Posted by Bernie McGill at 14/03/2013 10:32:52
Libraries NI has given me a Visitor’s Pass, one that quite literally opens doors. I swipe it at a keypad next to an oversized wooden doorway on the ground floor of Belfast Central Library and a lock unlatches. It means I get to pass through portals that are normally only accessible to staff. In other words, I get to see behind the scenes.
It’s possible that I’m a little too excited about this - I have to be careful not to lose my way in the labyrinth of book stacks and corridors behind the hallowed doors. They say it’s good for you to lose yourself once in a while, I’ve never found that to be the case. My sense of direction is not the best and my sense of adventure is not what it was. I am tempted, as I explore the many stairwells to leave a trail of biscuit crumbs behind, or perhaps more appropriately a trail of paperclips, or biro lids, or staples? As in all fairytales, though, there is one door on which my magic key has no effect. No matter how many times I swipe my plastic pass at it, this door will stay resolutely shut. To pass through here, I need something, or to be more specific, someone else. This is the door of the Fine Book Room.
I meet Heritage Services Manager Eileen McVerry on the ground floor of the building. She gives me a short history and we spend a little time knocking our knuckles against the column plinths in the foyer, some of which are genuine marble, some of which are a nineteenth century cost-saving cheat. (Run your hand over them and you’ll soon find out which is which. There’s no replicating the natural coolness of marble.) The balcony on the first floor that cantilevers over Royal Avenue looks like it was designed for speeches. We pause on the second floor outside the delightfully named Music (and Gramophone Records) Library to admire the marble statuary sculpted by Emma Stebbins. The detail is extraordinary: in the looped coils of rope, folds of fabric, buckles and buttons, hands that look like they’re about to unclasp.
It’s a bit of a trek to get to the Fine Book Room. We pass out of the main building (completed in 1888), through a six-storey 1960’s extension and across a third floor link to a 1980’s warehouse-style annexe. You get the sense, as you move through the book stacks on the way there, that you’re getting further and further away from where the people are. The smell of leather binding, of ageing paper is heady. I mention to Eileen that I read an article recently that suggested there was something hallucinogenic in the mould that grows in old books. ‘That would explain a lot,’ she says, but she doesn’t elaborate and I’m left wondering about the idiosyncrasies of the staff who’re sent here to retrieve requested books. There are now codes for each of the doors we pass through. I try and sneak a furtive glance, but to no avail. In any event, I’m put off the notion of creeping through here on my own after dark when Eileen tells me that one of the porters spotted something strange once on the fourth floor. ‘What sort of strange?’ I ask. ‘I don’t know,’ she says, ‘he wouldn’t say. Just that it was coming towards him, and it wasn’t of this world.’ She may be telling me this to keep me away. It works.
There’s one last code, Eileen throws a switch ‘to turn off the gas’ and finally, we’re in the Fine Book Room. It’s not the style of room you might have anticipated – there is no ornate cornicing, no mahogany bookcases, no Regency reading lamps, no leather winged chairs. Inside, above our heads a network of silver-clad ducts runs around the room. ‘It’s to do with Fire Regulations,’ she says. ‘If the alarm goes off, air is sucked out and gas is pumped in to conserve the books. But if you were in here when that happened, there wouldn’t be much time to make it to the door.’ The more I hear, the more dangerous a workplace the library seems. The air in the Fine Book Room is temperature- and humidity-controlled. There isn’t the same smell that you get in the stacks: no hallucinogenic mould here. We wander around, picking out interesting titles, marvelling at detailed illustrations, at marbled fly-papers, embossed spines, gilt-edged leaves. There is a book lying back-down on a shelf that is so heavy we cannot lift it between us. Eileen shows me the section containing the Marcus Ward material, a series of beautifully illustrated postards and booklets. Marcus Ward was a publishing business founded in mid-1830’s Belfast that gained an international reputation for the quality of its products. We open an oak-engraved book holder to reveal a commemorative address to James Seaton Reid Esq, Professor of Materia Medica, Queen’s University, elaborately decorated in Moroccan gold, red, blue and green.
I feel very privileged to have seen inside the Fine Book Room but the best thing is, that any member of the public can request to view one of these exquisite books. You won’t have to make the journey to the annexe, you won’t have to risk the wrath of the thing on the fourth floor. You can place a request, sit and admire the plasterwork under a glass-panelled ceiling in the Heritage Department on the second floor and the librarian will bring the book to you. And there you may be reminded of what the fake marble plinths on the ground floor teach us: that all is not what it seems. That a thing can be made to look a certain way and in fact be something quite different, which is something you discover every single time you open a book to read.
Belfast Central Library will celebrate its 125th anniversary this year. You can find out more by following its new Facebook Page.
With thanks to Eileen McVerry.