Old museums and libraries with little if any turnover of materials face an on-going, major challenge. They need to remain relevant, retain some feeling of life and modernity, and find a way to coax old visitors back.
Tucked in behind St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin city, Marsh’s Library faces such a challenge. Commissioned by the then Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin Narcissus Marsh, the library has been open in 1707 and has accumulated thousands of important 15-18th century books, of which about 300 are over 600 years old. Its oldest work, by Cicero, dates from 1472. No books within its four hallowed walls are less than 200 years old.
Gladly, Ireland’s oldest public library, which attracts about 12,000 visitors each year, seems to recognise the need to do more than allure visitors to its tranquil atmosphere and the aroma of old books. At present, it is offering visitors two exhibitions: a collection of the books James Joyce read there in 1902; and another of Jewish books, mainly from the 17th century.
Dublin’s most famous writer used the library to read about diverse topics that subsequently influenced his work. Joyce read about the Franciscan order, its influential monk Joachim of Fiore, and about the order’s Irish monks who fled to Europe. He also read Plutarch and Dante there, as well as The Decameron. In the exhibition, these books are displayed in glass cases with explanatory texts on their influence on his work. If proof is needed of the influence of these books and the library on the writer, it’s in the citing of Marsh’s Library in Stephen Hero, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. ‘James Joyce, Apocalypse and Exile’ runs until Bloomsday 2015.
The ‘From Lublin to Dublin’ exhibition showcases old, Jewish books with their title page displayed, some with the personal motto (in Greek) of Archbishop Marsh. The books are accompanied by descriptions of their binding (some are re-backed), marginalia and annotations, though more detail of their contents or history could be provided.
An interesting feature inside the library is the map on display of St Patrick’s Cathedral’s surroundings in the 1750s. It illustrates the expanse of the ecclesiastical world at the time and its now archaic lexicon, for example, the prebendary of Clonmethan’s manse.
The sense of history and time is evident among the 10,000 books of all shapes and sizes in the first gallery. You feel it in the old reading room where scholars like Joyce and Bram Stoker read among the 2,200 books there, brought to Ireland by Huguenot Elias Bouhéreau in 1686. It permeates the second gallery of books, which houses the personal collections of Archbishop Marsh and Bishop of Clogher John Stearne, and in the small caged reading rooms, installed in the late eighteenth century to quarantine readers consulting small books that might have been easily stolen.
As you walk among these tall shelves defined by old wood and books, the sound of the cathedral’s distant bells completes the experience. Ireland’s oldest public library continues to allure.