Sunday 24 September 2017

My love letter to the National Library

Snatch a slice of solitude in this hub of history, politics and literature

Sitting here at my desk in the National Library of Ireland, putting the finishing touches to my first ever book, I thought it might be appropriate to send the place a love letter of sorts by way of thanks.

For the past 18 months I have been trekking into Dublin city centre, eking out a slice of silence and an inch of inspiration; and each time I have yet to be let down by the NLI. The round reading room with its book-lined walls, duck-egg frescoed ceilings and pots of pencils has become my third home, after my house and RTE. Initially, I cycled in on my bike but as the research intensified, so did the number of folders I had to carry around and so the Dawson Street car park became another piece in the puzzle.

If you don't already know, the National Library sits sentry-like to the left of Leinster House on Kildare Street. If you are looking at the Dail, to its right stands the National History Museum, so we're all in good company as history, politics and literature combine in a wonderful neighbourhood of knowledge.

At first, I was concerned that the library was out of reach, that it was just for academics and egg-heads. The building can seem intimidating and the name sounds so desperately serious and yet, after a few visits, I realised that this perception couldn't be further from the truth.

For starters, you own this place, we all do. It's completely free so that rules out the "expense" argument. Secondly, the staff are great and don't make you feel awkward, in fact, they will go out of their way to help you get started. If you are looking for an article from the Galway Sentinel or the Sligo Champion, they will source it for you and help you load the microfilm into a machine. I was useless at first but they showed me how it all worked and before long, it was easy.

Thirdly, you can think. There are no phones, no iPods, nothing. You can use your laptop so it's not the Dark Ages but you cannot use ink (markers, pens, and so on -- all banned, it's brilliant). If you forget your pencil? No problem, there are little bundles of pencils dotted around the place and they even have sharpener stations!

Fourthly, you are surrounded by like-minded souls so that if you take a break, you can disappear into a corner with your book or you can have a conversation with a fellow-nerd about what project they are working on and how it's going. I met a man recently who is an only child and he was searching for some sort of family member who shared his surname (O'Neill). His search was proving to be fruitless but he wasn't giving up. Another woman I encountered is writing a book for children and we got talking about illustrations in children's literature from Oliver Jeffers to Quentin Blake.

My colleague Myles Dungan is hardly out of the place, the prolific historian that he is. A friend of mine is studying suicide in 19th-century Ireland and has the past at her fingertips when she sits at her desk. Other people are looking into their family history, researching an essay for school or an article for a newspaper.

The past is a long and fascinating story without end and the National Library is its hub in Ireland.

Fifthly, the coffee shop is really good. They do a mean cappucino and a fine slice of fruit cake so that sorts out lunch. The tables at lunchtime are peppered with vastly different types of people having animated conversations about the past (upstairs in the Reading Room) and the present (next door in Leinster House).

In one corner, a man gives an informal Italian lesson to a quartet of interested mature students and in another, uniformed children on a school tour wonder how quickly they can get through the beautiful Yeats exhibition downstairs so that they can get to the gift shop to buy bookmarks and postcards. Sixthly, if you need a break from your studies, research, genealogy, you can dip into the commercial world and head for Grafton Street and buy A Man for all Seasons in HMV or I, Claudius in Hodges Figgis. Alternatively, you could head for a stroll in Stephen's Green or make the journey to the infinitely more peaceful Merrion Square (due to be re-named soon), where the cobwebs can be cleared in time for your return trip to the Library.

If you can't make the trip into Dublin, it's worth your while going local. When was the last time you visited your local library? It might not be as salubrious to look at or sit in as the National Library but it can certainly provide the haven that many people need on occasion and it's free.

I was gobsmacked by what's now available from my library, whether it's dvds and cds to borrow, classes to attend, papers to read, computers to avail of and, as important as any of these things, a place to meet.

Plenty of people need to go somewhere just to have some class of social interaction in their day and the local library provides just that. It used to be the local shop, butcher or pub but these are dying off slowly for various and obvious reasons. With any luck, the library will survive this social culling. I digress, sorry.

I just wanted to say thank you to a building and a place that has become an old and reliable friend in recent times. I recommend a visit soon, but leave your pen at home.

Irish Independent

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