#46 A New National Library

We’ve enjoyed posting various “might-have-beens” recently, but have saved the most radical until last – a variety of plans to have a new joint facility with the National Library of Ireland.

The National Library on Kildare Street, c. 1895.

As an aside, the National Library has a great crowdsourcing project on Flickr, where it invites members of the public to contribute their knowledge to identify people and locations in its archive. They’ve created a physical exhibition in the National Library Photographic Archive in Temple Bar which details some of these discoveries by their “photo detectives“. It’s a fantastic initiative that has been justly lauded.

The Long Room, c. 1885.

Space has been just as much an issue for our colleagues across the road on Kildare Street as it has for Trinity. Various linkages between the NLI and TCD in order to alleviate the problem were proposed during the Second World War, but Trinity was less than enthusiastic. However, when Trinity began to seriously consider how it was going to solve its own space crisis after the War, a joint store (not necessarily in the city centre) was one of the options proposed. It was decided to go it alone as the preferred option – at least to start. But things took a different turn in 1959, as Peter Fox tells in Trinity College Library Dublin: A history.

In February 1959, [R. J. Hayes, the Director of the National Library] discussed with de Valera a proposal to erect a building on Trinity’s Nassau Street frontage, to contain the National Library and the extension to the College Library. It would have separate reading rooms for the two libraries and the collections would remain distinct, but books from each would be available to both libraries’ readers. He listed the advantages: the scheme would double the research material that was ‘freely available to the Irish people’, including the technical and industrial publications of the United Kingdom; the National Library would acquire ‘a perfect site’; and money would be saved in the long run because both libraries would seek to avoid future duplication of acquisitions.

It was recognised however that this proposal was unlikely to be popular with the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who had stated it to be a mortal sin for parents in the Dublin archdiocese to send their children to the College without his permission. This remained the case until 1970! Nor were UCD likely to be enamoured with the idea.

Not everyone in Trinity was impressed with the turn the project had taken either. Letters from the time show that those who had been involved with raising funds for the “library extension” were somewhat taken aback that the joint store idea had been resurrected, especially as they had just begun raising funds on the basis of a purely Trinity facility.

When de Valera became President, the idea was eventually taken up again with his successor Seán Lemass, in March 1960.  TCD’s Provost McConnell had thrown Trinity’s weight behind it but that was viewed by some as a mixed blessing. Shenanigans to give the proposition a wholly National Library flavour – removing Trinity’s name from the title of the project! – and stating that no Catholic would need to set foot in Trinners (there would be a separate entrance into the NLI part of the building) cut no ice with the Catholic hierarchy:

Lemass sent the proposal to the archbishop, with a request for a meeting. The outcome was hardly unexpected. McQuaid stated that the bishops were unanimous in opposing the plan, because of the ‘undesirability’ of suggesting that the government regarded Trinity ‘as the most important centre of higher education in the state… The chief university institution in a mainly Catholic community should manifestly be a Catholic institution’. In the face of this response from the hierarchy, Lemass decided that the scheme should be dropped, but sweetened the pill when he relayed the news to McConnell by suggesting that a government grant for the new library might be forthcoming.

So, the idea now completely dead in the water (but with the prospect of Government funding) Trinity moved on and launched its competition to design the new library only a few months later. It should be noted that the idea of joint storage facilities with the NLI continues to be raised on a regular basis, as space remains an issue for both institutions.