Postcard from Belfast: A catalogue of troubled times: Robert Bell on the Belfast library that never gives up

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I CAN'T remember a week like it in Belfast. Fear is everywhere, in the thinly peopled streets, the empty bars, the long queues in the city's off-licences. Everyone says the same thing, 'I don't remember being actually frightened before.' But the possibility of peace has also been in the air, a faint hum behind the drums. In Belfast, this is very strange. My assistant likes to joke that the word 'intractable' is never off my lips when I take people round the Northern Ireland Political Collection.

This collection is intimately bound up with 'the troubles'. Exactly a quarter of a century ago to the month, an august old institution, the Linen Hall Library, took a remarkable step and began to collect the street literature of the city's many political movements. It set out to establish relationships with every political, military and paramilitary group then active and acquire their publications. It had never been done before and it has never been done since.

In that same year, 1968, in Paris, student riots engendered and driven by street literature transformed French society. There, no institution collected anything. And today French librarians estimate that only 15 per cent is extant. Meanwhile, in the Belfast of 1968, volunteer members of staff were returning from barricaded parts of the city with bagfuls of newspapers, bulletins, posters, pamphlets, cards and badges. I always like to imagine those early pioneers on the barricades, wearing 'L' for librarian armbands, boldly acquiring what no librarian had ever dared acquire before.

The reality, of course, was more prosaic, but the image captures the essence of what happened. Such was the respect that the library built up and sustained, that from that day to this, not one of the many staff, of all persuasions and none, was ever threatened or intimidated. And the library itself has remained unofficially sacrosanct, a neutral zone which despite its city centre location has never been attacked and has never suffered more than a few broken windows from distant bomb blasts.

And this week, amid all the bad news from Belfast, we must try to get our own good news out. On Wednesday afternoon Mary Robinson, the Irish President, awarded us joint first prize in the Gulbenkian / Norwich Union Irish Museums and Galleries Awards, for 'Best Visitor Care' - and shortlisted us for 'Best Collection Care'. I say we must get the news out because the libarary is an independent charity that relies on subscriptions from members, grants from trusts and donations from individuals and we have to capitalise on anything that raises our profile. So, apart from our normal round of collecting and organising material and facilitating students and visitors, it's been a hectic week of drafting press releases, phoning correspondents and television producers to try to call in favours, looking for the 'Troubles Collection Friendliest' headline.

Then, in the middle of last-minute stuffing of envelopes for a desperate dash to a closing post office, a camera crew arrives from BBC2 Newsnight wanting to film myself introducing Mark Urban to UDA magazines. We can't turn it down. Aren't we about to be awarded 'Best Visitor Care'? The crew leaves, we have missed the post office and I have to rearrange the lives of my entire family to get the envelopes across town in the rush hour to the main post office.

For 25 years, Linen Hall has managed to remain in constant contact, and keep on good terms, with every party and faction in the most complex and bloody conflict in any of the Western democracies since the war. Through quiet contacts behind the scenes and a policy of making all material available, the library has unfailingly kept the faith.

What is that faith? Simply that a librarian's job is to reflect, without hindrance, the opinions in print of the society he or she serves. There is no political censorship in the Linen Hall Library. If you print it, we will collect it, conserve it, protect it and preserve it for posterity, and simultaneously we will make it available for anyone to consult. It is a faith which is built on respect for diversity. And the huge regard in which the library is held in even so divided a society as Belfast shows the dividends that holding to such principles can deliver.

Now 25 years down the line, we hold some 70,000 well- organised items. This is not just an invaluable resource for Ireland, but a potent example in the library profession worldwide. Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent of this newspaper, said of the collection: 'I can think of no other comparable institution in a place of such social and political division that has been able to amass such a record.' Andy Pollak of the Irish Times said: 'The Political Collection, like the library as a whole, is a rare and wonderful example of the power of learning and understanding in a society more noted these days for the passionate rigidity of its thinking.' And this week, the judges of the Gulbenkian/Norwich Union Awards said that we had achieved 'that difficult task, the breathing of life and vitality into reading and scholarship'.

In recent weeks the tongue-in-cheek talk in the collection has been 'What if peace breaks out? Will we become redundant?' But just as we have been the resource for the Intractable Northern Ireland Conflict, we could easily be transformed into the resource for the Miraculous Northern Ireland Settlement. In the dream we are asked: 'How on earth was it done?' 'Well,' we say, 'it began with respect for diversity.'