The Northern Ireland Political Collection at the Linen Hall Library (1:1)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Archives, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1993), Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 1

Robert Bell
In the cramped quarters of the attic of Belfast’s historic Linen Hall Library, a collection of 50,000 items of printed material about the current Northern Ireland troubles is in constant consultation. To the best of our knowledge, it is unique. For those of us who work in the Library, the Collection is therefore a source of great pride, but that our work should be without precedent, or indeed antecedent, seems incredible and is a cause of great concern. To the historian, to whom library collections represent the field to be tilled, this situation should be a cause for alarm. The phenomenon of the Northern Ireland Political Collection is one that needs some explaining, if only to point up some of the inadequacies of libraries in general.
Put simply, the Linen Hall’s collection exists because of a happy co-incidence of factors. The first is the Library’s independence, and in particular its independence from the state. Second is the principled philosophy adopted by staff and governors and, by inference, membership, over the most difficult period in both the Library’s history and that of the place it serves. Third, the Library is fortunate in that its history has been conditioned by both the republican and unionist traditions and is thus regarded by each as an integral part of their heritage. And last, its position in the shopping centre of downtown Belfast is relatively neutral.

The Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge was established in 1788 by artisans, radicals and the rising bourgeoisie of the town. The Linen Hall is one of the few remaining examples of a proliferation of subscription libraries throughout the West, prompted by the new spirit of enquiry in the age of the American and French revolutions. Not surprisingly, the political complexion of the first membership was primarily radical and even revolutionary. The second Librarian, Thomas Russell, Wolfe Tone’s closest friend, was hanged for his part in the 1803 Emmet rebellion. Belfast’s first parish priest was on the governing body and a woman, Mary Anne McCracken, was welcomed to take up her brother’s position when Henry Joy McCracken was hanged on Belfast’s High Street for his part in the 1798 rebellion.
Yet even in the 1790s the Library had been a broad church and in the era of reaction which followed the defeat of the ‘98 rebellion, those more conservative members were able to secure the institution’s future. In 1802 the Society was given rooms, ‘free of all expense’, in Belfast’s White Linen Hall and so acquired the nickname by which it became famous. Here it provided Belfast’s only general library, but also retained a strong interest in antiquarian materials relating to Ireland, and within this context, the tradition of collecting local political material, both in pamphlet and periodical form, which had been established so strongly in the late 18th century, never entirely died. The Library’s excellent Irish Collection, which includes its Belfast Printed Books, Belfast Printed Pamphlets and Provincial Printed Books collections, thus included political publications of every stripe. Further, the Library holds a very great number of such pamphlets which remain uncatalogued.
In 1892 the White Linen Hall was demolished to make way for Belfast City Hall, and what was by then affectionately known as the Linen Hall Library purchased permanent premises of its own on the corner of Donegall Square, in the very heart of the city. This provided a secure base for a major library which still retained complete independence from the political institutions of the country.

THE 1960s

By the 1960s, the Library’s membership had been largely unionist, not to say middle-class; yet, it was far from exclusively so and had always maintained its non-sectarian, liberal and pluralist reputation. Indeed, by that decisive decade, the Library could both claim members, and hence influence, within the Unionist establishment and was, at the same time, serving as a second home to the new post-war generation of writers, historians and even radicals in the city.
The explosion of political action that took place on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1968, as in 1798, was in part a reflection of, and fuelled by, political changes throughout the world. These changes in turn were precipitated and fed by a technological revolution in communications; this included not only the immediacy and impact of television news, but the invention and proliferation of the off-set litho press on which a series of sub-cultures rejecting the status quo were to rely.
The Linen Hall had the traditions, the neutrality and the independence, both politically and in terms of its potential freedom from bureaucratic constraints, to document what was happening in Northern Ireland. But in itself, none of this would have been enough and might even have militated against intervention. The Library was very fortunate to have at its helm a remarkable librarian, Jimmy Vitty. In the words of John Gray, the current Librarian:
Vitty had an unrivalled knowledge of Irish antiquarian books, but was also down to earth, a Belfast wit and character with a feel for what was happening on the streets. He was the kind of librarian who, unlike so many, extended his curiosity and conception of his curatorial role into the here and now.

