It was National Libraries Day at the weekend, so perhaps it is fitting that our latest Curiosity of the Week is a unique and historically important library. The Linen Hall Library, which celebrated its 225th birthday last year, is the oldest library in Belfast and the last subscribing library in Ireland.
Founded as the Belfast Reading Society in 1788, the library aimed to provide a facility to improve knowledge and soon became known as the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge. In 1802 the library moved to the White Linen Hall, which is where the library gets its unusual name. The library moved a final time in 1888 to a former linen warehouse.
The new premises served as the venue for wide-ranging and inclusive cultural programmes, in what was already a seriously divided city. In the post-war period the Linen Hall still served as a centre for a new and restless creative generation, with Sam Hanna Bell, novelist and pioneer of local broadcasting, Jo Tomelty, playwright, and artist Willie Conor all using the library.
Even at the onset of the present troubles in 1968, the library was still capable of taking an extraordinary initiative, when it was decided to collect political ephemera, the basis of today’s enormously important Northern Ireland Political Collection.
Direct Rule in 1971 soon provided enormously increased investment in the public library service, and meanwhile the IRA bombing campaign emptied the city centre. By the end of the 1970’s the Library still had its unique collections and an honourable history, but it had a crumbling and dangerous building, underpaid staff, a literally dying membership, and a minimal budget. A ‘Save the Linen Hall Campaign’ was soon launched.
Thankfully the library was saved and today has a magnificent and extended platform from which to serve the community at large. An extension has provided the library with 50% more space, a new linking core between the two buildings that provides disabled access throughout, and a new multi-purpose events area and reading rooms. The Linen Hall Library offers a full programme of events; from exhibitions, music, theatre and lectures to popular readings groups and walking tours. Today visitors to the library have risen to record levels.
Visitors are always welcome at the Linen Hall Library, to browse the collections, take in an exhibition or just relax with a newspaper in the coffee shop. Visit the library’s website to find out about upcoming events and exhibitions.
If you have an idea for Curiosity of the Week then do get in touch, we welcome suggestions from everyone. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, we are always on the lookout for unique and interesting places to discover.