Belfast Central Library
Its holdings, history, and architecture
Belfast Central Library is a major research library as well as a general lending library. It is one of the best known public buildings in Belfast, recognised by generations of users. There are a number of sections in Central Library:
- The Reference Library which in terms of stock is the largest public library service point in Northern Ireland
- The Belfast, Ulster, and Irish Studies section, one of the best collections of local and Irish material available to the general public
- The Business Library, a dedicated resource of business, marketing and related information
- The Learning Gateway, providing IT facilities to all users
- The Music Library, which is the only dedicated music service point in Northern Ireland
- The Newspaper Library containing a major collection of historic local newspapers, including virtually complete runs of The Belfast Telegraph, the Northern Whig, the Irish News, and the Belfast News Letter. It is housed on the ground floor of the book store with a separate public entrance in Library Street
- Central Lending providing lending services to the working, and the increasing domestic population of the city centre.
Belfast Central Library is a landmark building in the city centre, and part of the Victorian cityscape that gives Belfast so much of its distinctive character. It is a fine example of nineteenth century public service architecture dating from a time when Belfast was emerging as a major city.
Its site was then one of the most prestigious at the end of the then newly-developed Royal Avenue, close to other institutional buildings including the Reform Club and the General Post Office. It is now slightly out of the main city centre commercial area on the edge of the Cathedral Quarter. Formerly run by Belfast Corporation, it has been run by the Belfast Education and Library Board since 1973.
By the last quarter of the nineteenth century Belfast already had a number of libraries including the Linen Hall Library and others serving specialised organisations. Increasing literacy in the population was feeding an appetite for books and newspapers. In 1882 a ballot of all Belfast rate payers led to the adoption of the Public Libraries Act.
Empowered by this decision the Town Council prepared to build what was to become Belfast Central Library. The budget for this enterprise was £15,000 for the building and £3,000 for its fittings.
W.H.Lynn, who had already worked on other public buildings, won the contract to design the building. In 1884 the foundation stone was ceremonially laid by the Lord Lieutenant and work on the new building began. Its progress was slowed by the loss of some of the sandstone blocks on their journey from Scotland. A number of other problems including a series of strikes added to the difficulties.
Finally in 1888 the building officially opened. At the inauguration banquet it was announced that the Queen had conferred city status on Belfast. Although the library was formally open, it was not fully functional until 1889 when the Reference Library service became available.
At the time of its opening, Central Library was the largest dedicated library building in Ireland. Its popularity is reflected in the number of users. In the first year alone the Newsroom saw 895,000 users. However, from very early on the library was short of shelving space and as the collections grew this became a source of great concern to the librarians. The building was always incomplete. The original vision had encompassed additional book stacks at the rear of the main building, with break-through points still visible in the external brickwork behind the main reading room.
By the early twentieth century a number of branch libraries had opened including three Carnegie Branches at Oldpark, Falls and Donegal Road. Central Library formed the hub of a developing library service that was to continue to grow throughout the rest of the century.
The Victorian building is still much as it was when it first opened. The exterior is red sandstone with a polished marble granite base. The stepped portico entrance leads to a pillared hall, with a sweeping staircase to the upper floors. The first floor Reference Reading Room is notable for its impressive, decorative dome with fine plaster reliefs. The top floor, originally housed a museum and gallery. The two rooms are top lit to facilitate their function as display galleries areas, and have a light, airy feel. Their curved ceilings are emphasised with delicate bands of decorative plaster work.
It was not until the late 1920s that the museum vacated the top floor giving Central Library access to this space. The building, externally and interiorly, suggests civic pride and a sense of the emergence of Belfast as a city able to invest in major public institutions. In its early years, before the City Hall opened, Central Library was much favoured by the Corporation for hosting civic events. It also provided a venue for activities such as lectures.
It was not until 1962 that the building was extended by a seven floor book stack at the back to facilitate the by-then enormous stock of the Reference sections. This extension is purely functional, with none of the architectural splendour of the Victorian library. In 1980 a further stack at the back of Central Library was opened to accommodate the ever increasing collections. Initially this stack was not connected to the rest of the building, although in the 1990s a link was built. It was during this decade that an entrance for people with disabilities was created on the Library Street side of the building.