It was Vitty, the story goes, who was handed a civil rights leaflet in a city centre bar and, instead of throwing it away, brought it back to the Library. The Deputy Librarian, Jim Gracey, was instructed to look into it, and volunteers were called for from the staff. When these went into barricaded parts of the city, both unionist and nationalist, they found a hive of publishing activity, returning from every foray with pamphlets, leaflets, barricade bulletins, magazines, posters, badges and cards. They found material published for district, city-wide, province-wide, national (both Irish and British) and international consumption. And the Northern Ireland Political Ephemera Collection was born.
Much of this material was seditious and some of it was illegal. The Library was fortunate that its contacts in the Unionist establishment helped it acquire a dispensation to allow it, officially, to circumvent the Special Powers Act. At the same time, the membership of the Library included collectors of street literature, useful contacts from all sides, and on occasion even publishers and distributors of banned newspapers.
That a library should have intervened in this way was remarkable and yet, with the benefit of hindsight seems just common sense, librarians doing their duty, recording, preserving, and making available both to the people and to posterity as complete a picture of what was being published as was possible. That is the librarian’s job. Yet it has happened nowhere else. To give just one example, the events in Paris of that same year were to transform French society, politics and culture and were similarly characterised by a torrent of ephemeral literature. No institution saw fit to collect it and by the time that any made the attempt, in the mid seventies, it had almost all been lost, to the chagrin of librarians and the disappointment of a new generation of historians.


So why does it not happen anywhere else? The first and most obvious reason is that the great majority of libraries, are owned and ultimately controlled by the state, and the state is not going to collect and make available subversive and seditious literature. And yet why not? We are entitled to expect the press to be free and to lament every derogation from that freedom. We expect journalists to defend their right to report impartially. Why not librarians? True, we are, by our self-effacing tradition, often made of even less stern stuff than journalists, but that should no longer serve as an excuse. Librarians should assert the independence of their profession, in terms of what we collect and the access we provide to it.
Until the mid-1980s, thanks to the ambiguities of the Northern Ireland constitutional situation, we were served by three ‘national’ bibliographies, the British National Bibliography, the Irish Publishing Record and the Northern Ireland Local Studies List, all three of which contrived to omit major political publications.
In the case of the Northern Ireland Studies List, the Linen Hall Library was specifically excluded from contributing to it, no doubt because the Library would have submitted many entries for ‘sensitive’ material. While that situation has now been resolved, the responsibility for providing a bibliographic record for this material, still rests almost solely with the Linen Hall Library. Further, it is tacitly assumed that only the Linen Hall should collect such material. The practical strain of adding general records to a national database, for a large number of important published works, now rests on the shoulders of the small institution who saw fit to collect it.
To be fair, library acquisitions’ systems are not designed to cope with this material, which one has to actively solicit. It does not appear in bibliographies nor in book shops. Librarianship is notoriously bureaucratic and inordinately reliant on systems. In the past decade, great strides have been made in attempts to ‘bring the library to the community’ but a situation such as has obtained in the Linen Hall since 1968, where staff members are instructed to go into the community purely to retrieve material, is very rare.
Some attempts have been made. In the mid 1970s Sinn Féin, as a legal political party, began to deposit material with the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. Later in that decade, when Roy Mason, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was cracking down on the publishing efforts of (mostly republican) paramilitary sympathisers, the Royal Ulster Constabulary simply arrived at PRONI and took away the material. The upshot was that the archivist directly responsible felt he had to abandon home and job and move to London. PRONI has subsequently abandoned this kind of collecting activity.

There are however some encouraging developments. The collection of ephemera, writ large, has become a growth area in the profession, particularly in the national libraries, certainly in Britain and Ireland. Political ephemera, as a fraction of this, is now more actively pursued. The National Library of Ireland, in particular, is making great attempts to make up for lost time in terms of Irish political publications and has begun in the last five years to offer the Linen Hall its only competition. The National and Linen Hall Libraries are now discussing a joint approach to collecting both north and south of the border.
Libraries certainly gain satisfaction in comprehensively acquiring material which is so important to posterity in the face of overt or tacit attempts at censorship. But there is also the pleasure of what we at the Linen Hall call ‘pleasing the punters’. Most of those who come to the Political Collection do so after visiting many other libraries. Initially they are delighted that we have anything, and are then ecstatic when they see the extent of our holdings. Yet all we have done is to preserve what was published and distributed on the streets of our own city. And it was not that difficult.

