Using our past better: Launch of Divided Society
by Allan LEONARD
22 January 2018
Twenty and two years in the making, the Linen Hall Library launched its website, Divided Society, which features documentary material in its Northern Ireland Political Collection, of the peace process during the 1990s, with over 500 journal titles available.
It is near twenty years since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement; it took two years to complete the Divided Society project.
Julie Andrews (Chief Executive) described the project, highlighting the motivation to make available the invaluable material to a global audience. While access is free on site or anywhere online in the UK and Ireland, there are subscription options for individuals and education institutions elsewhere.
Andrews also described two display exhibitions the library has hosted, to complement the project. We Lived It included some oral histories, while Laughter in the Dark showed some political cartoons by Ian Knox, Rowel Friers and new artist, Brian John Spencer.
Paul Mullan spoke on behalf of the Heritage Lottery Fund, one of the major donors of the project. He described how the Fund recognised the need of broadening the interpretation of events beyond perpetuating myths and bad memories. To do this, Mullan explained, we will need good resources, and it sees the Linen Hall Library as an “amazing resource … to help us better understand the past”.
“Divided Society is good because it deals with events close to us. We continue to be a divided society because we use the events of the past badly. Divided Society is not a project just about the past, but also for the future,” Mullan added. He commended the library for its foresight and imagination.
The guest speaker was Kate Adie, an honoured conflict journalist. Although she grew up in northeast England, she said that when she arrived at Northern Ireland, it felt familiar — the shipbuilding, Victorian buildings, religious sects, pubs, and also prejudice. Adie relayed a poem by Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, as a template for reporting.
She made a point that in places of war or conflict, people hide information, which underscores the importance of ensuring the collection and maintenance of archives. Adie gave an example of the national library in Sarajevo, with the building destroyed in the Balkan war: “Islamic and Christian literature falling as blackened bits of paper and parchment”.
“It was one of the worst things that happened, because it [destroyed] proof that people could live side-by-side,” Adie said.
She argued that literature is better than oral history, as the latter relies on memory and tradition, which includes prejudice and superstition: “The written word is enlightenment at your fingertips … When lots of things are written, there is better reality and facts.”
Adie concluded by complimenting Divided Society as a brave act and arguing that “the more you know about what has happened, the more you can prepare for what lies ahead of you”.
After answering some questions from the guests (Aidey replied to one with an observation that Northern Ireland is the only place where people tell you a joke in the middle of a riot!), the library’s president, Alice Chapman, summarised the project as an example of how collections can add to collective memories, and how the library wants to serve “our community, nationally and internationally”.