Between the lines (Guardian Education)

Between the lines
Catherine Morrison (Guardian Education)
30 April 2002

Writing for the Guardian Education, Catherine Morrison describes the Northern Ireland Political Collection at the Linen Hall Library, including the Troubled Images CD-ROM, “Between the lines”:

The Linen Hall Library, in the centre of Belfast, is a mecca for anyone with an interest in the history of Northern Ireland. Where else can you read the prison letter (or “comm”) that ended the hunger strike in 1981? Where else can you find a huge range of periodicals, political posters and memorabilia, such as the babies’ bibs with “Proud to be a baby Prod” or “Born to walk the Garvaghy Road – No Surrender” written on them? Lest we forget, the library has preserved Drumcree commemorative chocolate bars and fake banknotes plastered with Gerry Adams’s face.

Now, with a new CD-rom, entitled Troubled Images, and a tour planned for later this year, you don’t even have to visit Northern Ireland to see the collection.

The Linen Hall Library, founded in 1788, has gained an almost sacred status in the history of Northern Ireland’s capital city. Right in the heart of Belfast, it is only a stone’s throw from the City Hall, and has come through the past 220-odd years with only a few minor scratches and its “spirit of enquiry” intact.

When the IRA firebombed the building on New Year’s Eve 1993, the library was granted an apology from the IRA, a virtually unprecedented event in the history of the Troubles. It was an implicit recognition of the neutrality of the library, which has provided a haven of peace and tranquillity for all, regardless of religious or political beliefs, during the Troubles.

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has spent many hours amongst the dusty books and cracked leather armchairs. “That everybody is welcome in the building is one of the glories of the place and its tradition,” he said.

“In our cultural and our historical understanding, the very words ‘the Linen Hall Library’ represent not just books, but better hopes for the way we live. For a just, civilised and inclusive society.”

From the 18th century to the present day, the library has been a treasure trove for scholars of Irish history. However, it is the collection of contemporary “political ephemera”, gathered during the past four decades of Northern Ireland’s history – the Troubles and the subsequent peace process – which is truly exceptional.

The Political Collection of Northern Ireland is a unique resource. Attempts have been made during various conflicts to gather together and preserve artefacts, for example from Beirut, during the Lebanese war.

However, no other institution in a place of such political and social division has systematically collected material from all sides of the conflict.

The library houses a vast collection of leaflets, press releases, press cuttings and even some political Christmas cards (featuring snowmen in Orange Order uniform).

There is a wide range of periodicals, ranging from Loyalist News to the Republican An Phoblacht. The library has been particularly careful to avoid accusations of bias, and has been applauded across the political spectrum for its equal treatment of all sides in the conflict. From thousands of election posters and newspaper clippings to badges, letters, commemorative plates and T-shirts, the collection documents the activities of all parties involved in the conflict – from the British government to paramilitary groups.

Librarian of the Northern Ireland Political Collection, Yvonne Murphy, tells the story of how the collection came about.

“Our previous librarian, Jimmy Vitty, was having a drink in a Belfast pub one evening in 1968 when he was given a civil rights leaflet. Instead of throwing it away, he decided to keep it. The next day, he called a meeting of all the librarians and basically sent them out onto the streets, climbing across barricades and barbed wire to retrieve posters, leaflets, anything relating to the conflict.

“Librarians have a somewhat unfair image of being ‘charismatically challenged’, and I like to think of our librarians ‘going where no librarian has gone before’. We were guerrilla librarians! But we had to be proactive; we couldn’t just sit at our desks and order what we wanted from a catalogue, we had to get out there and get it,” she said.

Since 1968, the library has collected over a quarter of a million items “without fear or favour”, a large proportion of which are held only by the library, and the collection is still growing.

Last autumn, the library held an exhibition of graphic material – political posters, badges and artefacts, taken from the political collection — entitled Troubled Images. It was an instant success and visitors came from all over the UK, the US, Australia and Canada. Barbara Stephenson, the US consul general to Northern Ireland, visited the exhibition last year and was impressed with what she saw.

“When the definitive history of the Troubles is written, the Linen Hall Library will figure prominently, not only for its unparalleled role in chronicling events but also for being one of the first places to offer healing space to members of both communities,” she said.

A CD-rom, two years in the making and containing more than 3,000 images of posters and artefacts with detailed notes and essays to accompany them, was also launched last autumn. It includes the last prison letter, or “comm”, smuggled out of the Maze prison, written on transparent cigarette paper with handwriting so tiny that the librarians need a magnifying glass to transcribe it.

The disc contains the library’s vast collection of political posters as well as photographs of murals, so easily erased from history by a fresh coat of paint.

Andy White helped to put together the CD-rom. The idea to digitise the political collection came soon after the firebomb attack in 1993, when the library came within minutes of losing the entire collection.

“A lot of the posters, some of which were 30 years old, were just rolled up in a drawer and they were in a fairly bad condition. By transferring them onto CD-rom, we are preserving them for ever and giving the public access to the collection. The CD-rom is an invaluable tool for students, researchers, teachers and anyone interested in the history of Northern Ireland,” he said.

The library has a keen supporter in Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s minister for education. “The Linen Hall Library’s political collection provides a unique insight into our recent history and its inclusive approach to history makes the CD-rom a very useful and informative tool,” he said.

Since the ceasefires in the mid-1990s, there has been a sea change in attitude towards the Troubles, according to Murphy.

“For years, there’s been a ‘don’t talk about the war’ attitude in Northern Ireland, but now, with the peace process, that is all changing. Schools teach their pupils about the conflict, and they need resources like our CD-rom to help the pupils understand the issues involved.

“During the exhibition, pupils from schools across Northern Ireland came in to see the collection. We also have an outreach officer, who goes and talks to local schools about the history of the past 30 years,” she added.

Without the vision and determination of ordinary individuals such as Vitty, many of the physical artefacts of the Troubles and its aftermath would not exist. The Linen Hall Library has preserved the “troubled” history of Northern Ireland for generations to come.