeting in the Henry Jones Room in West Pavilion and gaining supervised access to early modem material, such as the Latin-German biblical paraphrase the Nuremburg Chronicle (1493). Without being churlish, I will state my slight disappointment here that a chapter was not dedicated to the significant collection of German Reformation material in the library.
In her role as scholar (and mentor for many students), Helga Robinson-Hammerstein taught this material with aplomb, as it related to the dissemination of ideas in the Lutheran reformation. With the assistance of the Friends of the Library, Robinson-Hammerstein also translated and edited for publication some of that same material, ranging from Luther's sermons to (even racier) German horoscopes (Helga Robinson-Hammerstein, Practica Teiitsch: casting a German horoscope, Trinity College Dublin, 1980). More generally, though, however worthy they are as a group, I am glad to report that this book is not simply the intellectual property of the college's history dons alone. Carla King, of Saint Patrick's College, Drumcondra, introduces the Michael Davitt papers, papers acquired in part through the late T.W. Moody's pioneering scholarship on the Land League founder. With an eye for the human as well as the political, King reminds us that the papers reflect both public activism and foreign travels, punctuated with private tragedy (247). Honorable mention should also be made of Felicity O'Mahony's introduction to the papers of writer James Stephens--a particular pleasure, not least for its splendid photographs of literary Dublin (321).
This volume is at its best when contributors both describe the part of the library collection on which they have expertise while also historicizing that same material. In this sense, the library collection itself becomes a site of memory, a memory refracted through the prism of the librarians' choices and unspoken assumptions. For me, as a historian of modern Europe, this process is best conveyed in the chapter by Heather Jones on the Library's collection of First World War memoirs (325-46). Jones relates the lively literature on the memoir as a historical source to the considerable collection of war memoirs in the Trinity collection, which range from books of self-exculpation from generals and politicians to combatant memoirs to the private grief of families and loved ones. Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth (1933) and Marie Leighton's Boy of my heart (1916) attempt to exorcise grief for the same fallen soldier, Roland Leighton, albeit from the differing perspectives of fiance and mother (331-32). Major museums and libraries across Europe initiated special war library collections after the war so that "the action of collecting memoirs itself becomes a form of collective remembrance" (342). Jones infers from an extant local catalogue that even during the war itself war-related material was being classified in the Trinity Library as a special collection, instantly historicizing the ongoing war and this material. This was a visceral as well as an intellectual reaction: 463 Trinity men, staff, and students died in the war. Easter Week brought war to the College's Front Gate. However, given the continued operation of the Copyright Act after independence in 1922, was not Trinity's war collection a largely passive enterprise? Not so, argues Jones, as library orders reveal correspondence with continental book suppliers in the interwar period to acquire the work of significant war writers such as Stefan Zweig in Germany (344). A residual cultural unionism meant that, in that first post-Treaty generation at least, the library's large First World War collection "served as a link with an event that was the Urkatastrophe for the college's traditional milieu--the world of the southern Irish Protestants" (346).
Thanks in particular to the concluding chapter and Charles Benson's unsparing self-examination of the library as an institution today, as it turns towards the future, this anniversary volume avoids the trap of falling into self-satisfied congratulation. Its present and future, he reminds us, cannot be separated from the fortunes of other kindred institutions either within or beyond these shores. Finally, for those of us who judge books in part by their cover, a word on the first impression the book creates! A painting by Joseph Tudor (dated to roughly 1753) graces the dust jacket, showing a prospect of the Old Library, its roof crested by an unobstructed view of Dublin Bay beyond, complete with masts and sails on the skyline. Where a photograph would have dated the book quickly, this particular cover conveys to modern readers the enduring elegance of the building which houses a library and not just a museum. It is a reminder that while the Old Library has a proud history it is also a living scholarly enterprise, one whose horizons are not bounded by the past.
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|Title Annotation:||The Old Library: Trinity College Dublin, 1712-2012|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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