25th Anniversary Series Blog 6

25th Anniversary Series Blog 6

Mid- to Late 1900s – Public Libraries Pause & Progress

In the early decades of the 1900s, the public libraries movement in Ireland experienced periods of great prosperity, owing directly to the benevolence of Mr. Carnegie and the Carnegie UK Trust, as well as the national impulse towards education and knowledge. Applications for financial assistance were as plentiful as the gifts on offer, and Ireland reaped the rewards in the form of an extensive library service. Approaching the late 1930s, amenities offered could be considered a touch arbitrary – making do with whatever resources were available – yet the movement endeavoured to deliver a service and extended its provision purposefully across the country. By 1947, all but two counties, Westmeath and Longford, had adopted the county library scheme.

Public Libraries & Past Glories

Despite the expansion of the public library system, by the late 1930s, libraries existed in a state of inadequacy, with noticeable deterioration noted by the late 1940s. Funds were short, and provisions in rural areas were tremendously underdeveloped (1). With the heady days of gifts of large sums of money a thing of the past, the service struggled to live up to previous glories of urban centres. The comparatively poor state of libraries up to the 1960s would appear surprising given the predilection for the service in the earlier 1900s and the widespread adoption of Public Library Acts (2). However, libraries did not exist in a vacuum. The public library movement endured much provocation and prejudice of the era, and sustained periods of political and economical unrest and instability. To that end, the library movement should not be reviewed in isolation, but seen within the context of a country undergoing radical change.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War did little to protect the nation from the far-reaching economic repercussions of war, and thus the inevitable deterioration in the value of currency. Whatever mediocre funds were available to libraries were grossly reduced to a relative meagre amount, which offered little to no assistance in library prominence, notwithstanding the fact that books were difficult to obtain, many of which came from the UK (2). Moreover, the emergency impacted Ireland in further ways, with censorship of the press and correspondence enforced. But this was ‘Ireland of the The Tailor and Ansty’, and so already well versed in such restrictions of thought and mind (1).

There was no shortage in directives on censorship in Ireland between the 1920s and 1960s, with people routinely informed on what they should and should not be reading, and therefore, should and should not be thinking. Self- and government-appointed moral guardians pontificated over ‘foreign filth’, vowing to safeguard the integrity and purity of the Irish people (3). Yet, in the face of such restraints, Irish perspective was slowly germinating and peering outward, the collective Irish psyche responding to the world around it. While censorship’s grasp held firm on the shelves of libraries, newsagents and bookstores across the country, no hold could be gained over people’s lives in their own homes.


And so it was with the advent of the marvel that was television in the 1950s that many of the people were liberated from the dead hand of censorship (1). Technological advances allowed BBC programming to be piped all along the east coast of the country, which beamed directly into peoples’ living rooms the exact ‘immoral’ content from which the literary censorship ban had zealously served to shelter the people (2).

Modernisation gripped the nation, with television posing a captivating influence and a formidable opponent to the public library. However, the legacy had already begun in the form of moving pictures in the 1910s, beguiling audiences until almost every small town in the country offered frequent motion-picture viewings. And it was so that young people of Ireland, rather than frequenting the public house or public library, were enticed by the cinema, and in 1939 it was reported 22 million cinema tickets were purchased in Ireland, making the nation, per capita, one of the heaviest cinema-going countries in the world (3).

The struggle to insulate the nation from literary ‘corruption’, formally established in 1929, remained strong for decades, with ‘bad books’ the exclamation of moral moderators. The Censorship of Publications Act of 1967 limited the period of prohibition orders of books to twelve years. In doing so, the act allowed for the immediate sale of over 5,000 previously banned books, many of which made their way straight into the hands of the readily awaiting public.

