Long before Belfast had its City Hall, its Grand Opera House and its Royal Courts of Justice, it had a public library, and a magnificent one at that.
The distinguished architect WH Lynn and the craftsmen employed by local contractor H & J Martin pulled out all the stops on the design and construction of the impressive three-storey Dumfries sandstone building, which still stands on what was one of the prime sites in burgeoning Victorian Belfast. As though to cement its crucial role in public life, it was opened on the very day that Belfast changed from a town to a city.
The foundation stone was laid in 1884 by the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Spencer, an ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. After a series of hiccups – including the loss at sea of a consignment of sandstone, an industrial dispute over the quality of the decorative plasterwork and the recutting of the granite slabs for the facade – on Saturday, October 13, 1888, Belfast Central Library opened its doors.
An invitation went out to citizens of all ages and backgrounds to come in and connect with education and knowledge, to link up with their history, their own communities and the world beyond. It was a momentous occasion. Having performed the official opening of the library, Spencer's successor, the Marquis of Londonderry, progressed along Royal Avenue to a banquet at the old Linen Hall, where, on behalf of Queen Victoria, he granted Belfast city status.
This landmark building stands in a part of the city that was, and is again, undergoing enormous change. When it opened, Belfast Central Library was the largest dedicated library in the whole of Ireland and was frequently used to host prestigious civic events and functions. It is notable that 125 years on, it continues to be used for its original purpose.
In the 19th century, the town at the mouth of the River Lagan was expanding at a rate of knots, gaining worldwide recognition as a port and centre of commerce, manufacturing and shipbuilding. While there had been private and subscription-based libraries in Belfast since the 17th century, they were very much the preserve of the upper and middle classes.
But as corporate and industrial ambitions grew, so did a demand for a more literate workforce. The thinking was that the establishment of a network of public libraries would help to address social inequality and illiteracy. There were few objections when a penny was added to the rates in order to build, finance and maintain a public central library in the heart of Belfast. For the princely sum of £18,000, the job was done.
For its 125th anniversary in 2014, Belfast Central Library has planned a lively year-long programme of events. And plans are well advanced for a thrilling, state-of-the-art new building centred around the existing site. By taking in the area bounded by the present building, the Belfast Telegraph building and Frames block, a new address will be created: Library Square.
Speaking at the launch of the programme, Libraries NI assistant director Mandy Bryson says: 'At present, we are restricted in the way we can develop the service,'. She acknowledged that, at this crucial moment in Belfast Central Library's long and colourful history, all concerned were holding their breath as the decision from the Northern Ireland Assembly to the funding application drew near.
'Our aim is to make much more of the collection visible and accessible to the public. We want to get material out of the vaults and into public view. In the collection we have many beautiful books, which must be kept in controlled environmental conditions. There is a permanent rolling exhibition in the foyer, but at the moment we can only show the public a small percentage of our stock.
'The library is facing into a very busy time, with the development of the new University of Ulster campus. We are anticipating an influx of around 6,000 to 7,000 students, which will probably start happening from 2015. At present we are not functioning as a modern 21st century library but our plans and vision for the future are very exciting.'
'The Central Library represents much that is admirable in Belfast,' declares Peter May, Interim Permanent Secretary at the Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure, who represented arts minister Carál Ní Chuilín at the launch. He spoke warmly of the widespread cross-party support at Stormont for the proposed development. 'The library started life in a very different Belfast in a very different world. What was state-of-the-art then is no longer,' May adds. 'An important part of its role has been in tackling poverty and social exclusion, providing a safe place, open to all, and enabling individuals to enhance their quality of life. A spirit of openness and creativity has been its hallmark over the past 125 years.'
There is, indeed, much to admire beyond the library's stately collonaded facade. All around the marbled foyer are glass cases containing rare illustrated fine books, representing a mere tip of the iceberg that is the total collection.
Currently on show are an illuminated facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible, the gorgeous colour plates of Les Roses by the famous French illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté, a facsimile of the Fourth Folio of Shakespeare's Macbeth, a large illustrated volume entitled History of the Indian Tribes of North America and some fine examples of work by John Gould, the famous Victorian ornithologist and bird artist.
Just off the foyer is the News Room, which drew in some 895,000 visitors in its first year. At the time, there were those who felt that readers were being encouraged to gamble by being able to study the racing results. The issue was debated by the Council and a ruling was announced that gambling information should not be made available to the public. A porter was tasked with blacking out the racing results every day, a practice which continued into the 1960s.