At its inception in 1968, a retrospective round-up back to the start of 1966 was instituted, to include the publication of both Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph and the Campaign Newsletter, organ of the Campaign For Social Justice in Northern Ireland (the crucial forerunner of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Campaign). Immediately a salutary lesson was learned. Six issues of Campaign Newsletter, though published only two years previously, could nowhere be obtained. It was not until over twenty years later that the Library tracked copies down and completed its set.
In what was the relatively phoney-war period of 1968-1971, many necessary contacts and the operational framework were established before the going got rough. In 1970, Paula Howard, an energetic Dubliner, was appointed Reference Librarian and took over responsibility for the collection. She perhaps did most to establish the acquisitions’ policy and also a rudimentary cataloguing system. She, like those that followed, was never harassed or intimidated, despite her obvious Dublin accent. The fame of the collection spread, so that virtually every interested writer who came to Northern Ireland made use of the Collection. Robert Fisk, who came to Belfast in 1972 as correspondent for The Times, observed that ‘the Linen Hall was the only institution in Belfast which could provide an impartial collection of books on the conflict on which we reporters could rely’.
In 1979, when Paula Howard left the Library, it was facing imminent closure and the staff were struggling hard to maintain any service at all. The Deputy Librarian, John Killen, did much thereafter to keep the Political Collection from drowning altogether. It was not until my appointment as temporary supervisor on a government employment scheme in 1984 that the Library had a member of staff specifically dedicated to the Collection. Since that time, under the guidance of the Librarian, John Gray, and of John Killen, and with the assistance of very many other temporary employees, the Collection has gone from strength to strength. In 1986, the name of the Collection was changed to exclude the word ‘ephemera’ which had led people to believe it consisted solely of leaflets and cards.

NIPC now houses over 50,000 items. This includes over 5,000 books, pamphlets and reports, all catalogued by author, title, publishing organisation and subject. While most of the books will be held by some other libraries, the pamphlets, over 2,000 of them, are mostly held only by the Linen Hall. This is a high proportion for any library collection dealing in current publications. A Political Fiction section holds almost 300 items that deal with the troubles, including novels, poetry and drama. There are runs of over 1,000 titles of periodicals from Ulster, from the Voice of the UDA to An Phoblacht/Republican News and including the periodicals of the political parties, the security forces, a host of pressure groups as well as socialist, fascist and anarchist organisations. Sexual politics too, is well covered, with many titles published by women’s as well as gay groups. Again, the vast majority of this material, in hard copy, is held by no other library.
But a huge amount remains to be done. The Collection also houses over 30,000 ephemeral items including leaflets, handbills, posters, postcards, Christmas cards, badges and stickers, which have not been catalogued, but merely categorised by publishing organisation or subject head. All of this material needs to be calendared and preserved more adequately for posterity. Increasingly the Library has found that posterity must wait.
For a small special collection, NIPC is extremely heavily used. Never a day goes past without its being consulted, and sometimes as many as twenty people have been making use of it simultaneously. To accredited students, academics, journalists and authors, we offer a special privilege – direct access to the collection, under supervision. Last year alone, one hundred users, from all over the world, studied in the attic itself, their lengths of stay varying from a few days to nine months.
The cost of all this to a small charitable library has been crippling but the respect earned for the work we do has made the Linen Hall a name famous far beyond Irish shores. Partly in an effort to make the Collection self-financing, and partly to protect sorely pressed hard copy, the Library is microfilming the collection. To date, the entire periodicals collection has been filmed on microfiche and sold to other libraries worldwide. That over twenty other libraries, in the present economic climate, have paid out $6000 a time for Northern Ireland Political Literature: Periodicals 1966-1987 says much about the value of the material. The fiche set includes over a quarter of a million pages of text, an indication of the sheer volume of otherwise uncollected publications in the field. The Linen Hall will be offering regular updates of this material. The latest, Northern Ireland Political Literature: Periodicals 1988-89, is currently on sale. Later this year, we will be publishing a complete bibliography of Northern Ireland political periodicals, based on our holdings, so that libraries can purchase single volumes. Next year, we will be publishing Phase Two of the microfiche collection, over two thousand pamphlets in a comparatively inexpensive set.
The Library is currently attempting to identify and computer catalogue all its holdings of Irish political literature in the pre-1966 period and is anxious to make a retrospective round up of any such material it does not hold. Donations, whether of single items or collections, from individuals, libraries or other institutions will be warmly welcomed. In this regard the Library would like to acknowledge the recent receipt of two large donations of such valuable material from the library of the Labour Party of Great Britain.
At the inception of the political collection, Jimmy Vitty believed he would be documenting one of the periodic outbursts of violence that Belfast and Northern Ireland had been prone to throughout its history, something which would subside again after two or three years. In fact, the conflict became much worse and lasted much longer. But the quiet neutrality of the Linen Hall Library’s collection, based on respect for opinion, has remained constant. Throughout the most divisive and ferociously violent period of our history, the Library has kept faith with everyone in the North and those further afield who have been playing a part, collecting and preserving their opinions without fear or favour, and has offered the material openly and freely, for consultation to any and all of our citizens who wanted to know more about what actually happened and what was really written.

Robert Bell is Keeper of the Northern Ireland Political Collection at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.


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