The Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge, today more commonly known as The Linen Hall, developed from the Belfast Reading Society. Established on 13th May 1788, the society was part of a widespread movement for self-improvement and the improvement of society.

Such societies emerged in towns and cities across Britain and Ireland. With rising rates of literacy, members banded together to acquire works of importance. In Ireland, in particular, revolutionary principles and Enlightenment ideals prompted their rise.

The founding members were:

Worthy plebians who would do honour to any town, not among them one of higher rank than McCormick the gunsmith or Osborne the baker.

Roger Mulholland, a builder and architect was the society’s first President. The first Librarian was Robert Cary. Minute books suggest there were thirteen further founding members:

William McCleery, tanner; Robert McCormick, gunsmith; his brother James McCormick; John Rabb, printer; William Hamilton; Arthur Quinn; Hugh McNamara; James Burgess; James Woodburn; James de Butts; Maurice Spottiswood; James Potts; and Richard Murdock.

These founders laid out clear and concise rules referring to terms of membership, governance of the society, and due care of books.

Rules of the Belfast Reading Society

1. That the mode of admitting members shall be by ballot, six black beans excluding.
2. That every candidate for admittance must be known to one or more of the regular members, or recommended by some person in whom the society can place confidence, and be proposed one month previous to admittance.
3. That each member shall pay the monthly sum of one shilling British, as long as the society shall deem it necessary.
4. That the sum to be paid by members who shall be admitted one year or upwards after the commencement of the society, shall be regulated from time to time by a majority of the society.
5. That no member shall have the use of any book longer than fourteen days, if called for by any other member of the society.
6. That no member shall be at liberty to lend out of his house or family any book or books, the property of the society, and for every such offence where detected, shall be fined five British shillings, besides being accountable for whatever injury such book or books may thereby have received.
7. That each member shall sign an obligation to pay the first cost or value of any book he may injure, lose, or not return to the society, and the full value of any set he may render incomplete by doing so.
8. That any member who does not pay his monthly subscription or cause it to be paid on that day appointed for that purpose shall be fined the sum of three pence. No excuse for failure will be admitted.
9. That any member who shall be three months in arrears to the society will not be supplied with any books from the library until arrears and fines are paid up.
10. That any member who shall be in arrears to the society one year’s subscription or twelve shillings British shall thereby forfeit his property in the library and privilege in the society and cannot be restored to either without producing satisfactory reasons to the committee and paying his arrears.
11. That the committee shall consist of five members who shall be chosen by ballot, who shall choose and purchase the books for the use of the society, specify the fines and take such steps as may be proper and necessary to enforce obedience to and due observance of the regulations, who shall lay their transactions, state of the accounts and library quarterly before a meeting of the society at which meeting the committee shall be chosen.
12. It being absolutely necessary that the committee and secretary should attend the different meetings of the society, a fine of one British shilling shall be paid by any member thereof who shall be absent and a fine of sixpence British on not appearing till half an hour after the hour of meeting.
13. That any member shall have power to sell or bequeath his property in the library.
14. That if upon inquiry it shall appear that any member died without willing or bequeathing his property in the library, said property shall be transferrable to the heir of the deceased member, with this proviso that said heir or person to whom said property may be sold or bequeathed shall be admitted by the same mode and on the same principles as other members are, and if said heir or purchaser be rejected by the society they have a liberty of transferring their property ad infinitum until there is a person proposed considered as eligible to be admitted as a member in the society.
15. That each member shall declare his approbation and bind himself to the strict and faithful observance of these regulations by subscribing his name.
Belfast, 13 May 1788

From its beginning, the society’s central aim was to run a subscription library for the benefit of its members. Later, it would take on a wider remit in the cultural and educational life of Belfast. While other societies faltered over the past 200 years, The Linen Hall flourished in an industrial city. Today, the institution is much more than just a library but remains true to the ideals and values laid down more than 235 years ago.