The reception on the first evening of the conference was a chance for attendees to meet and do some networking, before proceeding to sample some of Belfast’s famous nightlife, but the main business of the conference occurred on the Saturday, starting with the Presidential Address by Dr Robert Anderson.
Robert noted that we face a bleak cultural future, with public resources for arts and culture being slashed. Public libraries are being closed, while many of those that remain endure significantly reduced resources and are being subjected to a process of “dumbing-down”. Robert pointed out that this scenario is highly relevant to the interests of independent libraries. Independent libraries thrive in a culture of generally high education and learning, and a strong public library system is an underpinning of such a culture; however, independent libraries could potentially also find that with local public library services being cut or “dumbed-down”, demand for a more traditional library experience may draw people towards independent libraries. Robert encouraged attendees to ensure that their libraries maintain relevant statistics so they can chart whether subscription levels change in response to changing public library provision in their areas. He also emphasised that the AIL needs new members, and highlighted the recent improvements in the AIL newsletter and forthcoming new website as important opportunities for publicity and outreach.
Gerry Deveney, a volunteer at the Linen Hall Library, gave a very interesting and engaging talk about the history of that remarkable institution, which celebrates its 225th anniversary this year. Gerry discussed the origins and early history of the Library, when it was intimately connected to the political tumult in Ireland following the American and French Revolutions. Gerry spoke about the growth and development of the Library as Belfast became industrialised in the 19th century, and its historic role at the heart of Belfast’s cultural life.
Recent decades have been eventful for the Linen Hall. Gerry described the origins and development of the Northern Ireland Political Collection, a collection of some 300,000 printed items documenting the “Troubles”. The collection was started by the Librarian in 1968 during the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, and documents every tendency across the entire political spectrum. It is the type of collection that only an independent library could maintain, as it is not subordinate to the agendas or priorities of a parent organisation. As such, the Library has gained a reputation as a neutral space in the context of Northern Ireland’s divisions.
Siobhan Fitzpatrick, Librarian of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, discussed the challenges of managing historic collections in the modern environment. The RIA has extensive historic collections in science, literature and antiquities, including considerable journal holdings. The Library has a considerable focus on Irish antiquities and the Irish language, and is funded by central government. Although the Library has a membership, it also has a focus on open access and widening participation across its activities. To this end, Siobhan spoke about the Library’s outreach efforts, including digitising photographs and manuscripts, as well as developing an online resource to enhance access to historic recordings of Irish speakers.
John Killen, Librarian of the Linen Hall Library, discussed digitisation and the opportunities and challenges it brings. The Linen Hall digitised a number of eighteenth-century pamphlets on theatre, serving to record and promote Belfast’s impressive dramatic tradition. John emphasised the multiple benefits of digitisation such as widening access, preserving fragile originals and generating revenue. John described the 2011 project where the Library collaborated with Ulster Bank to commemorate the bank’s 175th anniversary, digitising the historical theatre material to develop a learning resource for formal and informal learners. John explained that the Linen Hall sees this kind of activity as increasingly important going forward, as traditional income streams continue to decline.
Sadly, the vicissitudes of plane travel meant I had to leave before the screening of the documentary on the history of the Linen Hall Library, and I also missed the scheduled trips to the Merchant Hotel and the Ulster Museum. However, the presentations and discussions made for an enjoyable and rewarding conference, and it was a pleasure to meet current collaborators and make new acquaintances among the independent library fraternity.