25th Anniversary Series Blog 5

25th Anniversary Series Blog 5

Early to Mid-1900s – Public Libraries Wax and Wane

‘A nation can become cultivated only insofar as the average man, not the exceptional person, is cultivated and has knowledge of the thought, imagination and intellectual history of his nation’ – George Russell

The 1900s Librarian – Trials & Tribulations

The early decades of the 1900s welcomed a new era for libraries, staffed by dedicated and resourceful individuals and supported by organisations intent on success.

Although short-lived (established in 1904; dissolved in 1909), Cumann na Leabharlann (The Library Association) recognised the widespread benefits that developing and supporting a committed and conscientious library staff would offer to their communities (1). At the time, many library staff were not trained as professional librarians, especially outside municipal regions. Instead, they were chosen more on the merit of their natural intellect, along with their standing within the community (2). Tasked to deliver quality services, they endeavoured to do so, and thus formed the foundation of the public library movement.

Cumann Leabharlann na hÉireann (The Library Association of Ireland) was founded in 1928 and remains the representative body for modern libraries and librarians. As with its predecessors, the association recognized the importance of a dedicated library workforce. One of its primary aims was to improve the conditions under which staff worked. The association promoted the better administration of libraries, the establishment of a national library service where neighbouring libraries pooled their resources for research purposes and supported whatever might tend to the development and qualifications of librarians  — all with a view to enhance the services provided to the public (1).

Due to the growth of the library service nationwide, demand was high for suitably qualified staff. These needs were met by University College Dublin, which announced its intention to establish a School of Library Training in the late 1920s (1). Such news was openly welcomed by Cumann Leabharlann na hÉireann and the public library movement alike, as this program would no doubt release idealistic, bright-eyed, duty-bound librarians to every street, hill, and valley.

Now licensed to deliver a skilled service, these professional librarians enjoyed a rare position of influence within society. This status was worn with pride and dedication, however, librarians’ efforts were not always matched in terms of appreciation, comforts or salary. For instance, in 1917, Mr. W. Canty, librarian of the Carnegie Library in Balbriggan, was a learned man with a passion for foreign languages. However, on one occasion, this latter fact did not serve him well in an environment in which intellect could arouse suspicion.

And then there was librarian Maxwell Hutton of Downpatrick. While the era enjoyed a flourishing of public libraries due to the bounty of Mr. Carnegie, the meagre rate limitation meant building maintenance costs far superseded available funds. And so Mr. Hutton endured the bleak state of many a library of the time, as repairs proved beyond the pocket of many a council. Mr. Hutton gamely strived to complete his one-year probationary period, but in 1909, having been just confirmed in the role, he tendered his resignation, stating he was a nervous wreck given the ceiling had fallen in on him twice (2).

Library staff salaries echoed similar treatment. Funds were scarce, and so compensation inevitably suffered. And though librarians reached a status of value in society, salaries failed to reflect their efforts and were often less than the average industrial wage. Moreover, the chores of an early 1900s library fell far beyond the scope of typical library duties, including maintenance of the heating ‘system’ (in the form of a coal stove), upkeep of paraffin oil lanterns (or their equivalent of 300 candles each!), and tending to external grounds by mowing the lawn and preserving footpaths. While the day was brimming with extracurricular activities, the librarians need not worry, as they were granted time a plenty in order to successfully accommodate every task, with libraries routinely open from 10am to 9pm and serviced by one member of staff. Overtime? Well… ahem! (Though a humble raise was granted in situations where duties were responded to with care and diligence).

And, of course, there’s always one! Not all members of library staff aimed to excel in their position or were grateful for the prestige of belonging to an entity so intrinsic to society. And not all library staff members were librarians, with some acting as caretakers. One such “caretaker” was responsible for the running of Croagh library in Co. Limerick. Reported to have resisted all interaction with the public, their queries serving as nothing but an annoyance, he just about managed a minimal service. He also took to burning the library books, as caring for them was a task beyond which he felt reasonable (2).

