Celebrating 50 years of the Berkeley Library 

Posted on: 22 February 2017

The Berkeley Library where thousands of Trinity students have studied for their exams over the years is celebrating 50 years since its opening. The 1960’s building was considered a beacon of modernism for Trinity, Dublin and Ireland.  More importantly it hailed a new era for students and researchers, opening up the Library collections to a much wider readership.

Marking its 50th anniversary, Trinity College is launching a programme of events today that invites the public to visit the Library and learn more of its remarkable beginnings and role at the heart of the University. It will include a series of architectural tours, talks and the screening of the  pioneering  film “Building for Books” shown in every cinema in Ireland in 1958 as part of a national fundraising campaign for the new Library at the time.

Commenting on the importance of the Berkeley Library and its role, the College Librarian and Archivist, Helen Shenton said: “The Berkeley Library is a symbol of an age and a step-change in access to knowledge. It was about people’s love of books and the desire for a contemporary designed library in which they could be easily accessed and read.  National and international campaigns were developed that made this possible. We are at a similar juncture now. There is a need to re-imagine what we have and what we want from the libraries of the future and be as visionary as they were in 1967.”

President Éamon De Valera opened the new Berkeley Library in 1967,  which was made possible by philanthropic funding matched pound for pound by the state.* Central to the campaign was the importance of a library at the heart of a University.  The film “Building for Books” was premiered in the Cork Film Festival and released nationally, reflecting the national momentum behind the project.  The film set in Trinity, with a lively script shows off the campus during a sunny Trinity week, shines a spotlight on the inner workings of the Library at the time. The books were held in the Old Library, and read by students in the small 1937 Reading Room on Front Square.   Among other issues, it emphasises that storage space was due to run out which was a real cause of concern  with regard to  the College’s copyright privilege of all books published in Ireland and the UK.          

The film formed just one part of a highly sophisticated fundraising campaign that  targeted staff, students, graduates, as well as industry and the corporate world, and extended to the UK and US. As a means of raising awareness a special exhibition went on display  in London in the Royal Academy of Arts, of the Book of Kells along with other early manuscripts which had never before left Ireland. It was a huge success and attended by over 60,000 people including British royalty.  Lord Iveagh then Chancellor of the university kick started the donations with the first gift of £45,000. This was followed by many others, including one of Trinity’s most famous alumni, Samuel Beckett who donated a year’s worth of the American royalties of Krapp’s Last Tape which was playing to full houses on  Broadway at the time. The final donation came from the Ford Foundation.

Plans were apace for the design and building of the Library. The highest standards of design were commanded by an international competition and the award was publicly announced by the then Lord Mayor of the winning architect, the young 28-year old New- York based  architect Paul Koralek.   Dublin of the 1960’s  featured buildings such as Busáras, Liberty Hall and Hawkins House and the new Berkeley Library  was to join this cityscape.   Considered one of the finest modern buildings in Ireland, the Berkeley Library is a pure example of the “Brutalist” style of bare concrete architecture popularised by le Corbusier. Koralek’s innovative use of concrete, poured into wooden moulds gives it the impression of wood grain on the surface of the concrete slabs.   Contractors G and T Crampton built it, with Koralek overseeing the meticulous mixing of concrete on site.  When complete, it doubled the reading space as well as storage for books  for the College, which also involved the employment of 57 new members of staff.  Moreover it provided a unique reading experience where the reader was prioritised.

Commenting on its importance, Provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast said: “The Berkeley Library when built transformed library services for our students and readers. It was a modern library not just for Trinity, but for Ireland.  In marking this magnificent modernist building today and the national momentum that made it possible, we are acknowledging its radical role in opening access. Generations of students and Irish people have benefited from its vast collections. Today, in an age of digitisation, the role of the library is constantly evolving, and it is where we now also foster innovation and creativity, catalyse research and collaborations.”

Notes to editors

*The campaign and state paid pound for pound up to £736,000 . The final cost of the building was £800,000.

Media Contact:

Caoimhe Ni Lochlainn, Head of Library Communications | nilochlc@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4710