Monday, 21 October 2013

225-year-old Linen Hall Library hosts AIL Annual Meeting 2013

AIL delegates with their Linen Hall hosts
©Linen Hall Library

Ed Weech of the Bishopsgate Institute in London writes: 

The AIL Annual Meeting in June 2013 was hosted by the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, who organised an excellent programme and made for generous and welcoming hosts.

The reception on the first evening of the conference was a chance for attendees to meet and do some networking, before proceeding to sample some of Belfast’s famous nightlife, but the main business of the conference occurred on the Saturday, starting with the Presidential Address by Dr Robert Anderson.

Robert noted that we face a bleak cultural future, with public resources for arts and culture being slashed. Public libraries are being closed, while many of those that remain endure significantly reduced resources and are being subjected to a process of “dumbing-down”. Robert pointed out that this scenario is highly relevant to the interests of independent libraries. Independent libraries thrive in a culture of generally high education and learning, and a strong public library system is an underpinning of such a culture; however, independent libraries could potentially also find that with local public library services being cut or “dumbed-down”, demand for a more traditional library experience may draw people towards independent libraries. Robert encouraged attendees to ensure that their libraries maintain relevant statistics so they can chart whether subscription levels change in response to changing public library provision in their areas. He also emphasised that the AIL needs new members, and highlighted the recent improvements in the AIL newsletter and forthcoming new website as important opportunities for publicity and outreach.

Gerry Deveney, a volunteer at the Linen Hall Library, gave a very interesting and engaging talk about the history of that remarkable institution, which celebrates its 225th anniversary this year. Gerry discussed the origins and early history of the Library, when it was intimately connected to the political tumult in Ireland following the American and French Revolutions. Gerry spoke about the growth and development of the Library as Belfast became industrialised in the 19th century, and its historic role at the heart of Belfast’s cultural life.

Recent decades have been eventful for the Linen Hall. Gerry described the origins and development of the Northern Ireland Political Collection, a collection of some 300,000 printed items documenting the “Troubles”. The collection was started by the Librarian in 1968 during the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, and documents every tendency across the entire political spectrum. It is the type of collection that only an independent library could maintain, as it is not subordinate to the agendas or priorities of a parent organisation. As such, the Library has gained a reputation as a neutral space in the context of Northern Ireland’s divisions.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, Librarian of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, discussed the challenges of managing historic collections in the modern environment. The RIA has extensive historic collections in science, literature and antiquities, including considerable journal holdings. The Library has a considerable focus on Irish antiquities and the Irish language, and is funded by central government. Although the Library has a membership, it also has a focus on open access and widening participation across its activities. To this end, Siobhan spoke about the Library’s outreach efforts, including digitising photographs and manuscripts, as well as developing an online resource to enhance access to historic recordings of Irish speakers.

John Killen, Librarian of the Linen Hall Library, discussed digitisation and the opportunities and challenges it brings. The Linen Hall digitised a number of eighteenth-century pamphlets on theatre, serving to record and promote Belfast’s impressive dramatic tradition. John emphasised the multiple benefits of digitisation such as widening access, preserving fragile originals and generating revenue. John described the 2011 project where the Library collaborated with Ulster Bank to commemorate the bank’s 175th anniversary, digitising the historical theatre material to develop a learning resource for formal and informal learners. John explained that the Linen Hall sees this kind of activity as increasingly important going forward, as traditional income streams continue to decline.

Sadly, the vicissitudes of plane travel meant I had to leave before the screening of the documentary on the history of the Linen Hall Library, and I also missed the scheduled trips to the Merchant Hotel and the Ulster Museum. However, the presentations and discussions made for an enjoyable and rewarding conference, and it was a pleasure to meet current collaborators and make new acquaintances among the independent library fraternity. 

Extracted from: AIL newsletter October 2013

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Beatrix Potter at the Armitt

Beatrix Potter aged 15 with her springer spaniel
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was one of the earliest members of the then Armitt Library in Ambleside founded in 1912. Seventy years after her death, the Armitt Museum and Library (in conjunction with the National Trust Archive, the Frederick Warne Archive and the Beatrix Potter Society) is celebrating its connection with Beatrix Potter through an exhibition in words and images on her life and work as well as on the people and places of the Lake District that were important to her. The exhibition is entitled, Image and reality. For further details visit or for a BBC Cumbria news item about the exhibition see

The famous and highly successful children's author had come to live at Hill Top Farm in the neighbouring village of Near Sawrey in 1905 soon after the death of Norman Warne to whom she had been betrothed. She had fallen in love with the Lake District during family holidays there and she now took the opportunity to help preserve local life and landscape. To this end she bought up surrounding farms and spent more and more of her time on estate management and rearing prize-winning sheep in partnership with a local solicitor, William Heelis (a founder member of the Armitt), whom she married in 1913. She also found time to produce new items based on her famous characters - Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Samuel Whiskers and the rest. 

Beatrix Potter became one of the Armitt Library's greatest benefactors with the bequest of her botanical drawings, watercolours and personal copies of the first editions of her children's books. The botanical drawings included her beautiful and scientifically significant studies of fungi undertaken in the 1880s and 1890s.  On 24 April 2013, a distinguished audience at the Linnean Society in London heard Patricia Routledge, actress and president of the Beatrix Potter Society, pay tribute to the "wonderful collection of astonishing depictions of fungi" held by the Armitt. On that occasion, a young lady dressed as Beatrix Potter, read Miss Potter's paper On the germination of the spores of agaricineae: when originally presented in 1897, the society had insisted it be read by a man!

For further information take a look at:
Beatrix Potter and the Armitt  

Geoffrey Forster
25 September 2013