To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.

W. Somerset Maugham



A Radical Foundation 1788 - 1802

Today's Linen Hall Library was founded as the Belfast Reading Society in 1788 by, as alternative versions have it, 'the worthy plebeians' or the 'sans culottes' of the town.

The success of this artisan venture soon attracted the interest of more prominent members of the town's merchant class and in 1792 the Reading Society became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, signifying over arching enlightenment ambitions.

Its first objective remained the 'collecting [of] an extensive library', but it also aimed to acquire 'philosophical apparatus and such productions of nature and art as are calculated to enlarge knowledge'. In addition to this museum function these pioneers aimed to provide a programme of adult education, and the Library even served as Belfast's first meteorological station.

In seeking to build up its collections the Society took a particular interest in 'such materials as may render them more intimately acquainted with the natural, civil, commercial and ecclesiastical history of their own country [i.e. Ireland', an impetus that remains to this day.

In encouraging such interest, the Society published Edmund Bunting's Ancient Irish Music (1796), the first publication in score form of traditional Irish music.

More generally such ambitions were frustrated by the failure to secure permanent premises and by the political crisis of the times.

Leading members of the society were radicals or even revolutionaries and members of the Society of United Irishmen who were to rise in rebellion in 1798. The second Librarian, Thomas Russell, was a leading United Irish activist and was arrested on the Library premises in 1796 and later executed. By 1797 the Society was 'in a declining state'.

It escaped the fate of other Reading Societies in the province, sacked by vengeful government forces, because leading moderates and later conservatives remained involved in the Belfast Society. A key decision in 1794 that, while the Society would purchase books 'on political and theological subjects', it would 'prevent discussion of them in the society', enabled all parties to remain on board.

The Rev. William Bruce, a leading opponent of the United Irishmen, was President from February 1798, and was able to preserve the Library at the time of the rebellion in June of that year.

The White Linen Hall 1802 - 1888

In 1802 the Library secured its first permanent premises in rooms below the clock tower of the White Linen Hall on the site of the present day City Hall.

Hence the origins of the Library's present day name (although for legal purposes we are still the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge).

Safely ensconced in the White Linen, the Library lacked the impetus of the founding generation and was to enjoy a somewhat chequered career for much of the nineteenth century.

In contrast to the urge for 'free and universal education' in the 1790's, much time was now spent trying to exclude students from the new Queen's College (now Queen's University). A long running battle was fought over whether to permit fiction with its potentially 'immoral tendencies. Not surprisingly rival circulating libraries with no such inhibitions soon presented a threat.

Then, was it bad luck, or symptomatic of a narrow and parsimonious outlook, that a succession of Librarians fell prey to the demon drink or turned to downright theft?

And yet by the 1870's Belfast was prospering mightily, and on the eve of its great period of growth based on linen and shipbuilding, which was to last through to the end of the century. Its leading citizens were sufficiently confident, and liberal in outlook, to do something better with the Linen Hall Library.

A Second Flourishing 1888 - 1917

In 1888, at the time of its centenary, the Library faced a crisis with the prospective loss of its home in the White Linen Hall to make way for the new and grandiose City Hall.

The purchase of the Library's present main building at 17 - 19 Donegall Square North, characterised a new vigour in the institution. Appropriately enough the new building was itself a linen warehouse built in the 1860's to the design of Lynn and Lanyon.

To undertake the venture, a new constitution had to be adopted under the Educational Endowments Act, and one marking the transition from a purely private body, to one with legally enforceable public responsibilities with regard to the custody of its collections. Substantial funds also had to be raised.

The energy to undertake all this owed much to a generation of dedicated antiquarians, men with money made in Belfast's burgeoning industry and commerce, and increasingly men with leisure.

This was also reflected in a great era of collection. It is to this period that we owe our systematic collection of early Belfast and Ulster printed books, chronicled in the pioneer local bibliographies of the Library's long time Secretary, John Anderson.

The new premises also served as the venue for wide ranging cultural programmes, which were culturally inclusive in what was already a seriously divided city. The Library celebrated the acquisition of its major collection of Burns and Burnsiana with an exhibition, but also held an Irish harp festival.

It was following the move to the new premises in 1892 that a separate Irish collection was established, and the final fruit of this period of openness and expansion was the publication in 1917 of the separate dictionary catalogue to the collection.

Long Years of Decline 1918 - 1980

In the difficult years after partition in 1922 and the establishment of the Northern Ireland State, years marked by communal division, and by prolonged periods of economic recession, the Linen Hall played no more than a muted role.

It continued to flourish as the principal Belfast Library because of the very slow development of the public library service, which was further set back by severe damage in the 1941 Blitz. In these circumstances Linen Hall membership reached a peak in 1945.

In the immediate post-war period the Linen Hall still served as the natural centre for a new and restless creative generation, men like Sam Hanna Bell, novelist and pioneer of local broadcasting, Jo Tomelty, playwright, and artist Willie Conor. Nonetheless the Library did little strategically or organisationally to secure its position and membership began to slowly decline.

