Without Fear or Favor: Belfast's Linen Hall Library; Partisan Views Find Neutral Ground in the Attic of Belfast's Oldest Library

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Without fear or favor: Belfast's Linen Hall Library

In connection with the November 1989 publication of Northern Ireland Political Literature--Catalogue and Indexes, Phase 1: Periodicals 1966-1987, the Linen Hall Library asked 100 of the province's leading decision makers to comment on the library's Political Collection, a unique archive of the present "Troubles" just turned 20 and the source from which the catalog and indexes had been created.

Without exception--and regardless of the political affiliation of the "reviewer"-- the collection received what can only be called raves:

"A vast history book..."--Gerry Adams, MP and president of the Sinn Fein party.

"Indispensable..."--The Rev. Ian Paisley, MP and one of Northern Ireland's most influential political figures.

"The most precious single source of documentary material on the Northern Ireland 'Troubles'..."--Andy Pollak, journalist.

"One of the great assets of Ireland..." --J. Bowyer Bell, author.

Indeed, it can be said without exaggeration that the Political Collection is the only thing about which Rev. Paisley--a vitriolic Protestant Unionist--and Mr. Adams--the leading spokesperson for the Irish Republican Army--can be said to share an opinion. In this deeply--and perhaps permanently--divided society, the collection is "a pillar of civilization in the midst of chaos," according to author Ian Adamson.

Nor is it too much to say that in a country where author Denis Barritt has said there is "a problem to every solution," the Linen Hall probably the only venue in which information is dispassionately collected every day with the intention of using it for the common good. As such, it is a noble symbol of freedom of thought in a heavily censored, extremely circumspect society.

Since 1985, I myself have used the collection daily during four working trips in this country. Fortunately for researchers unable to spend time "on the ground" here, a goodly portion of its riches are now available on microfiche.

The 1989 publication of Phase 1 of the catalogue--the largest document produced by the Linen Hall in the 20th century--represents the culmination of a scrupulous effort to record completely the political turmoil that has been endemic to the Six Counties since the first British troops arrived in August 1969.

In fact, according to John Gray, who has been Linen Hall librarian since 1981, the effort began even before the British marched into Northern Ireland. Gray credits one of his predecessors, librarian Jimmy Vitty, with having the foresight to realize that the written record of the conflict had to be preserved--and that the Linen Hall was the only place in all of Ireland suited to the task. Belfast's oldest library, Linen Hall celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1988, and is one of the last remaining examples of the 18th-century European subscription-library movement. It was "established by radicals," according to a bicentennial history, men who "held in common an enthusiasm for books, ideas and discussion."

As Gray tells the story, Vitty continued the tradition when, during the first days of the current armed struggle, he came upon a leaflet--on a barroom floor, as it happens--entitled "Barricades Bulletin." He picked it up, brought it back to the Linen Hall, and instructed Deputy Librarian Jim Gracey to "go out and collect everything he could find relating to those first murmurings of our present troubles."

Surely few people involved in those "murmurings" thought that the conflict would still be raging more than 20 years--and nearly 3,000 deaths--later, nor that the Political Collection would grow from that single humble leaflet into its present vast archive. Comprising some 35,000 items, the collection includes everything from spent bullets to the latest slick press release from the Northern Ireland Office.

Committed librarianship

It is not too much to say that all the people of Northern Ireland--and not just the scholars--are in the debt of Jimmy Vitty and of his successors who maintain the collection. …