Leading towards the back of the building is a long room, with a pitched ceiling. It originally housed the famous Granger Collection, whose paintings, artefacts and carved Celtic cross were transferred across the city to Stranmillis, when the Ulster Museum moved to its present site in 1929.
'I am passionate about this place,' says Stephen McFarlane, business manager – information, who has worked at the library for some 25 years and knows every nook and cranny. He swipes through a mini photographic gallery on his tablet, pausing on atmospheric monochrome images dating back to the days when the building functioned as a library, a museum and an art gallery.
Ascending the sweeping staircase, McFarlane points out the floral motifs in the wrought iron rail – a motif which appears on the façade and in the ornate plasterwork – before proudly revealing the building's piece de resistance is the magnificent Reading Room, with its Wedgewood blue and cream lace-like plasterwork and glazed domed ceiling.
'The arches on the wall across the room are break-through points, installed by the Victorians for an extension which was never built,' he says. 'You can also see them in the brick exterior wall. It's clear that even then, it was thought that this place might not be big enough for the public's needs.'
On the top floor of the original building is the Heritage Department, currently showing an exhibition based on the works of CS Lewis. In this former gallery space, light floods in through the glass panelled roof, picking out in the ceiling the motif of an artist's palette and paint-laden brushes.
On the connecting landing are two noteworthy marble statues by the American sculptor Emma Stebbins, donated to the library by the Dunville family, the whisky distillers and tea importers. In a small, unobtrusive glass case is a bronze sculpture of a young man with raised, outstretched arms. This is the Stephen Parker Memorial Trophy, commemorating a brave teenager who was killed in a terrorist bomb in the Cavehill Road in 1972.
It represents an annual bursary for budding young musicians, given by the late boy's parents Rev and Mrs JD Parker in memory of their son. The Heritage Department contains a huge store of archival records and it was here that entertainer Bruce Forsyth was filmed searching for his family roots in the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?.
McFarlane's tour continues into the ugly 1960s and 1980s extensions, built to provide accommodation for the ever increasing collections, most of which are closed off from the public. Here, on miles and miles of shelving, are bays of books on every imaginable subject under the sun. Our progress through the bowels of the building pauses at the Ordnance Survey cabinets, a fascinating photographic section and entire rooms containing periodicals and government papers.
Belfast Central Library was once a repository for the UN – or the League of Nations, as it then was – and its official reports are held here for reference purposes. The shelves groan with weighty bound volumes of Irish newspapers, reckoned by McFarlane to be the biggest collection in Ireland, as well as magazines like The Graphic, London Illustrated News, Vogue and Time, most of them dating back to the mid-1800s.
The library is part of the patent information network. Its earliest patent was granted by King James I in 1617 to Aaron Rapburne and Roger Burges for metal plates to print maps. The records of thousands of subsequent patents make for riveting reading.
The library's holy of holies, however, is the Fine Book Room. Here in hushed, temperature controlled atmosphere, furnished with antique cabinets and bookcases, heritage services manager Catherine Morrow presides over a veritable literary treasure trove.
'It is a tribute to the early Librarians that they were prepared to seek out and purchase books of this quality,' Morrow says. 'They tended to buy the best copies available at auction. Our natural history collection goes back to the 1600s and we have an example of the earliest printed book, known as an incunabulum, produced in 1470. It is Scrutinium Scriptiorarum by Pauli de Sancta Maria. Until then, books had been handwritten but this is a fine example of the very earliest printing techniques.'
Morrow carefully turns the large, fragile pages of Insects of India, a book of exquisite, minutely detailed illustrations by the Anglo-Irish writer and natural historian Edward Donovan (1768 - 1837). From more recent times is a copy of Piper's Flowers, Blackstaff Press's 1987 limited edition of works by Raymond Piper, which includes five of his famous Irish orchid paintings.
And from the realms of contemporary popular culture comes Sometime in New York City, a tale of the romance of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, told in the words of Lennon, Ono and photographer Bob Gruen. This limited edition is illustrated with previously unpublished photographs from Gruen's archive and signed by Ono and Gruen.
The time has undoubtedly come to reveal these cherished items to the wider public and to take this great Belfast institution into a new phase of life. The year-long 125th birthday celebration will lift the lid on the library's intriguing history, as well as focusing on its special collections: the fine books, heritage, postcards, patents and newspaper collections.
There will be storytelling sessions, music recitals, poetry and prose readings, drama performances and encounters with some of Northern Ireland's best known writers. It offers an opportunity to look to the future through the prism of the past, to celebrate the crucial role played in the lives of the citizens of Belfast over the centuries and to pave the way for new cultural adventures for generations to come.
By Jane Coyle