The Director of Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, Julie Andrews, arrives for work each day to an institution with living, breathing roots to the past like no other. She then sets about the very modern questions of Northern Ireland today: how to bring the past to life while keeping the bills paid, how to record the present in a digital world and where to find the generation after Heaney who will keep the library alive for centuries to come.
Julie, who came to the charity-run Linen Hall from a business background in 2013, has set out her approach to these challenges as well as explained her plans to continue to link the library’s collections with 2015, some new ways to bring the past to local people, the future for the Linen Hall’s peerless political collection and her strategy to raise funds in economically challenging times.
She also revealed the most requested items from the political collection and how the library has had to swop government office workers for tourists and backpacks to continue to bring the library to as many people as possible.
Many Slugger O’Toole readers will be familiar with the history of the Linen Hall, including its foundation by radicals and Society of United Irishmen members in 1788 – with one librarian, Thomas Russell, arrested in the library and executed – to its status as a base for post-war creatives, near-closure in 1980 and the establishment of its remarkable political collection.
The ‘Troubles’ collection’ (as it could unfairly be summarised), archived as the Northern Ireland Political Collection, still draws international attention thanks to the rare feat of having been collected over decades while the events recorded were taking place. As well as masses of political pamphlets, media recordings and printed material, visitors can see paramilitary Christmas cards, cigarette-paper messages smuggled from prison and, of course, a collection of political posters and cartoons spanning generations.
Not wanting to be left out of the historical record, paramilitary groups during the Troubles would even leave a parcel of their own items for the collection on the steps of the library to be discovered by staff in the morning.
The library does not, by any means, define Northern Ireland through the prism of conflict. To reach the political collection from the main entrance you’d have to pass centuries of writing, poetry, Irish language and history works not to mention the biggest collection of Robert Burns materials outside Edinburgh.
You may also be able to catch one of the Irish language of Ulster-Scots groups, an exhibition provided to bring one of the library’s collections to life (usually linked to the present in some way), a children’s event or one of the library’s events designed to contribute to the cultural life of Belfast and beyond and/ or bring the next generation of local writers to the fore.
While the library is open to the public free of charge, paid membership is available offering additional benefits including discounts and exclusive access to certain collections.
NO COMPARABLE JOB IN NORTHERN IRELAND
Julie pointed out that some could have feared that her arrival at the Linen Hall from the world of bottom-line and profit-margins in the private sector could have put the heart and soul of the library at risk of being overlooked: “There might have been a concern that I would turn the library into a coffee shop, but as well as coming from a business background I am also a real bookworm.
“I am always aware that is impossible to lose the feeling of awe walking up the steps to work every day; that sense of the atmosphere of this place. It never loses its charm. So I am mindful that there’s comparable job in Northern Ireland and very much conscious that we always have to reflect our heritage but also stay relevant to today’s world.”
“After all, if we want to understand of the depth of library’s history we can simply open a minute book and see things like an entry showing Henry Joy McCracken as deceased and still owing money which was later repaid by one of his descendants.
“As another example, In 1905 we had a Shakespeare festival, we can see some of the great stalwarts of this city and what they were planning.”
Julie, who studied law and is a former President of Belfast Soroptimists and currently sits on the Food Safety Promotion Board, talked through the current health of the library, the link to Belfast tourism and explained how the culture of membership seemed to be declining in 2015 to the library’s cost: “While the staff from former government office buildings nearby have have been replaced by tourists from cruise ships, overall we see everyone coming through the door from people who had been walking past to theatre professionals and even – at times – queues of kids coming in to study.
When I first arrived I could see tourists in backpacks wandering the aisles so it was top of my to do list to create more for them, so now we want to let them see and touch what the library is all about.
However increasing membership of the library is challenging as people seem to be less keen to support and be part of organisations in this way today.
Julie – who gave an example of the unique nature of the library by recalling that Brad Pitt had once called in unannounced to research a role – said the official launch of the Writers’ Forum in September aimed to create a new generation of people whose work and support would carry the library forward into the next 227 years: “The two organisers of the Writers’ Forum are in their 20s and I think that is important.
“Yes, Seamus Heaney was a great friend of the library and I would never disrespect his importance but we also need that next generation coming through.”
POLITICAL COLLECTION – REQUESTS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Also in the present day, the Linen Hall’s popular Writers on Writers Festival, which sees acclaimed writers speaking about writers of note as well as workshops held to bring their work to life, takes place every year and will continue to challenge thinking and celebrate great work through themes of women in literature in 2016 and exploring working-class writers in 2017.
Like the regular themed exhibitions held in the Linen Hall, these events look to “bring the library back to its Enlightenment roots but helping to think about their roots and share new ways of thinking about ourselves”.
“For example, our exhibition around migrants was planned before the recent events and a previous exhibition looked at the Afro-Carribbean community in Northern Ireland. This is the work the library would have been doing during the Enlightenment and this is the work we carry out today,” Julie explained.