An Chomhairle Leabharlanna (The Library Council)

1947 was a significant year in the public library movement in Ireland, as can be attested to by the report from the Carnegie UK Trust (CUKT) of that same year:

‘So far as the library work of the Trust is concerned, the most important event of the year has occurred in Éire where the Public Libraries Bill of 1947 has passed into law.’ (Ellis King)

During the 1930s, the CUKT began tapering off grants to Irish public libraries. A decade later they decided to gift the Irish government the Irish Central Library for Students in Dublin – a library they had wholly maintained since 1923, and which had fortified the stock of the county library system. This gesture acted as the catalyst to the Public Libraries Act, 1947. The new law essentially established a body to be called An Chomhairle Leabharlanna (The Library Council), who were entrusted with governance of ‘the Irish Central Library for Students, of operating a central library and of assisting local authorities to improve library services’ (3)(4). The acceptance of this vital resource – the Central Library – offered the Library Council the potential for creating a national programme for library development (4).

The act was adopted during a time in which there was a prevailing sense of despondency within the public library movement. The 1930s and 1940s were an enduring period for libraries, tolerating poor conditions in relation to stock and premises, and with little interest or intent on improvement offered from political powers. In 1943, Cumann Leabharlann na hÉireann (The Library Association of Ireland) held a meeting in Dublin City Hall exacerbated by the existing public library situation. Having called for a commission of inquiry into the service six years previous, and been refused, they now highlighted the ‘general war-time scarcity on an already suffering service; they also wanted the abolition of the limitation set on the public library rate and a central advisory body to be established by the government to assist in the improvement of the library service’ (3).

The 1947 Act, when incorporated, was, not surprisingly, widely accepted, although was hastily realised and executed. Focusing primarily on the role of the Central Library, the Act was restrictive in its overall agenda and therefore failed to attribute any real power to An Chomhairle Leabharlanna (The Library Council) regarding the development of a national programme, concurrently with the local authorities. Nevertheless, the Act did offer a formal voice for the movement and hope for the future (4).

And willingly looking to the future was a practice to which the public library movement had become accustomed. For Section 16 of the 1947 Act finally delivered, at least on paper, on aspirations muttered a mere one hundred years previous – at last ‘the grant of assistance, on certain strict and clear conditions, by the Government, for the formation of Public Libraries’ (1).

In response, from the Select Committee on Public Libraries, it was reported:

‘This is one of those cases in which a comparatively small aid may accomplish a large portion of public good. It is also one of those few cases in which Education may be promoted without involving the agitation of theological questions or incurring the danger of political animosity.’ (1)

Libraries – An Educational Institution

In presenting the proposed legislation to the Dáil in 1947, the resounding rhetoric of founders of public library movement a century previous was boldly echoed. The library service was described as possessing the ability to become the ‘new nucleus’ of an adult education movement.

With political attention of the time focused chiefly on housing and healthcare services, the neglected library service was depicted as the ‘Cinderella of local services’ (2)(3). Lack of suitable reading material was underscored by the lack of funds and reflected in decreasing library borrowing figures. The preferred reading material of the people was that of ‘uncultivated’ fiction, neatly ushered along by the censorship ban, thus creating a marked void which advocates of the movement wished to fill with non-fiction educational content as well as fiction of a superior quality. Some interesting hypotheses as to the country’s reading habits were announced to the Dáil: ‘in the county town… a very high proportion of extremely light fiction is read. Away up in the hills… a very much higher proportion of excellent literature is read.’ With a view to providing quality material for all, the intention was to try to position the public library in its rightful place, that as a centre of purpose and learning for the people, delivering educational as well as recreational resources (3).

In this post-war era, Ireland wrestled extreme poverty and mass emigration. Education was in deficit, with primary school being the extent of formal education for the majority of the people in 1947, and for whom free secondary education was not introduced until 1967. In many respects, the public library system strove to fill this shortfall, and provide for many of the people an opportunity to better themselves by preparing for the working world and indulging in personal fulfilment in a way they were otherwise denied.

There are many examples of Irish librarians organising programmes, often lending their own equipment (gramophones and the like), to facilitate educational experiences in public libraries across the country. Not only were these individuals amongst the most professionally qualified at the time, but they also embodied the philosophy of the public library movement, as well as being thoroughly committed to community and public service (4).

Financial Assistance & Future Ambitions

The period preceding the 1947 Public Libraries Act was one of little progress, resulting in a library service starved of both due attention and financial assistance. In response, one of the first actions of the newly formed Library Council was to call for a detailed survey of library provision in Ireland. The survey, in part funded by the Carnegie UK Trust, who remained sympathetic to the movement in Ireland, was managed by two notable individuals, Dermot Foley, Clare county librarian, and Tom Dowling, chief librarian of Dublin County (4).

