Who were our readers in the past? Where did they come from, and what did they read? Here, Dr Jeffrey Cox of UCD writes about the detective work being undertaken to answer these questions
The project is funded by the Irish Research Council, and is using the library’s records of reader visits to map the history of readership in Dublin over a period of 100 years using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology. This promises to transform our understanding of Dublin’s cultural and literary history during the period.
The records of visits to Marsh’s Library for the project are spread across six volumes, each with its own curiosities and peculiarities.
At first glance the historical evidence appears to be straightforward. For most entries the visitor’s name is indicated next to the date of their visit, and in many cases the reader’s address is provided. For periods of time there is also information on what materials were consulted, or who provided a letter of recommendation for readers to access the library.
Some entries, however, are much more complicated. One of the most challenging aspects of the project is to interpret elaborate or scrawled signatures.
When I visited Marsh’s Library for my own doctoral research a few years ago, I signed-in without giving any thought as to how legibly my name or address was written. Since working on these records, I have come to appreciate those who took the time to write their name clearly. The addresses provided by individual readers also occasionally present challenges. Descriptions of residence that might have been obvious to contemporaries, such as house names or townlands, can be more difficult to pinpoint with accuracy today.
From the micro-detail of individual visits to Marsh’s Library a larger picture of reading culture begins to emerge. Many inner-city addresses of readers common during the early decades of the nineteenth century disappeared as the social and economic landscape of the city changed. The opening of the Dublin to Kingstown railway in 1834 brought with it increased numbers of readers who lived in the towns served by the railway.
Similarly, the development of suburban districts during the later nineteenth century is noticeable in the records, with increasing numbers of readers from districts such as Blackrock, Rathmines and Rathgar.
Marsh’s was a destination for early cultural tourists. The Somerset MP and bibliophile Charles Issac Elton visited Marsh’s in October 1888, as did the notable English photographer Augustus Kelham in 1890. Other visitors from Luxembourg, the United States, Canada, India, and Holland (to name a few) came to see Marsh’s Library while visiting Dublin.
On 4 July 1896 the Rabbi of the Synagogue in St. Kevin’s Parade brought about fifteen men and boys to the library to examine Hebrew books, although because it was the Sabbath, they were unable to sign the registers. It was recorded that, ‘in their zeal to acquire knowledge’, they had broken both gate bells and, ‘having done so, [and unable to attract the attention of the librarian] suggested the plan of lifting a junior member of the party across the gate wall’.
As work continues on this project funded by the Irish Research Council, it is clear that the online resources produced will be of great use to anyone interested in the history of Dublin.