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An Irish national treasure is preparing for a long-needed restoration

DUBLIN – The Long Room, with its towering oak ceiling and two levels of bookshelves laden with some of Ireland’s oldest and most valuable volumes, is the oldest part of the library at Trinity College Dublin, constantly used since 1732.

But that remarkable record is about to be disrupted, as engineers, architects and conservation experts embark on a 90 million euro, or $95 million, program to restore and modernize the ancient college library building, of which the long hall is the main part.

The library, visited by as many as a million people a year, had been in need of repairs for years, but the 2019 fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was an urgent reminder that it needed to be protected, according to those involved in the conservation effort. .

“We already knew the old library needed work due to issues with the building,” said Professor Veronica Campbell, who initiated the project. “When we saw Notre Dame burning, we realized, ‘Oh my God, we have to do something now!'”

Much of the effort will be focused on conserving the historic worked timber that makes up much of the library’s interior and its window frames, as well as improving the necessary fireproofing and environmental controls. to protect the valuable collection of books.

Faced with the example of Notre Dame and the realization that something similar could happen to an Irish national treasure, the government pledged €25m, with the college and private donors adding €65m. additional.

Work began in April, and in October 2023 the doors of the Old Library will be closed to visitors for at least three years as it goes into full operation.

In the meantime, visitors still flock to the library, Dublin’s second most popular attraction for foreign tourists (the Guinness Brewery is number one). Among the treasures on display is the Book of Kells – a beautifully crafted ninth-century gospel that is the greatest surviving relic of Ireland’s Christian Golden Age.

This month, Catalina Gomez, 50, a self-proclaimed bibliophile vacationing in Spain, gazed up at the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Long Room, towering 48 feet above her, and the parade of graceful windows, arcades and galleries lined with leather-bound books.

“As soon as I walked in, I was amazed to see a space like this,” said Ms. Gomez, a legal officer. “I have visited many old libraries around the world, but I have never seen anything so spectacular.”

She added: “It makes me very emotional.”

Trinity Library Director Helen Shenton likes to point out features of the Long Room that can have such an effect on visitors. She recently stood in the doorway of the room and pointed to the galleries and shelves leaning towards a vanishing point, 213 feet at the bottom. “It’s such a beautiful prospect,” she said. “And it’s the main piece of Ireland because every visiting head of state comes here.”

Ms Shenton said she hosted Joseph R. Biden Jr. twice at the library, the first time when he was vice president (“he came in 20 big black cars with Secret Service agents”) and a second when he was a private citizen. again (“he just got down here by himself”).

Many Irish “Star Wars” fans also note the strong resemblance between the Long Room and the Jedi Archives, depicted in CGI in the film “Attack of the Clones,” where a young Obi-Wan Kenobi searched for an elusive planetary system. Lucasfilm, which had requested no image rights, denied there was a connection.

Ian Lumley, heritage manager at An Taisce, a non-governmental organization that promotes the conservation of Irish built culture, said preserving the old library was essential given its international significance – and rich history.

“In the 18th century, Trinity was the university of the Irish Enlightenment,” he said, alma mater of writers and thinkers like Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Jonathan Swift.

“These people would have used this library the same way modern students use new libraries,” he said. “The Long Room’s atmosphere and books are so special that it’s vital that nothing gets lost.”

The preservation effort – informally named “The Great Decant” – began on April 1, when the first tome, volume 1 of Reeves’ “History of English Law”, printed in London in 1869, was removed from its place on shelf 1.1., in the upper gallery of the Long Room, which is closed to tourists. The book was dusted with a specially modified vacuum cleaner, it was measured, its physical condition noted, and its details checked against the catalog of the Long Room, compiled in 1872.

The book was then tagged with a radio frequency identification tag and put in a barcoded box – the first of more than 700,000 books, manuscripts, busts and other artifacts that will be moved from the old library to a climate controlled, off-campus storage facility.

Once the books are exhausted, specialists will go to work on the long room, modernizing facilities for visitors, repairing damage and strengthening defenses against four age-old enemies: weather, humidity, pollution and, most urgently, the fire.

Current fire defenses rely on portable fire extinguishers.

Ms Shenton, the library’s director, said the new technologies – possibly involving water misting systems, rather than sprinklers – would aim to suppress potential fires without causing too much damage to the books. A contractor is wanted to build a “combustion room” – an exact model of the Long Room and its contents – to be ignited so that specialists can study how best to hold the flames down.

To slow down the inevitable long decay of books and protect them from the dust and acidic particles that seep into city traffic, new micro-thin transparent covers, or “sleeves,” are designed for each volume.

“We will have to remove a book from each shelf to compensate for the extra thickness,” said John Gillis, Trinity’s chief curator of books. “Well, that’s what we negotiated with the librarians: one book per shelf. It could end up being two. He lowered his voice conspiratorially: “I’m a restaurant owner. Librarians are our enemies. We say, ‘Don’t touch that old book!’ and they want to let people open it and read it!

Two reading rooms, hidden at either end of the Long Room, will be moved to the basement of the nearby Modern Ussher Library, and scholars will still be able to summon Long Room books from off-campus storage.

To preserve the tourist experience for as long as possible – a key source of income for colleges – the shelves most visible to visitors will be the last to be cleared. The Book of Kells and other valuable artifacts will be temporarily displayed in the college’s 18th century print shop until an improved display space is ready under the improved long hall.

There, Ms. Shenton says, special attention must be paid to humidity: the eastern half of the Trinity campus was once a tidal marsh.

“The reason the Long Room was built on the first floor is that we have many underground streams here and a high water table,” she said. “When we have to mow the cricket pitch, we can’t do it at high tide because we’re so close to sea level.”

For the next few months, the only glimpse visitors will get of The Great Decant will be a few dark figures at the top of the Long Room gallery, clearing, processing and boxing books.

Among the project assistants is Kayleigh Ferguson, 28, of Syracuse, NY, a trained librarian who took up the job as a side job while studying for a PhD at Maynooth University, near Dublin.

When asked if she liked her new workstation, high in the quaint gallery, surrounded by scented old books, she laughed.

“I’m not complaining,” she said.


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