The survey informed two separate reports on the country library service – the first (in 1955) detailing county libraries, and the second (in 1958) addressing city and municipal libraries. Neither portrayed a library service of ample, or even satisfactory provision; rather instead describing a service of considerable potential but lacking and in need of immediate assistance:

The picture presented by the survey reports is that of a service, having great potential but struggling against difficulties; created by unsuitable premises, inadequate and in many cases unqualified staffs and having too many books of an inferior quality.’ (3)

It was not until 1961, fourteen years after the initial utterance in the Act of 1947, that financial assistance appeared via legislation in the Public Library Grants Scheme. This long-awaited grants regulation proposed financial contributions towards ‘payment of loans raised for buildings, vehicles and expansion of stock’ (3). The majority of uptake for grants submitted to the council in the initial years following this new legislation was exclusively for library buildings.

In the years immediately following the grants aid, little had changed within the library service as the Library Council looked to local authorities, already financially burdened, for monetary assistance. By 1971, the Library Council reported a service of only slight improvement, stating the reasons being ‘the comparatively slow rate of grants utilisation and the unevenness of growth in recent years’ (4). In the decades to follow, Ireland would experience a library service which would undergo a somewhat predictable and pedestrian cycle of uneven growth, followed by a stagnant complacency. For decades, until the turn of the century and beyond, slow progress could be attributed to grants being an ineffective tool in prompting the raising of capital loans by local authorities at a time when loans were required, arguably, for more pressing forms of public work. Nonetheless, between 1961 to 1985 sixty new buildings and thirty-eight refurbishments were completed, a great assist to the service, assisted by the introduction of grants in 1977 allowing for leasing of property which proved indispensable in providing libraries in principal urban centres. And despite the economic recession of the time, in 1988 a new Public Library Buildings Capital Programme was launched which provided up to 75% grant aid to the cost of developing new libraries. Such expansion did present issues in the form of staffing resources which were extremely low in libraries, both in overall numbers and in the levels of qualified personnel available to deal with the required planning (3)(4).

The 1970s welcomed a positive influence on the library service – that of the gradual succession of a newly qualified generation of librarians, with professional qualifications for chief librarians deemed compulsory to the post from 1969, and assistant librarians from 1976. This advancement was assisted, to their credit, by local authorities who recognised the professional deficit, and together with the Library Council, enabled staff already in the public library system to professionally qualify.

This progression essentially created a wave of capable library staff to attend to the expanding service and allowed for effective management of the public library service at both a central and local level. Moreover, the public library system, as an institution renowned for its consistent response to the community’s cultural, social and educational needs, contributed to and served the evolving society that Ireland had become (4).

The 1970s to the 1990s saw a shift in how libraries related to information dissemination. It was a time in which knowledge was increasingly not exclusive to the pages of a book, and so the book-based library complemented its stock by introducing multimedia and computer-based information services. As its central focus was to meet the information needs of its users, the library service readily responded to technological advances, providing the tools with which the public could access knowledge in a organised, accessible and modern manner.

In 1987, a group consisting the then-Minister for Education, the retired Dublin city and county librarian, the retired county manager and the director of An Chomhairle Leabharlanna, stated:

A modern public library should provide means of self development for individuals and groups, make accurate information speedily available, be a centre for cultural life, encourage the positive growth of leisure and the value and pleasure of reading…’(5)

Financial assistance granted in the latter decades of the 20th century significantly improved library status and provision, however, it was obvious the national investment programme of 1988 needed to be underpinned by a planned strategic approach. In 1998, the first public strategy ‘Branching Out: A New Public Library Service’ was published which focused on ‘providing equal access for all to information, support life-long learning and community-based support for literacy training and reading (6).

