Marsh's Library, situated in St. Patrick's Close, adjacent to St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland is a well-preserved library of the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment. When it opened to the public in 1707 it was the first public library in Ireland. It was built to the order of Archbishop Narcissus Marsh and has a collection of over 25,000 books and 300 manuscripts.
The library was built for Narcissus Marsh, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, and formerly Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. It was long claimed that the Library opened in 1701, but this is untrue. The Cathedral agreed in 1701 to provide a plot of land for a library, but building work only commenced in 1703. The First Gallery and the Old Reading Room seem to have been completed by 1705. The Library was formally established by Act of Parliament in 1707, and the Second Gallery was added during the course of 1708 or 1709.
The design was by the then Surveyor General of Ireland, Sir William Robinson, also the architect of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Marsh donated his own library, which included the former library of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, of over 10,000 volumes, regarded as one of the finest in England, which he had bought for 2,500 pounds.
The Library was formally incorporated in 1707 by Parliament, which vested the house and books in a body known as the Governors and Guardians of the Library, comprising religious and state dignitaries and officials, and their successors still oversee it. Narcissus Marsh died in 1713, and is buried just beyond the library, in the grounds of the cathedral.
In 1745, John Stearne, Bishop of Clogher, bequeathed half of his collection of books to the library. The other half of Stearne's book collection (and all of his manuscripts) were given to Trinity College, Dublin.
In 1989, Muriel McCarthy became the first female Keeper, holding the position until her retirement in 2011. The current Keeper is Dr Jason McElligott, who was educated at University College Dublin and St John's College, Cambridge.
The catalogue of the library is online at www.marshlibrary.ie/catalogue. Scholars and students can read the books and manuscripts by appointment. Tourists come from across the world to see the old library, and in 2013 there were a total of 16,000 tourist visitors. The projected figure for 2014 is 18,000 visitors.
The library contains over 25,000 books from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in addition to around 300 manuscripts, and around 80 books (incunabula) from before 1501. Subjects covered include medicine, law, science, travel, navigation, mathematics, music, surveying and classical literature, and especially theology.
The Marsh collection includes works in oriental languages, and in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and Russian, as well as an important collection of Latin Judaica. The Bouhéreau collection relates especially to France, and French religious controversies, and also medicine.
Among the manuscripts is a volume of the Lives of the Irish Saints in Latin from ca. 1400, as well as 16th century madrigals and other musical pieces, and manuscripts on theological, legal and medical matters.
The library still features its original fittings, including seating and shelving. The bookcases are made of quater-plained Irish oak with carved and lettered gables. There are three wire alcoves, known as 'cages', which were constructed in the 1770s in response to thefts in the library.
The library is one of the last 18th century buildings in Ireland still used for its original purpose. It is open to visitors for a fee of €3.00, or €2.00 for students and senior citizens. Opening hours are 9:30-5pm Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and 10-5 Saurday. Guided tours take place at 3pm.
Researchers are admitted free of charge, but must apply in advance to reserve a place in the Reading Room.
The Library holds exhibitions, and occasional conferences, and has published a range of material, primarily related to exhibitions and the catalogue.
As a charitable institution the library accepts donations, which are recorded in a special ledger which dates back to 1707.
The Library has an active social media presence, and every day posts at least one image from the collections on Facebook and Twiiter. These images give a sense of the breadth and depth of the Library holdings.
References and notes
- Library history and governance, at Marsh's Library's official website
- Narcissus Marsh, at Marsh's Library's official website