FOR 100 YEARS people have walked the stone steps up to the doors to Rathmines Library on Rathmines Road, in through the heavy wooden doors and reached for books.
Books on travel, books on art, books on history. Fiction. Academic texts. Children’s books.
What began as a small library in 1887 became, in 1913, a large library in a newly-built neo-Georgian building (built thanks to a grant from Andrew Carnegie, American millionaire), with a stained glass piece looking down on those who passed by the doors.
It was the first public access library in Ireland, where people could browse rather than having to ask a librarian for a specific book.
This month, the library is celebrating its centenary with a raft of literary events, which can all be seen here.
Changes through the years
Helen O’Donnell, senior librarian at the library, told TheJournal.ie a bit more about the history of the building.
“In a lot of ways, things haven’t changed at all,” she said.
Books are still being issued as they were 100 years ago, people are still coming to various talks in the library.
The first dedicated children’s library was in Rathmines, and it was quite a progressive library, said Helen.
Everything is computerised now, she pointed out. When it first opened in 1913 there was a great emphasis on newspapers and periodicals, which was the norm at the time – these were all housed on the ground floor.
“It’s almost going back to that, through internet use,” said O’Donnell. “Over time if we see books becoming more electronic-based we may see book stocks receding again and space being offered over to tablets and portable devices.”
O’Donnell said that since the recession hit, she thinks “we have definitely seen a resurgence in the use of libraries and a better issuing of books”.
More people are borrowing printed books. On that basis you could say you can’t see a decline of books but obviously we know that lots of people are downloading books as well.
The library underwent refurbishment in 2011 to make it accessible for all. Last year the overall issues for Rathmines numbered 205,000 – and it is already higher now than at this time last year.
“It shows there is an increase in books being borrowed and also our people count is averaging anything up to 750 a day,” said O’Donnell.
Love for libraries
Why do people love the library so much? “I think it’s because it’s one of the very few absolutely public accessible spaces left. There are no barriers to anybody – it doesn’t matter who you are, can come into the library and use it.”
It is free to join, and there is a “friendly atmosphere”, said O’Donnell. “I just think people feel comfortable.”
Rathmines Library still continues to hold talks, as it did in the early days. WB Yeats gave a talk on his work on 24 February 1926, while campaigner and academic Hannah Sheehy Skeffington gave a talk in 1931 on Russia in 1930, and Douglas Hyde gave a talk in 1928 on Irish folklore. A lot of these talks were held in the Town Hall.
On the day the library opened in 1913, while the speeches were being given in the town hall, a suffragette seized the chance to shout about “votes for women!”.
A newspaper report from the time said that Mr T W Russell, who was speaking at at the time, encouraged those present not to give attention to the woman. “Some further suffrage interruptions were made but no attention was paid”, it said.
During World War II, the basement was to be used as an air raid shelter.
The library attendant went to fight in World War I, while Roisin Walsh, the first children’s librarian in Ireland and stationed in Rathmines, went on to become the first chief librarian of Dublin City Council when all the authorities merged in the 1930s. It was in her house the political organisation Saor Éire was founded.
Today, Rathmines Library stands proudly on Rathmines’ main street, still a huge part of the community and still visited by hundreds of people every day.
Read the full list of events celebrating 100 years of Rathmines Library here.