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Clare Library Turns the Pages of History

The Clare Champion, Friday, 5th March, 2004.

From its earliest days 150 years ago, when Clare became the first county to adopt the Principal Library Act, to the modern era of access to the internet, music and thousands of books, the Clare Library Service has had a long and distinguished history. Now a century and a half of service is celebrated.

Clare occupies a special place in the history of public libraries in Ireland. Almost 150 years ago Ennis had the honour of being the first town in the country to adopt the Principal Library Act for Ireland, which was passed in 1855. The ratepayers of the town did not waste much time in offering their support for it as, on October 12 of that year, they met at a public meeting at which they unanimously adopted the act. This was seen as a brave decision on their part. The Clare Journal, in a lengthy editorial one week later, welcomed the establishment of a public library in Ennis which it said was a great step in advance. “It is impossible to calculate the amount of good that will be derived from it,” the editorial said.

The Grand Jury moved to provide the site of the old convict depot at Jail Street (now O’Connell Street) and designs by J. Petty were approved at a cost of £860. Then the gentlemen of County Clare subscribed £500, while a penny rate was agreed on to produce the sum of £24, 14 shillings and five pennies. For some reason the library project was abandoned, however, and the building became the town hall, later to be part of The Old Ground Hotel. According to t

he Clare Journal of March 20, 1856, the public library, though nominally in existence for six months, was in reality a baseless shadow. It was not until 1931 that a public library was opened in Ennis. The first county librarian was Dermot Foley and the library was set up in part of Ennis Courthouse. It later moved to Bindon Street and afterwards found a new and more permanent location in a vacant private premises at Bellvue, now the headquarters of Clare Library Services.

At that time a disgruntled ratepayer wrote to the then county manager, who had allocated £385 for the conversion of Bellvue into a library headquarters and the residence for the county librarian. The ratepayer emphatically protested against this proposed expenditure of public money on such a project. The registered number of book borrowers was only 3,258, a little over 3 percent of the population of a far-flung county. He submitted that a county service of that type, which was only availed of by a very small proportion of people who would have to pay £1378 a year for its maintenance and upkeep, should not be kept in existence any longer. His comments contrasted hugely with the vision of the editorial of the Clare Journal in 1855 and the subsequent success of the library service in Clare.

The first purpose built library in Clare was opened in Ennis in 1975 and continued to go from strength to strength. Since then over 4,000,000 books have been issued in Ennis and 136,000 members have registered. Speaking in 1976, then county manager, Joseph Boland, said the Ennis de Valera Library would not merely be a library. Clare County Council wanted it to be much more: a centre that would assist in the expansion of cultural activities in the area and a focal point that would serve a catalyst for cultural development. Above all, he said, the council wanted it to be a building the people would use, not merely to borrow books or consult reference books, but for study, to meet people with the same cultural interests and to participate in organized lectures, exhibitions and debates. The council wanted the new branch library to be multi-purpose, serving the community as widely as possible.

The staff of the library service have truly delivered on this vision and continue to develop additional services. The recent introduction of a music collection has brought many young people back to the library and it is hoped that this trend will continue. Built at a cost of €125,000, the de Valera Library and Museum has been excellent value for money. Last year was a bumper one, with over 150,000 people visiting its facilities. More items were borrowed than in any year since 1987 and a membership of 6,142 was the highest number ever registered in the branch.

This year Clare County Council celebrates the 21st anniversary of the completion of the first Clare Library Development Programme. Commencing in 1975 with the opening of the de Valera Library and Museum in Ennis, it culminated with the opening of the Sean Lemass library in Shannon.
In between a hectic building programme saw three purpose-built libraries opened in Ennistymon (1981), Kilrush (1981) and Newmarket-on-Fergus (1982). The provision of four purpose-built libraries within a three year period will hardly ever be bettered, though it should be mentioned that 2003 saw three new service points and virtual libraries opening on the same day in Kilmihil, Kildysart and Cranny. Five libraries have issued more than 8,000,000 books and registered 282,129 readers. Ennis is responsible for half of these issues with Shannon accounting for 1,600,000, Kilrush 1,000,000, Ennistymon 900,000 and Newmarket-on-Fergus 500,000.

County librarian, Noel Crowley, pointed out that the book issues are but a part of the overall contribution libraries have made to the cultural life of the communities they serve. Changes in the service are immediately obvious when one considers that 95,000 hours of internet usage was booked in 2003. An exhibition later in the year will document the various activities and innovations associated with the Clare Library Service, which has certainly come a long way since its early adoption of the Principal Library Act and its uncertain start.

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