I had occasion recently to visit the Marsh’s Library in Dublin, Ireland’s first public library established in 1701, and constituted under An Act for settling and preserving a public library for ever in 1707. Our brief visit reminded me again about the wonderful and also irritating paradox that is the “public” element in “public libraries.” To find this little gem is itself a challenge, tucked as it is behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral off a side street marked only by a discrete stone archway and a small staircase disguised as a path into an English garden, the exterior looks more like a monastery than any space designed for any activity one might think of as ‘public.’ At the top of the stairs inside this building there are three doors – not as inviting as in game shows. To the left and right of the main door are doors labelled: Books of Recent Acquisition – X and Books Relating to Ireland – Y. Acquisitions ceased sometime during the 18th century. An eccentric collection distinction if ever there was one!
To enter the library you must ring the door bell and wait for a white-haired leprechaun-like gentleman to open the door and gesture you inside as he justifies the 2 euro admission. I’m entering the muggles world by stepping through a wardrobe (yes mixing literary allusions). Down a narrow hallway into a small adjoining room, I came to 6 reading benches against the walls each enclosed in wire cages with some bookshelves about 3.5 x 5 x 3 feet in size. Readers were originally locked into these cages while accessing the materials to protect against theft. Hah! Amazing. All of which reminds me that the intention and spirit of “public” libraries has evolved over many centuries. What can we expect to see in our “public” libraries in another 50 or 100 years? Will the idea of “public” libraries be sustained once digital collections dominate? Will we need to gather in one place, and if so, why would that be? Not a public library ever intended for socializing, I’m pretty certain.