A View to a Nationwide Service

Established by Mr. Andrew Carnegie in 1913, the Carnegie UK Trust (CUKT) invested substantial funds into the continued growth and development of a country-wide library service in Ireland. Understanding the natural variations of an evolving society, he wrote:

“Improvement of the well-being of the masses of the people of Great Britain and Ireland by such means as are embraced within the meaning of the word “charitable” and which the Trustees may from time to time select as best fitted from age to age for securing these purposes, remembering that new needs are constantly arising as the masses advance.”(3)

In 1915, Lennox Robinson, Irish writer and dramatist, was appointed the supreme position of organising librarian for the CUKT in Ireland. Robinson was a literary man who personally knew all the fine talents of the Irish Literary Movement; however, a qualified or experienced librarian he was not. Still, he was dedicated enough to local cultural life to be considered suited to the role.

Robinson was required to formulate a policy for the development of the Irish Library service, in which he was to advocate for the adoption of the Acts across the country—especially into rural areas—while also wisely allocating the Trust’s funds. Despite great uptake in certain regions, many parts of the country had little to no library provision, and these areas were to be his prime targets.

Robinson carried out his duties in an exemplary fashion, and being an individual encapsulating all the flair for the dramatic, he encouraged concerts and various artistic pursuits to find a home in the local libraries. Such actions undeniably added to the appeal in rural locales (1).

Talks to extend a county library service to all of Ireland were well underway within the public library movement at that time, purposefully bolstered by the CUKT. With Ireland auspiciously on the cusp of receiving a second round of Carnegie benevolence, the library movement prepared to experience its second wave of prosperity. That is, lamentably, until the tenuous political situation of the time brought all plans to a sudden halt.

Troubled Times

The CUKT plans for a county library service were based on the objective of sending a trained librarian to county towns, where a distribution centre would then be established. From this repository, books would be supplied to local centres, which would in turn lend them directly to the reader. It was a rather haphazard chain, but nonetheless, it could cover a vast area and ensure a widespread service (4). News of this system broke in 1920, but it was rapidly curbed by what was described in a newspaper report as a ‘temporary political condition’ (1). Ireland was held siege by the War of Independence, and with fighting so intense countrywide, all distribution under the new scheme had ceased by early 1921.

Under such precarious and volatile conditions, the provision of a library service was too great a risk. However, libraries were interwoven with the political situation to an extent—and suffered the inevitable consequences.

The successful development of Ireland’s public library system in the late 1890s and early 1900s was owed to the charisma, courage and clout of figures not only prominent in the library movement, but in the movement for independence as well. It would also be true to say that libraries were used by certain individuals committed to the drive for independence – individuals such as Michael Collins, ‘a guerrilla leader … (who) made good use of the public libraries, not just as sources of valuable information, but also as venues for his undercover operations’ (5).

During this time, libraries suffered a spate of destruction and disturbance. Across the country, several library buildings were burned to the ground. In Co. Kerry, Castleisland library was burned down in 1920, and Tralee library closed in 1920 and remained so until 1924. Listowel, Cahirciveen and Kenmare libraries were all burned down in 1921. In Limerick, Newcastle West library was burned down, and Rathkeale library reported they had stopped stocking any new books. The Sligo library was occupied by Free State troops. Drogheda library stated it would restock once ‘things returned to normal’. Many libraries failed to send in reports to the CUKT, as the fighting turned so fierce it was unsafe to do so. Still, despite the disturbances, the libraries and the war for independence remained intertwined. Even Robinson, the CUKT organising librarian, ‘gave refuge to men on the run’ (1).

The Carnegie UK Trust ordered a report investigating the status of public libraries in Great Britain and Ireland between 1921 and 1923.  The impediment to the movement of the penny rate limitation was long understood, so much so that this barrier was vigorously campaigned against by the Dublin Public Libraries Committee. In 1919, rather than removing this concession (the pitiful rate of one penny in the pound, which had been in existence from the early 1900s), the rate was increased to the not so salubrious 3d in the pound in Irish municipal regions, and 6d in the pound in county boroughs. The effect was close to nonexistent – World War I had drastically reduced the value of the currency so as to hold little weight, and the international situation was such that attention was diverted elsewhere (1).

Unstable political situations were to prove a bane which the public libraries movement had to endure, causing great financial strife. But it was to this strife which the CUKT would graciously respond.

County Library System

Following the uncertainty of precarious political situations, the mid-1920s was a welcome recovery period for libraries. Ireland had established itself as a Free State in 1922, and what followed was the Irish Free State Local Government Act, 1925. This Act gave power to county councils to adopt the previous Acts governing public libraries and abolished urban and rural district councils. In doing so, it transferred control of public libraries to county councils (1).

