Trinity College Dublin Launches Euro 90 Million Project to Move Vulnerable Books | Ireland

IIt’s called Ireland’s ‘front room’, where esteemed visitors, including the Queen, Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, were taken to get a feel for the “land of saints and scholars”.

Biden, then Vice President, was so moved by the atmosphere in the dimly lit barrel vault hall when he visited Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 2016 that he returned a year more late to contemplate the history of its old library. , known as the long room.

A page from the Book of Kells, considered one of the most beautiful treasures in Europe.
A page from the Book of Kells, considered one of the most beautiful treasures in Europe. Photography: Digital Resource and Imaging Services / Trinity College Dublin

But if he had to make a third visit, he might not be so lucky. Three hundred years after the foundation stone was laid, the 250,000 ancient books and manuscripts – including the richly decorated 9th-century Book of Kells – printed on vellum, paper or silk must be moved one by one, along with 500,000 others, to the floor below.

It’s a monumental task that will take almost five years and cost 90million euros (£ 75million).

“Moving 750,000 vulnerable books is a pretty tough undertaking, so we have to pilot everything to see what’s involved,” says Helen Shenton, TCD librarian and archivist, who leads the daunting project involving a team of 50 people.

Some of the books in the alcoves that line the 65-meter lobby are so delicate that they’re tied together with fabric ties. Accumulation of exhaust gas particles from roads surrounding the building may accelerate deterioration, as human litter from nearly one million annual visitors before the pandemic, ranging from clothing fibers to human hair, grows to 1cm by parts.

Each book should be examined, dusted, carefully vacuumed, and repaired if necessary. In a normal cycle of care and storage, “it takes us five years alone to clean all the books,” says Shenton.

Helen Shenton, University Librarian and Archivist in the Long Room.
Helen Shenton, University Librarian and Archivist in the Long Room. Photograph: Paul McErlane / The Guardian

The restoration project is currently in an “enabling” phase which will last two years due to the fragility of the books. He will determine the logistics of the move and the equal challenge of keeping the book collection open to visiting students and scholars.

The physical conservation of books is the driving force behind the project. The recent fires at Notre Dame, the National Museum of Brazil and the Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art have shown the risks to historic and cultural buildings.

“We don’t want to join this litany,” says Shenton. “We have to keep the building and the collection for its fourth century,” she said.

Vacuum dust from books.

Even the distinctive scent that Shenton says many visitors notice when they enter is evidence of spoilage. According to a book on Harry Cory Wright’s library, the sweet scent is “the smell of aging cellulose in paper, similar to the smell of almonds, which contain the same chemical.”

Shenton says, “Books are organic artifacts and what you smell is deteriorating leather, deteriorating paper, and the thing we can do to slow that down is to have better environmental conditions. Not only do we need temperature and humidity control, but we also need to protect ourselves from particle pollution that passes through windows.

Restoration has been planned for years, and cataloging of each book was finally completed during the pandemic with a team of 50 working from home, completing what was a 40-year project.

Old Trinity Library building.
Old Trinity Library building. Photograph: Paul McErlane / The Guardian

To perpetuate the collection to be studied, Shenton also created the first online catalog of the collection of Trinity. Each book will be equipped with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag to allow academics to target their readings from the comfort of their desks.

After all the books are removed, the library will close for about three years, during which time the building, according to plans by architects heneghan peng, will undergo a complete overhaul.

In what will come as a shock to many previous visitors, the ground floor will be taken back to the open arch of the original building, which was designed to protect the books on the first floor from moisture.

Estelle Gittins, Assistant Librarian (Manuscripts), is looking for some of the material that will need to be moved.
Estelle Gittins, Assistant Librarian (Manuscripts), is looking for some of the material that will need to be moved. Photograph: Paul McErlane / The Guardian

In parallel, there will be “a completely redesigned exhibition” which will position treasures like the Book of Kells in an international context, exploring for example “what was happening on the Silk Road at the same time”.

And finally, the series of male-only busts, noticed by Meghan, which stand in each of the alcoves of the Long Room is also underway.

This was one of the first things Shenton noticed when she took the job and, after a competition, four new busts of four different artists will be commissioned, from mathematician Ada Lovelace; Abbey Theater co-founder Lady Gregory; writer Mary Wollstonecraft; and Rosalind Franklin, the biophysicist who made essential contributions to identifying the double helix structure of DNA and associated RNA.

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