Olivia Powell visits Ireland's first public library and discovers what makes it such an attraction.
Photo courtesy of marshlibrary.ie
Marsh’s Library is Ireland’s first public library, opening its doors in 1707. Marsh’s is one of the few 18th century buildings left in Dublin that is still used for its original purpose. The historic building is located in St. Patrick’s Close, beside St Patrick’s Cathedral in the heart of Dublin 8.
The library shelves approximately 30,000 books and 300 manuscripts. There are reading rooms which hold between six to eight people at a time. Bram Stoker and James Joyce were among the famous faces who frequently read in the library’s reading rooms.
A tour of Marsh’s Library will teleport you back to the 18th century, early in the years of the Enlightenment. Visitors come from all over the world to gaze at the impressive architecture, inhale the distinctive smell of old books and take a step back in time.
While touring the library, it was hard to ignore how cold the building was; it felt warmer outside than it did inside. The reason for this is for preserving the books. The library cannot have central heating because it will damage the leather of the books.
The temperature needs to be controlled, as does the sunlight. There cannot be direct light shining on the books and certain blinds in the library need to be closed most of the time. There is a little more warmth to be found in the adjoining reading room.
“Marsh’s is great, it really feels like you’re stepping back into centuries gone by,” says Helen Brady, 22, a History and English student from County Tyrone who has worked at Marsh’s Library since November. She loves her job: “it doesn’t feel like work.”
While searching for a place to work or volunteer, Helen came across the library, “As soon as I saw it, I knew I would like to be involved in it… it really compliments what I’m studying as well.”
Helen conducts tours of the library and finds herself learning more about Marsh’s every day, while also informing visitors. She finds that visitors are keen and interested in learning about the history of the library.
Marsh’s Library has been called a hidden gem of the Liberties, but is it still hidden? “For sure,” says Helen, “because all I had heard of was the National Library, Trinity’s library, the National Gallery, and all these places in more mainstream areas. The term ‘hidden gem’ has come up a lot!”
Readers come from near and far to learn about or read in Ireland’s oldest library, “We get more international visitors and certainly more people who are visiting Dublin know about it than those who live here.” On this particular day, there were visitors to the library from the United States and Hungary.
About 1,000 books were stolen from the library within its first decade of being open. As a result, there are three alcoves, or cages, in the library which were used to stop readers stealing the books. Readers were locked in a cage while they read their book and once finished, the cage would be unlocked. Certainly an interesting and today-unimaginable solution to theft!
‘The Unicorn and the Fencing Mouse – An Exhibition of Marginalia Annotations and Doodles’, is the current exhibition in Marsh’s Library. The exhibition shows pages of books which past readers have doodled, drawn or written on. One of the reasons for doodling was due to blank paper being expensive at the time. The exhibition’s name was inspired by a sketch in a book of a unicorn and mouse who look like they are fencing. Other examples of doodles include medical and culinary recipes in Latin and English.
Another exhibition held in Marsh’s Library is John Rooney’s comical illustrations of ‘The Real History of Marsh’s Library.’ The upcoming exhibition will focus on the lost and found books from the library.
Marsh’s Library is open five days a week – closed Tuesdays and Sundays. The entrance fee is €3 for adults, €2 for students and free for under-16's. It's a must-see attraction for tourists, locals, history-lovers and book-fanatics. Just do not forget to bring your warm, woolly coat!