The County Library System finally materialised after the Act of 1925.  The aim was to bring books to every interested reader across the country. The system existed independent of an expensive library building, requiring just a room in the county town which acted as the County Book Repository. Commonly this space was housed in the local schools; from this location, books were boxed and sent out systematically to smaller towns and villages. The care of these books fell to a small committee, which typically consisted of the local clergyman, a school teacher and other upstanding and interested members of the community, who then nominated an honorary librarian (1)(6).

Transport of books was rudimentary, making use of available carts and lorries travelling from rural regions to county towns. Where it existed, rail transport was utilised. Larger and more prosperous regions, such as Co. Dublin and Co. Cork, were afforded the luxury of a specially dedicated motor vehicle, primed with book shelves especially for the purpose. This option lay beyond the financial stretch of most councils, and proved a wonder to behold in such times (1).

While the county library system provided for the general reader, the cost of specialised books for the serious or studious reader fell outside its allocated spend. Feeling this shortcoming proved a latent disadvantage, the CUKT reinforced the service by funding the Irish Central Library for Students. What resulted was a network of cooperation and inter-lending between libraries of all kinds in Ireland, an offshoot of which was a book repository in Dublin from which specific titles could be requested.

In 1926, a report on the work of the CUKT spoke of the ‘conspicuous success in the seven counties’ in receipt of their assistance and their ambition to continue their policy until ‘every county [in Ireland] possesses its own system of rural libraries’. (4) By 1929, fifteen counties in Ireland enjoyed the goodwill of the Trust, but as financial assistance was scheduled to cease in 1930, Cumann Leabharlann na hÉireann (The Library Association of Ireland) prompted the remaining counties to adopt the powers afforded them through the Local Government Act, 1925, and thus avail of the Carnegie grants while still available.

Literary Inclinations

The philosophy of the public library has always been to reach out and respond to the local community, and in turn, serving it in a way that is meaningful and desired. The county library system experienced a decent usage of services, supplying the average book to the average reader, as intended. Of course, reading tastes did not exist in isolation, and were moulded and influenced in a variety of ways.

In the first few decades of the 1900s, library patronage was comprised mainly those of the working class – labourers, artisans, working women and those whose education finished within the National School System (5). Such people strove to better themselves and were intent on using the  public library to meet such aims. Even so, their tastes were actually quite tame. Proving popular were the likes of Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe of the English writers, and Tom Moore and Oliver Goldsmith of the Irish. Such a palate seemed to prove disheartening and somewhat baffling to the radical intellectuals on whose shoulders the now well-frequented public library system was built. At times, preferences stretched to likes of Bernard Shaw, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but never quite so far as to someone like James Connolly. On the whole, the tastes of the new reading masses were considered by many of those within the movement to be decidedly middlebrow (5). And so, it is with such a moderate foundation and cultural condition that one reflects on what was to shape the stock of public libraries in the years following the Civil War in Ireland.


Being a service ‘of the people and for the people’, the public library movement long experienced the opinions of, and criticisms and suggestions from, certain organisations, institutions and individuals on the calibre and quality of reading material on offer. The period from the 1920s to 1950s revealed strong cultural attitudes, and it was an era whereby the public library system endured profound judgement on with what they should stock their shelves and how they should serve their communities.

In 1924, the county library system, funded under the Carnegie Trust, was gaining steady momentum across the country. However, Robinson, the Trust’s organising librarian, was forced to resign ‘under a cloud of moral condemnation,’ having written a short story  – ‘The Madonna of Slieve Dun’, the content of which was generally considered ‘blasphemous’ by the moral arbiters. The incident was pronounced a disgrace and immediately called into question the selection of books in public libraries, which had always been a moot point. Those concerned scrutinised content to ensure it was culturally suitable for the new state, which now had to navigate the dual forces of religious sectarianism and nationalism. Word of the episode echoed far and wide and nearly caused the entire public library movement to founder. Though the reaction to Robinson’s ‘crime’ was extensively negative and harsh, the outraged response was also condemned by many, with Lady Gregory referring to the whole event as ‘a storm in a chalice’ (1)(4).

