Most of my readers will not be aware that aside from Irish music and photography which I combine in my blog, another of my other passions is old books. That makes me a bibliophile. If you are on the same wavelength as me then you can understand the feeling that you get when you visit the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin. It’s like you have been given early access to the Pearly Gates. Even if you aren’t into books it remains one of the most beautiful rooms in the world and you should see it anyway.
The Trinity College library is huge, located in a number of buildings both on and off campus. The Old Library is located in Thomas Burgh’s architectural masterpiece ,a building which dominates the Trinity landscape.
It was founded along with the University in 1592 and 70 years later was presented by Vice Chancellor and benefactor, Henry Jones, with its most famous accession, the Book of Kells. In 1656 the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, bequeathed his valuable library, comprising several thousand printed books and manuscripts, to the Library. This forms the core of the remarkable collection of 200,000 of the oldest books now housed in what is known as the Long Room.
This 65 metre long chamber was built between 1712 and 1732. Initially it had a flat ceiling and books on only one level. In 1860 to accommodate the ever expanding collection the roof was raised and a second level of shelving added along with a stunning curved ceiling.
Rich wood paneling, wrought iron staircases, giant frosted windows providing a gorgeous filtered light that gives the books a golden glow all add to the ambiance of what is a very special place.
The books are housed in a series of double sided shelves labelled A to V on the right side and AA to VV on the left. Interestingly J and JJ are missing as this letter was only added to the English alphabet around 1630. The individual shelves are labelled a to o or aa to oo (again j missing) from the ground up and then individual books are numbered from 1 left to right. This gives each book a unique location number for example, DD m 5. A surprisingly effective pre Dewey-system ifor finding a book
The Long Room is lined with marble busts of authors, philosophers and college benefactors. All white men by the way. Fourteen of the busts are by the famous sculptor Peter Scheemakers.
Of course the Library is best known for the Book of Kells (of which two copies are on display) in the attached museum but other prized acquisitions are on display in the Long Room. There is one of the last remaining copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read by Patrick Pearse near the General Post Office on 24 April 1916. It was much bigger than I thought.
The beautiful “Brian Boru harp” is also housed here. This instrument is the oldest of its kind in Ireland dating back to the 15th century. The harp is made out of oak and willow, beautifully carved, and includes 29 brass strings (originally 30).
The books themselves are are of course the centerpiece. They are beautifully bound. Mostly of course leather and vellum. Sometimes bindings are works of art themselves. Many are tattered, reflecting years of loving use. Unfortunately you can’t get up close but most books that I could read the titles of are of course in Latin, the language of scholars of the day, and many are apparently religious tracts. But significant proportion I noticed were in English. Shelves full of books on medicine for example caught my attention.
As a collector, familiar with the value of rare books one can only speculate on the value of such a unique collection and I would suggest that many of the books would be unobtainable. The beauty of them being here and not in a private collection is of course that you could access it if you needed to. Libraries have adapted to the digital age and surprisingly still remain very popular. The death of the book is wildly exaggerated. Long live the book.