Monday, 7 March 2011

Belfast Central Library

Belfast Central Library first opened its doors in 1888 and is an iconic landmark city centre building.  It is a Grade B listed building and houses a wide range of significant heritage and cultural archives and resources of local, national and international significance.  Belfast Central Library is open to the public 60 hours a week and plays a significant role in the cultural life of Northern Ireland.  It is in effect Northern Ireland's regional library.

It is also a key element in the development of the North West quadrant of the city and contributes to the regeneration of Royal Avenue and the Cathedral Quarter, which itself is undergoing major regeneration.

However time and the Troubles have taken their toll on the library building and in February 2007 pieces of masonry found on Kent Street prompted an urgent check of the sandstone facade of the library.  As a result some loose fragments were removed and safety nets erected to protect pedestrians.  Since then restoration work to the value of £940,000 has been carried out by Patton Construction on the facade and the roof and the building is now in excellent order.

I visited the library on 2 March to see the completed work and to thank the contractors and the library staff for all their efforts during the restoration.

It was also an opportunity to see an exhibition of artefacts held by or relating to the library and one of them was a copy of the King James Version of the Bible, printed in 1634 by Robert Banker, the King's printer.  The KJV or Authorised Version was completed in 1611 and so this is a very early copy.

The following are extracts from the speech I gave at this event:

I am delighted to be here today to celebrate the completion of the much needed stonework repairs at Belfast Central Library. 
The future of our libraries has gripped the public consciousness in recent days.  Politicians, journalists, academics and celebrities have all had their say.  In Northern Ireland during the recent budget consultation I received three and a half thousand messages from people explaining why they value their libraries.
So I was interested to see why Belfast Central Library was founded.  The library is here because in 1882 the people of Belfast voted for a tax rise.  They were willing to pay more rates because they wanted a public library.
In 1884 when this building was started Belfast was just a town.  In 1888, actually during the official opening of this building, Belfast was told it had become a city.  I like the implication that deciding to invest in cultural activities and education for all the people meant that Belfast had grown up.  Grown up enough for Queen Victoria to agree that Belfast was now a city.
The building has led a hard life.  In 1941 it was damaged by the blitz.  In 1976 it survived a nearby bomb.  Hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through the doors every year and who knows how many millions have visited over its life so far.
But the real damage was done by our weather, which won't surprise anyone here.  After 125 years it needed some love and attention and I am delighted that DCAL was able to fund the stonework repairs.
The original building cost fifteen thousand pounds.  It cost almost a million to repair the stonework and the roof.  I was up on the scaffolding during the repairs and I was interested to see the work going on.  The work was difficult and itnricate and it was done with a high degree of skill and also, I detected, a lot of affection.  Yes we bought stones and slates and paid for the workmanship but we did far more than that.  We made an investment in one of our major cultural assets in Northern Ireland.
The completion of this work will ensure the safety of the public.  Users and visitors alike can remove their hard hats, fold down their umbrellas and let their eyes look skywards once more at the rejuvenated facade, safe in the knowledge that a shower of debris will not descend.
This important work will ensure than this iconic building is preserved for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.
The Central Library is a focal point in the city and lies at the heart of this city's library service.  It provides a neutral and shared space for all in our community.  In addition, many of the collections here are of regional significance.  Personally, I greatly value the newspaper library.
I firmly believe that investment in the library service will help build a more educated society, a more skilled society and a stronger society.  That is why we invest in libraries and why we invested in this library.

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