Reading Societies and Libraries

Those reading societies and libraries that were intrinsic to the literary life of the city

‘A book is not just an object, capable of being described bibliographically; it is a medium by which people absorb ideas and saw reflected their views and hopes.’  - Ronnie Adams

For many who write, the library is the first port of call in learning the beauty and adventure of books. Belfast’s citizens have had a particularly strong desire to amass and read literature and books of all kinds.

Libraries are repositories for printed and archive material preserved in order that citizens, or members of a particular library, can access material.

The first library in Belfast was created for profit in the early 1770s by Hugh Warren and boasted more than one thousand volumes of history, novels, travels, voyages, lives, memoirs and plays. John Hay opened the rival Belfast Circulating Library in 1775. His terms of membership were 13 shillings a year, 4 shillings 4 pence a quarter or 1 shilling 7 pence for a month.

The other forms of library from this era sprang not from a desire to make money but a desire to encourage reading and ‘promote knowledge’. Reading societies were set up to collect and form libraries with the express intent of disseminating reading material to those who would need it.

The first in Belfast was the Belfast Reading Society, which later became the Belfast Society for Linen Hall LibraryPromoting Knowledge and then the Linen Hall Library. The Library was created by, as alternative versions have it, 'the worthy plebeians' or 'sans culottes' of the town.

Although its first objective remained the 'collecting [of] an extensive library', 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.

Leading members of the society included radicals, 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 managed to escape the fate of other reading societies in Ireland, sacked by vengeful government forces, because leading moderates and later conservatives remained involved in the Belfast Society.

A key decision was made in 1794 that while the Society would purchase books 'on political and theological subjects', it would 'prevent discussion of them in the society', enabling all parties to remain on board.

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

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

The Linen Hall continued to flourish as Belfast’s principal library because of the 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.

By the end of the 1970s 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 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, deposit its Irish Collection at Queen's University and lease the building to the public library service.

At the meeting there was a counter coup, led by Dr Brian Trainor. The proposals were voted down and it was agreed to launch a 'Save the Linen Hall Campaign'. Letting non-members into the Library encouraged more to join, and subscribing membership was eventually to rise from an historic low of 1,700 to above 3,500 by the late 1990s.

‘I learned to use the Public Library
That red bricked haven which Carnegie built’ – John Hewitt

The story of Belfast’s Public Library Service is one of extraordinarily slow progress culminating in tremendous growth in the 1970s with a more recent contraction. The Public Libraries Act (Ireland) of 1855 heralded the setting up of the public libraries of Belfast, empowering cities and towns of over 5,000 inhabitants to establish free public libraries, subsidised by a rate increase of 1 penny-in-the-pound.

Belfast took 33 years to establish a library, in Royal Avenue, named the Free Public Library, now Central Library. In the library’s first year, 185,147 volumes were issued, borrowed by people from all walks of life, from apprentices to grocers to engineers. By far the most popular type of book was prose fiction.

In 1898, Belfast Libraries Committee recommended that four new branch library buildings be erected, in the north, east, south and west of the city. As a result, Ballymacarrett was opened in east Belfast in 1903 and three ‘Carnegie’ libraries followed at Oldpark Road in north Belfast in 1906, Falls Road in west Belfast in 1908, and Donegall Road in south Belfast in 1909.

After the Second World War the inner city population of Belfast declined significantly as new centres of population were established further from the city centre. This had an effect on the ‘inner city’ libraries, which showed a marked decline in membership and loans.

Additional services to the outer regions of Belfast were required. As a result, many branch libraries were opened in various parts of Belfast between the 1950s and 1970s, with three mobile libraries being added to service in 1962.

Belfast libraries now face an uncertain future. The position of libraries in general within society has been transformed by the advent of the internet. The vision of the ‘red-bricked haven’ is perhaps changing to a more fluid concept of an information centre.

What is certain, however, is that the eternal impulse for knowledge and literature, so prevalent in 18th century Belfast, will continue to ensure an important place for libraries in the cityscape of the future.