Basking in the Long Room: The Old Library at Trinity College Dublin

As someone who studies and researches library space, I could not pass the opportunity to visit Trinity College Dublin. Ireland’s oldest university is home to the famous Old Library ‘Long Room’, a space that is the epitome of a traditional library. What better space could I find to absorb and reflect upon the sheer wonder of the library. Certainly a great fit considering my doctoral thesis:

I’m not quite sure there are words to fully capture the majesty of the Long Room. Those infamous all-wooden bookshelves that frame beautiful windows at a 90 degree angle. Shelves that run from floor to (mezzanine) ceiling, crammed fully with books. In the same way that I discussed the Library as synonymous with books, knowledge and learning in my thesis, the Long Room is perhaps the ultimate symbol of it. It is the epitome of knowledge and learning. In this space, there is little sign of the comforts and technologies we associate with a modern library space. It is a space where the book is king.

“And it’s Ireland’s front room because every visiting head of state comes here.”

Helen Shenton, Trinity’s Library Director

My visit in pictures

The Long Room Restoration

Of course, for anyone who has recently visited the Long Room, you will note that most of the books have been decanted (see above). I’d missed this news – and the absence of the books did remove some of the impact of this room. But it is all with good reason. The books within this room are of immense value – some of them priceless. The 2019 fire at Notre Dame Cathedral served as a warning for the need to preserve such assets as the Long Room. As framed in the New York Times, the Long Room, as an Irish national treasure, was overdue restoration. All is not lost for tourists like me – they did leave a few bays of books which still give an excellent impression of what the room looked like.

So what does restoration mean? To safeguard the books for future generations, all books have been removed from the Long Room, cleaned, digitised and safely stowed in a climate-controlled facility off campus. As the space also has no modern fire suppression and is largely made of wood, it was at high risk of fire. While this is unthinkable, Notre Dame demonstrated a stark reality. The risks also went beyond fire, with the room not possessing the appropriate environmental controls to preserve the delicate books. The lack of environmental controls also brings risks from damp, pollution and mould.

The Long Room experience

A photo of Lee Fallin in the Long Room. He smiles as rows of books are behind him and the bust of Milton.

Visiting the Long Room feels a bit like being in a movie set. Serving as the backdrop and inspiration for movies and books alike, it was surreal being there in person. I’d forgotten about the busts that adorned the ends of each bookshelf row. It sounds silly, but is was still really odd being in such a famous space – and to see the reality of it. It isn’t just something from movies and films – it is a real space you can visit and immerse yourself in.

The big surprise for me (again – I hadn’t well researched my visit!) was to see our planet just hanging at the end of the room. I’d seen similar displays in my home city of Hull, hanging in Hull Minister. But I’d expected that when I went into the space. In the Long Room, it was sublime. The juxtaposition of dark wooden shelves to bring planet was striking. A beautiful contrast, and what better way to present such a display. Take it in for yourself:

The beautiful wooden roof and shelves of the Long Room are the host cite for an inflatable replica of the earth.

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