Dublin's building boom puts priceless books in danger

The recent prosperity and development of the capital of Ireland is causing major problems for one of the city's most venerable institutions, the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

The university has discovered to its dismay that a quarter of a million books, many of them irreplaceable and dating from the earliest days of print, have been damaged by building dust.

The new Ireland is thus having a detrimental effect on the old, since this side-effect of Dublin's extraordinary building boom will cost millions to put right.

The Long Room in Trinity is one of Ireland's architectural and academic glories, its vaulted ceiling and shelves of leather-bound volumes presenting a magnificent spectacle to half a million visitors every year.

Its main chamber, described as "a cathedral of the book, a testament to the secular worship of learning", is 65 metres long, capped by a beautifully timbered, barrel-vaulted ceiling.

But its 18th-century splendour is part of the problem, since it is one single chamber where dust, much from all those visitors, can permeate every corner.

As Ireland's largest research library, Trinity College is legally entitled to a copy of every book published in Ireland and Britain. The university sits in the bustling heart of Dublin. It is a highly popular tourist attraction and a growing educational establishment.

According to Robin Adams, the librarian: "There are not many libraries as old as this in the middle of a 21st-century city. We have this very impressive single-chamber library with books on open shelves.

"It's an 18th-century building so it's not designed to keep out a modern city. Dust will come through the doors and it will come through the windows, even if they're not open. They're not sealed - they're the original old-fashioned sash windows."

The Book of Kells, a huge drawing-point for visitors, is protected. But the dust is affecting important collections such as the Fagel collection, which consists of 20,000 items of pre-Napoleonic material.

Analysis has shown that they are largely composed of stone fragments. According to Mr Adams: "Our judgement is that a lot of it has to do with the boom in the building industry as Dublin has been undergoing major development in the past decade or so.

"There are cranes to be seen in all directions. We've done an analysis of the stuff that's falling on to the books and it's largely fine stone dust, so we assume it's coming from the construction work around us."

Cleaning the books is a labour-intensive task involving old-fashioned techniques. Each one is vacuumed with special equipment before dust and ingrained dirt is removed from covers and pages with brushes and dry sponges.

A team of four conservation assistants have already cleaned and stabilised more than 10,000, but that still leaves almost a quarter of a million to be processed.

Since the old books must be handled with intricate care, it costs €50 (£34) to clean and preserve just five of them. The total bill for the clean-up is therefore an estimated €2m. Since at the present rate of progress the work would take 20 years to complete, the university has issued an appeal for funds.

Trinity will also carry out an environmental analysis and will develop long-term preventive measures to protect its literary treasures.

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