If you look at lists of beautiful libraries around the world, chances are you have seen a picture that looks something like this…
The soaring arches, antiquated books, warm earthen tones, and sheer length of the Long Room in the Old Library building at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland lend it a curios-type environment that sets history- and book-loving hearts aflutter. Or, at least, that’s what it did to mine when I first visited it in 2018.
The Library at Trinity College is a remarkable institution with a trifold role in the academic world. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it serves as a university library. Tn internationally renowned research library, and an information resource to various government, commercial, research, and other entities within Ireland.1“The Library of Trinity College Dublin,” Google Arts & Culture Dating back to the College’s founding in 1592, Ireland’s largest library holds some six million printed volumes.
The Long Room forms the main chamber within Trinity College Dublin’s library. At 65 meters (or just over 200ft) long, the Long Room holds approximately 200,000 of the Library’s oldest books. The collection includes the stunningly illustrated Book of Kells, numerous marble busts, and the Brian Boru harp.
History of the Long Room
The Long Room at Trinity College was built between 1712 and 1732. The Long Room originally featured a flat plaster ceiling, a far cry from what we see today! In 1860, however, the lovely barrel-vaulted ceiling replaced the original one and allowed for the placement of upper gallery bookcases. The images below depict the transition from the low ceiling to the high one:
Why (literally) raise the roof? By the 1850s, books completely filled the Long Room’s shelves, largely due to its status as a legal depository since 1801. Its Legal Deposit privilege ensures the Library can claim a copy of each book published in Britain and Ireland, similar to the Library of Congress in the United States. As a result, the Library rose in prominence in Ireland for research, learning, and teaching.
As mentioned above, a series of marble busts line the Long Room, and they depict both great western writers and philosophers and many men connected with Trinity College Dublin. The collection dates from 1743, when the Library commissioned sculptor Peter Scheemakers to create fourteen busts. Other sculptors added more in later years. Among these include:
- Francis Bacon
- George III
- Isaac Newton
- Jonathan Swift
- James Ussher
There’s something quite stoic about seeing these busts, almost as if they are silent sentinels as they watch over the magnificent collection. Interested in learning more? Check out Malcolm Baker’s “The making of portrait busts in the mid-eighteenth centuries: Roubiliac, Scheemakers, and Trinity College Dublin” (note: subscription access to JSTOR might be required).
The Long Room Today
Today, visitors from all over the world flock to see the Long Room. People love its sheer size, the warmth of its interior, its fascinating artifacts, and the book-lined walls. It’s more than just a pretty room, however. The Long Room, and the rest of the Library, holds a key place in academia as a center for research, teaching, and learning. It also holds reminders of Ireland’s rise as a nation and its fight for independence with its numerous historical artifacts. And lastly, the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin reminds us of the sheer power of books, leaving us in awe with their incredible splendor.