And, of course, the library’s famous Northern Ireland Political Collection plays a major role in efforts to understand our past and connect our history to the present.
Julie pointed out that the library continues to add to the collection, which boasts the unusual feature of being actively maintained throughout and during the Troubles, and raised an interesting question about collating the archive in 2015.
We have a total of 350,000 items and still receive requests from around the world, particularly for the period of the Hume/ Adams talks to the Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s.
Adding to the collection today raises some fascinating issues. The flag protests – for example – were about social media, not column inches and is a difficult subject to collect as a result. This has formed part of our thinking about the future of the collection.
The Linen Hall Library has now applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund to digitise, exhibit and carry out outreach with the Political Collection.
It is striking that community newsletters and pamphlets will cover the same event but will have a very different take on the inside pages. Which is why we are working towards things like intergenerational cross-community reminiscence groups to promote conversations. People need to talk to other people about what happened and develop understanding in the younger generation, looking at our past in a shared and open way.
Julie explained that, for the likes of the Political Collection, access is a major consideration and the Library is looking at various ways of making the archives available to as wide an audience as possible.
She added that the concept of outreach work is not limited to the Political Collection: “With the forthcoming centenaries being an important time in our history, we have been talking to people like the Community Relations Council about how we talk about the ‘decade of centenaries’ in an international context.
All this work – the writers’ events, exhibitions, work with children, outreach, Irish Language Week events, support for Ulster-Scots and more – is “designed to connect life and issues in 2015 to the Linen Hall’s collections”.
“A BOOK WILL ALWAYS OUTLAST TECHNOLOGY”
And within this connection between the past and present, and the importance of relevance, lies the key to the next two centuries of the Linen Hall Library.
Julie clarified that digitisation is designed not to replace physical books but has a very modern, international purpose: “Digitisation is designed to help world-wide access but is isn’t meant to replace books. A book will always outlast technology but the issue of access helps towards staying relevant while reflecting our heritage. We want to digitise more writers, not replace the library.”
This task is one of the many areas for which Julie constantly works to support through finding new funding.
She explained that, aside from core funding of around 23% from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the rest is found by the library.
In July this year the Linen Hall lost Lottery funding for its arts/ culture programme, putting a post and events including children’s events at risk, however an appeal was won and £25,000 secured.
“People forget we are a charity and, after all, we are not an emotive charity which makes it harder to fundraise. We are finding it tough financially, that is the reality. I put my energy into raising income instead of complaining about the lack of it! However, if we start shouting you will know it really is serious.
“We now have fewer staff than 10 years ago and we need to think very carefully before employing new staff.”
While the Linen Hall has the benefit of cross-party support and its own building, with income coming in from the Co-operative Bank and Molton Brown as well as the library’s excellent charity shop, Julie identified an anomaly within funding: “In the funding world people forget about core costs. You need money to turn on the lights and have staff. For some projects someone needs to work late, and we need to consider if the funding provides for this.”
21st CENTURY SUSTAINABILITY VERSUS HISTORY
A search for news about the Linen Hall Library online shows the media and blogosphere reflecting public interest keenly following every change and development at the library, from the arrival of new senior staff such as Librarian Samantha McCombe to the earlier retirement of Linen Hall librarian and stalwart John Killen. It is my own parnter’s favourite place in Northern Ireland and enjoys fond support from every political party on the hill.
Just as the likes of our unique bookshops are part of the soul of Belfast, the Linen Hall’s own roots run as deep and distant as the history of modern Belfast itself.
The Linen Hall – which is, after all, a charity – have outlined their plans to stay not just alive but lively, relevant and a priceless asset for further centuries.
Julie concluded that her job is to balance 21st Century sustainability against history and said the library “can’t afford to be left behind”. We could easily argue that none of us can afford for that to happen.
* NB – The role of Director in the library equates to the role of a CEO while the Linen Hall’s Librarian, a specialist role, is in charge of services. The subject of public libraries operated by Libraries NI <https://www.librariesni.org.uk/Pages/default.aspx> and a number of other libraries in Northern Ireland, such as the Lord Bannside Library <http://m.newsletter.co.uk/news/northern-ireland-news/ian-paisley-s-55-000-volume-library-opens-to-public-1-6996632> in East Belfast, collections held by QUB and Ulster University, Armagh Public Library <http://armaghpubliclibrary.arm.ac.uk/wp/> and the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Library & Archive <http://www.ofiaich.ie>, have not been included as these are deserving of a separate article at a later date. John Killen’s history of the Linen Hall <http://www.amazon.co.uk/history-Linen-Hall-Library-1788-1988/dp/0950898546> is available online, as is a book about the highly influential Mary Anne McCracken <http://www.amazon.co.uk/Life-Times-Mary-McCracken-1770-1866/dp/0856404039/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448983438&sr=1-2&keywords=the+life+and+times+of+mary+ann+mccracken>.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net