Even at the onset of the present troubles in 1968, the Library was still capable of taking an extraordinary initiative, when it was decided to collect political ephemera, the basis of today's enormously important Northern Ireland Political Collection.

Although Department of Education grant aid was first secured in the early 1970's, the Library faced almost terminal crisis. Direct Rule in 1971 soon provided enormously increased investment in the public library service, and meanwhile the IRA bombing campaign emptied the city centre.

By the end of the 1970's the Library still had its unique collections and an honourable history, but it had a crumbling and dangerous building, underpaid staff, a literally dying membership, and a minimal budget which still would not add up. The government lost confidence and threatened to withdraw the last lifeline - their grant.

In December 1980 the Governors met to vote on proposals to effectively close the Library, to deposit its Irish Collection at Queen's University and to lease it's building to the public library service.

At the meeting there was a counter coup. The proposals were voted down and it was agreed to launch a 'Save the Linen Hall Campaign'

Revival and Extension 1981 - 2000

The decision in late 1980 to fight to 'Save the Linen Hall' was taken much against the odds. After all key funding support from the Department of Education was due to terminate.

A key factor in favour of the Library was a widespread perception that it was a unique resource. An early boost was given by a packed City Hall meeting chaired by the Lord Mayor, and soon after the City Council offered grant support.

The depth of the crisis facing the Library enabled two critical decisions:

  • (a) That it would adopt a vastly higher public profile and emphasise free public reference access; after all it held its collections 'in trust for the people of Belfast'.
  • (b) That it would concentrate its limited resources on what it did best and in particular in the field of Irish and local studies, and would accordingly cease to compete with a now greatly expanded Central Reference Library in a wide range of subject areas.

Letting non-members into the Library encouraged more to join, and subscribing membership was eventually to rise from an historic low of 1700 to above 3,500 by the late 1990's.

Within a year the Department of Education was sufficiently encouraged by progress to restore grant aid. By 1984 the Library was able to undertake major and essential repairs to its buildings. In 1988 the Library's Bicentennial was marked by a major festival and a Development Appeal raised more than £300,000 to provide strong room accommodation, a major new events area and light refreshment facility, and to fund the commencement of computerisation.

The focused approach to key collections, and a strategy of creating centres of excellence within the library, centres, which at one at the same time had close links with the community at large while also serving the research fraternity, bore fruit. This was most evident in respect of the now internationally renowned Northern Ireland Political Collection, but other specialisms in the Irish Language and in respect of Theatre and the Performing Arts were also developed.

Meanwhile the Library increasingly served as a cultural centre as well as Library, hosting a myriad of events, many organised by the Library itself, but often with the Library facilitating others. An extensive publication programme included serious contributions to the world of letters, but also the publication of an extensive and high quality range of prints that assisted in the generation of income.

As the century drew to a close the Library had re-positioned itself, no longer, however meritorious, an elite and exclusive institution, rather at the centre of a myriad of connections with all sections of the community and with the wider research community.

Extension 1985 - 2000

As early as 1985, the Library recognised that the ultimate constraint on the distance that its revival might go was likely to be lack of space on its dangerously land locked city centre site. In the following decade a variety of options were explored, and, finally, in 1995 agreement in principal was reached to purchase a 999 year lease on the two upper floors of neighbouring premises at 48-50 Fountain Street, thus prospectively providing the Library with a 50% increase in space.

In 1996, with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, this vital transaction was completed at a cost of £250,000. The Library then faced the challenge of raising a further £3,000,000 to undertake the very major building operations required to link the two buildings, and to meet Heritage Lottery Fund requirements for major conservation and cataloguing operations, and those of other funders for a significant outreach programme.

By March 1999 when the Library launched a public appeal for £400,000, close to £3,000,000 had already been raised or pledged with the help of a second major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and other major support from the International Fund for Ireland, the Belfast European Partnership Board, and the DENI EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. Smaller donations from members and friends had also made a significant contribution.

The Library was sufficiently confident to appoint Hall Black & Douglas as architects, and William Dowling as main contractors and building commenced in June 1999. It was a tribute to all those involved that the work had been completed in time for the planned opening on 16 September 2000 and within budget.

The Library today has a magnificent and extended platform from which to serve the community at large. The Millennium extension provided the library with 50% more space, a new linking core between the two buildings that provides disabled access throughout, and a new multi-purpose events area and reading rooms. Today the Linen Hall offers a full programme of events - from exhibitions, music, theatre, lectures to the popular readings groups and tours. Visitors to the Library have risen to record levels.

Visitors are always welcome to visit the Linen Hall - to browse the collections, take in an exhibition or just relax with a newspaper in the coffee shop. So whether you are engaged in serious artistic or cultural research or simply seeking relaxation, head to the Linen Hall.