Public Libraries – Oppositional Opinions

As time and technology progressed, the status of public libraries became an interesting conundrum. Legislation and finance serving to reinforce the library service, was, of course, a positive step forward, albeit a tough navigation by all accounts. But, contrary to the impressive adoption of public libraries in earlier decades, there existed a curious undercurrent of resistance to the necessity and importance of having a strong library service in Ireland in the latter decades of the 1900s. Even as late as the 1970s, at a council debate, echoes of the old ‘haunt of the idlers’ attitude of 1850 were evident, with remarks offered that insisted the only way to improve the people was ‘by hard work, not reading books, and that the children of the ordinary hard working man on the farm have no time for reading books’ and that libraries were ‘a great luxury foisted on the ratepayers’ (1).

Perhaps it is within this ideological framework that the footing of the public libraries in the Irish public service and, perhaps, even Irish consciousness toward the close of the 20th century, should be reviewed.

In 1995, at an annual conference held by Cumann Leabharlann na hÉireann (The Library Association of Ireland), Liam Ronayne identified the prominent status of public libraries in Sweden, offering a world-renowned service, despite having no direct library legislation beyond 1963. He suggested such stature was owing to the country’s pursuit of equality and solidarity, which encompassed improvements in education, healthcare and social welfare.

In this sense, it could be construed that a shift in the overall relationship to libraries was required in Ireland in order to realise the ambitions and aspirations envisaged by revolutionary librarians such as Dermot Foley, whose aim was to propel the people ‘from being a nation of talkers’ to ‘a nation of readers who will know better what’ they were ‘talking about’.

Thus the public library enters its next chapter, so to speak. The 21st century presents its own unique challenges, changes and discourse, and yet the radical and progressive ideologies of its preceding decades still resound and are as relevant now as they were in the mid-1900s. And as the public library’s primary aim is to educate, inform, connect and serve its local community, where does this position the public library movement in a global society responding to unprecedented change in how knowledge and information is accessed?

By Laura Flanagan, Fingal Libraries


Next Monday, August 12th: Libraries of the present, Libraries of the Future, and much more!

We hope you join us!


For your interest:

Fingal Libraries Local Studies and Archives is a repository of photographs and documents, private and donated collections, encapsulating visual and literary snapshots of Fingal and the Dublin area through history.

It is a treasure trove for anyone looking to unearth the rich culture and heritage that is the region of Fingal. Staff are exceptionally knowledgeable and always willing to help in your research.

Thanks to Catherine, Brian and Karen for allowing access to archives for this blog series.

Research material used in the blog series can be found through the Encore catalogue on Libraries Ireland website:

University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. 2003 Call No. 027.4415

Public libraries in the 21st century : defining services and debating the future / Anne Goulding. 2006. Call No. 027.44

A history of literacy and libraries in Ireland : the long traced pedigree / Mary Casteleyn. 1984. Call No. 027.0415 Ireland

Irish Carnegie Libraries : A Catalogue and Architectural History / Grimes, Brendan. 1998. Call No. 027.4415

Dublin Libraries : A Pictorial Record / Lennon, Sean. 2001. Call No. 027.0418

Another invaluable resource during research included the Irish Newspaper Archive, available for use on public PCs at your local Fingal Library.


(1)  Hardiman N, Haunt of the Idlers or Centre for Learning? Public Libraries 1849-1949. In : McDermott N. (ed) The University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. Dublin: An Chomhairle Leabharlanna; 2003. p.13-29.
(2)  A history of literacy and libraries in Ireland: the long traced pedigree / Mary Casteleyn. 1984.
(3)  Ferriter D, The Post-war Public Library Service: Bringing Books ‘to the Remotest Hamlets and the Hills’?. In : McDermott N. (ed) The University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. Dublin: An Chomhairle Leabharlanna; 2003. p.67-77.
(4)  Ellis-King D, Decades of Aspiration: Public Libraries 1947-87. In : McDermott N. (ed) The University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. Dublin: An Chomhairle Leabharlanna; 2003. p.43-53.
(5)  Dempsey N, The Public Library: A National Imperative. In : McDermott N. (ed) The University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. Dublin: An Chomhairle Leabharlanna; 2003. p.55-64.
(6)  Government of Ireland. Our Public Libraries 2022: Inspiring, Connecting and Empowering. Available from: https://www.lgma.ie/en/about-us/libraries-development/advice-to-the-dep… [Accessed 2nd August 2019]