The period following the Robinson matter was one of scepticism and tension. Frank O’ Connor, who had joined the libraries in 1923 (under his real name, Michael Donovan), offered insights into just how challenging the environment to extend public libraries had become, stating ‘the consequences of this restrictiveness all round me’ (4).

While librarians of the time faced quite a degree of opposition, they were often resourceful in their countering. In an attempt to establish a library in Co. Wicklow, O’ Connor, clearly daring and obviously not one to wither in the face of resistance, devised a ruse to ensure a public library service in Co. Wicklow. Hearing that the local clergyman was against the formation of a library and intent on stopping it before it ever began, he passed off his friend, Seamus Keely, as a representative of the Carnegie UK Trust in a meeting before the Library Committee. Mr. Keely posed as a ‘an exemplary Catholic’ and assured all the faith of the Irish was ‘in no immediate danger’. The stratagem was successful, and O’ Connor is known to have quipped the public library service of Co. Wicklow was built on a ‘masquerade’! (4)

In this instance, the library movement won the battle, but it was not long before opinion was overruled by legislation. In 1929, the Censorship of Publication Act was passed, which contained definitions for the terms ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’ and was executed by a Censorship Board (1). An official complaint process was established, whereby books and periodicals requiring scrutiny were evaluated. In a period of fifteen years, 1,700 books were banned, the public shielded from their content (1).

Literary Appetites for Literary Stew

The Censorship Act caused countless problems for librarians. Libraries developed a reputation as being ‘seed beds of filth’ which needed to be kept firmly under control. This task was assumed by ‘self-appointed guardians of public morals’, who, according to Dermot Foley, County Librarian of Clare in 1935, ‘could spot dirt at a hundred yards’ and whose job was to ‘help the librarian in his very difficult task of getting good books’ (1).

Foley saw this ban as an assault on the Irish Literary Revival, and complained that books were now ‘tainted’, while Oliver St John Gogarty remarked it was a ‘gross misuse of a national liberty so recently won’ (5). Books were being pulled from the shelves, owing to unsuitable content. Moreover, once-revered books were locked away due to their ‘dubious moral value’ and only available on request to readers considered of proven maturity and mind (5).

Despite this, public libraries continued to grow during this period, and the movement would be considered a success in terms of responding to adopting the Act of 1925 and receipt of Carnegie grants. However, opposition and tendency to curtail librarians paralleled such growth. The era was a dark one for librarians committed to bringing substance to the people, their woes only assuaged by the knowledge that such resistance proved the power of their influence. Regrettably, in the words of Foley, the Censorship ban ‘whipped [libraries] into serving up an Irish stew of imported Westerns, sloppy romances, and blood murders’ – i.e., middlebrow literature to amuse and protect the morals and innocence of the average reader (5).

Many a librarian became concerned by the ‘senseless’ preferences of so many readers for ‘trivial fiction and trashy romance’. Several attributed this supposed lack of taste to the ominous Censorship ban, which kept an entire generation “sheltered” from literature of higher possibilities. Alas, the reality was such that ‘trashy London filth’ was indeed favoured by the average reader, and records prove a certain class of ‘superior intellect’ also partook in creating and indulging in literature for the unrefined tastes. James Joyce was so enamoured by ‘romantic trash’ that, in his earlier days, he submitted writings to the firm Mills and Boon, which were declined! And Nobel Prize winner W. B.  Yeats enjoyed nothing more than a good cowboy story (5).

The Censorship ban held strong for many years, and it was not until after the Second World War that attitudes began to change. While the war itself had shifted attitudes and focus, it was the introduction of another factor entirely, one of an exciting and most alluring technological nature, that would consume the nation and push opinion in a different direction.

By Laura Flanagan, Fingal Libraries


Next Monday, August 5th: Times They Are a-Changin’, An Chomhairle Leabharlanna (The Library Council), 1947 Public Libraries Acts, 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)   A history of literacy and libraries in Ireland: the long traced pedigree / Mary Casteleyn. 1984.
(2)  Grimes B, Carnegie Libraries in Ireland. 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.31-41.
(3)  CarnegieUKTrust: Our History. Available from: https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/ [Accessed 20th July 2019].
(4)  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.
(5)  Kiberd D, The Library and Imaginative Freedom. 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.79-89.
(6)  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.