Great Libraries

When I read an article recently that the remains of an ancient Roman library had been discovered in the centre of Cologne in Germany, it made me think once again how important the role of the public library has been in our society over the centuries.

Certainly, it has been an indispensible part of my life and education. Even more so, as I’m sure all authors and writers will testify, the librarians’ unstinting help and interest is always forthcoming. Whether it’s a request for a book or a map or some other area of research, they are ready to try and answer your questions.

Reflecting on ancient libraries, the image shown here is of the Celsus Library in Ephesus, built around 110 A.D. and named for the governor of the province in Asia. It had the capacity to store more than 12,000 scrolls in bookcases against double walls to protect the scrolls from variations in temperature and humidity.

During our visit (with my wife), one of the interesting aspects of the building pointed out to us was said to be the secret tunnel leading from the library to a drinking den/brothel across the street. Much appreciated, no doubt, by male visitors to the library!

Probably the most renowned of the ancient libraries was the Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Created by Alexander the Great’s successor, Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian general said to share Alexander’s desire to acquire and store knowledge of the arts, literature, philosophy and science from all the regions and lands they had conquered.

All this information from so many cultures, including Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian and Buddhist traditions, was reputed to come from a collection of hundreds of thousands of books and scrolls, with scholars and students from across the ancient world arriving to study them. Unfortunately, through war and fire the library was destroyed, and although there is no confirmation of when it happened, it is thought to have taken place in the early centuries A.D.

Since then, theories have spread and suggested that many of the great books and scrolls were saved and traded in Egypt. One can only hope so, but be wary if you are browsing through some of the old shops in Cairo or Luxor and a trader tries to sell you an original library copy?

When we visited the New York Public Library I have to admit I felt overwhelmed by such a magnificent building. With its famous lions, Patience and Fortitude, at the entrance on Fifth Avenue greeting visitors from all over the world, we entered the library to discover the stunning, recently renovated Rose Main Reading Room. For me this is the heart of the library. With its high ceiling and beautiful chandeliers, overlooked by massive windows, the room is lined with open shelves holding thousands of reference works. It is truly a feast of information for any reader or writer.

A few words here cannot do justice to the building. I will say, though, that for me when I return to this exciting city the library will be near the top of my ‘must do and see’ list – while my wife checks out the shops on Fifth Avenue!

On this side of the Atlantic, much the same can be said for the British Library, described as the largest national library in the world, based on the number of items catalogued. Its collections apparently hold over 14 million books as well as many other valuable items, including manuscripts and historical material dating back to 2000 B.C.

It is a research library and at one time, was part of the British Museum. It is now located at Euston Road in London and well worth a visit.

Coming closer to my home in Ireland, the libraries I use regularly are:

Belfast Central Library. This is the one I grew up with, reading and borrowing almost everything they had, from newspapers and magazines to books in both the lending and reference sections. Staff members here were very helpful when I carried out some research for my first book An Unexpected Diagnosis; my personal story and a collection of Irish short stories.

The Linen Hall Library. Situated opposite Belfast City Hall, the Linen Hall was founded in 1788 and in 1792 became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge. Later in the early 1800s it took its current name from a building it moved into, known then as the White Linen Hall.   

Over the years it has accumulated an extensive collection of material, including the Northern Ireland Political Collection, the definitive archive of what has become known as ‘The Troubles’. It is also a major genealogy stopping point for overseas visitors exploring their Irish family history.

National Library of Ireland. As a reference library it does not lend, but has a large quantity of Irish and Irish-related material which can be consulted without charge. This includes books, maps, manuscripts, music, newspapers and periodicals.

Very recently, I was privileged to be asked to deposit my books with the library, during which I was taken on a personal tour of the building. I was delighted, because the library with its magnificent, domed reading room, which opened in 1890, and other areas you can explore, may be closed or restricted when it undergoes a proposed renovation programme.

The library is in Kildare Street, Dublin, situated close to Trinity College with its own extensive library, and the National Gallery of Ireland only a short walk away. All of which are easily reached, if you are on the culture trail.

Two other small public lending libraries I should mention here are Holywood Library and Bangor Public Library; both are in Co. Down, N. Ireland. The staff members are very supportive, and I can highly recommend both libraries if you happen to be in this part of the world.

To end with, I would like to mention the Letterkenny Central Library in Donegal, whose staff have been so helpful and forthcoming with information about a tragic period in recent Irish history: The Great Famine. I have used this information as part of the background to Varakite, my third book in the ongoing series of The Timecrack Adventures.

My many thanks to them and the librarians I have met along the way.

W.L.