Rosemary O’Dowd, Contributor.
Among the banks and bustle of Belfast’s Donegall Square, a black door sits quietly among them. Appropriately, perhaps, as the doors of Number 17 open into a small citadel of reverent hush. This old linen warehouse, founded in 1788, is now Belfast’s oldest library and has documented over two centuries of change in the city. But what is it that links the linen halls and the books and ideas housed within? The importation of ideas and influences of the Enlightenment have long hall-marked the place as one of inquiry. But in 2016, how does the evolved Belfast Reading Society “inform the mind” and “excite the spirit”?
Warmed by grill-bar radiators, armchairs and coat stands to throw off the rain-stained outer wear, the atmosphere inside shakes off the formality of the outside world. Perusing the shelves, one sifts through titles from this year’s Oscar contenders through to the well-thumbed classics. Seated before the sash windows with a view onto City Hall, you’re likely to find the day’s headlines being adjusted from the low armchairs, as some of the city’s regular readers ease into a familiar spot.
Yet, for specialists of many kinds, the Linen Hall extends up a further two floors. Home to Northern Ireland’s political archive of 350,000 items collected throughout the Troubles, the library offers a unique perspective for scholars of the conflict. Decorating the stairs, press cuttings, posters and propaganda shout out colourful slogans. As conflict and reconciliation studies evolve, the archives yield fresh perspectives on more recent political events. The library also houses extensive local collections, Irish language and Ulster-Scots collections, as well as its Performing Arts archive, which charts the birth of Ulster Theatre. As part of a recent donation to the archives, this week marks the Peter Quigley Retrospective, celebrating the works of the actor, producer and director in a series of free readings and performances. In the coming weeks, the library will mark World Book Day and International Women’s Day with events and workshops open to the public.
The Linen Hall never seems too far away from Queen’s. The director, Julie Andrews is a former student, and more recent graduates play a role in the shaping of events. And although the Linen Hall is a member’s library, it is more than ever an open space, welcoming new faces and fresh perspectives. With a lively coffee shop and an open door, where better in the city centre to cast an inquisitive eye?
Monday – Friday: 9.30am- 5.30pm; Saturday: 9.30 am – 4pm. For further details see www.linenhall.com