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A long and hugely entertaining chapter comes to an end

During his 37 years at the Linen Hall library, chief librarian John Killen has helped build up a huge collection of Troubles memorabilia, which ironically survived an IRA bomb. He catalogues his career for Ivan Little

For John Killen, the soon-to-retire custodian of the priceless riches in Belfast's Linen Hall Library, where he has helped to amass the definitive archive of the Troubles here - including charred material from a firebomb attack on his beloved city centre building - one terrorist atrocity is too close to home to discuss.

The 60-year-old Linen Hall librarian was born and still lives in Loughinisland, the beautiful Co Down village whose name will for ever be associated with the obscenity of the UVF massacre in 1994, which left six men dead as they watched the Republic of Ireland playing in a televised World Cup game in America.

"I really can't talk about it, it's too emotional," says John, who leaves at the end of the month after 37 years in Ireland's oldest and last subscription library, which currently has more than 3,000 members and a million books, including a comprehensive collection of Belfast printed publications, in its stores.

The Linen Hall, which is an unparalleled resource for students of everything Irish, has been visited by Prince Charles and Presidents Bill Clinton and Mary McAleese and frequented by poets including Seamus Heaney and rock musicians like Van Morrison and Ash's Tim Wheeler, who even wrote songs there.

The story of the 227-year-old library has long been worthy of a book in itself - and John Killen has written it. It is one of 13 publications he has penned, including one about Irish drinking habits and another about Irish political cartoons by the likes of Rowel Friers, Ian Knox, Martyn Turner and Charles E Kelly, whose son Frank Kelly, aka Father Jack in the Father Ted TV, series travelled to Belfast for a day-long symposium on the drawings and satire.

Only last week, of course, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was the target for Islamist militants who killed 12 people in a frenzied gun attack on its headquarters in Paris.

The slaughter of the cartoonists left John Killen in a state of shock. "I was completely horrified. It goes against everything that we believe in and were taught in trying to accommodate and reach out to each other," he says.

"But last week in Paris was also too reminiscent of a number of incidents here in our own Troubles that we have to live with, that we have to internalise but which have damaged us," says John, who had a brief but unrewarding flirtation with the civil service in his youth before finding his "home" in a library.

His first job was at Belfast's Central Library and after returning to Queen's University to attain more qualifications, he moved to the Linen Hall as Irish reference librarian in 1977.

He says: "Once you actually walk through the doors of the Linen Hall there's a great danger of being captured for the rest of your life. And I think basically I was."

Jimmy Vitty was the colourful and gregarious librarian at the time who knew everyone who was anyone in Belfast, and the Linen Hall became a meeting place for literary men who descended on the Donegall Square North building almost every day.

Writers and artists like Sam Hanna Bell, John Hewitt, Joseph Tomelty and Padraic Woods would arrive at the library early in the morning and head to the nearby Chalet D'Or restaurant for coffee.

"They invited me along on my very first day," says John. "And that's where my real education started because of the people I was meeting and their amazing conversations and anecdotes."

Poet Seamus Heaney was another regular visitor to the Linen Hall who was greatly inspired by the influential figures he found there.

"Seamus had been introduced to the same coterie of literary people 10 years before me and I remember him saying that meeting with them on an equal basis had given him the confidence to begin writing poetry in the Sixties," John says.

To John Killen, Heaney's affirmation of the library's importance in his life was a key to the soul of the Linen Hall.

"It's really all about the humanity of the place," he says. "Yes, it's bricks and mortar, it's book stacks, it's books, but it's dealing with people and their interests which adds to one's own education."

Heaney opened the much-needed Fountain Street extension to the library, which doubled its storage capacity and gave it a performance space, in 2000 when he also planted a tree outside which is still flourishing today.

It was all a far cry from the Linen Hall of the economically difficult and troubled times of 1977 when the building itself was tired and in desperate need of upgrading and the treasure trove of books and collections was crying out to be listed properly.

John says: "The library had built up a great number of Irish periodicals and magazines over 200 years which were all at the back of the Linen Hall in the old two-up, two-down caretaker's house whose last resident was the shipyard poet Thomas Carnduff."

John spent months meticulously cataloguing all the publications before setting about sorting out the fledgling political collection which had been started by Jimmy Vitty after a student left a civil rights leaflet on his table in the old Carlton restaurant in Belfast.

John says: "He thought to himself that something was moving in our society and that it was important to collect everything he could across the board without fear or favour.

"That was an amazingly far-sighted thing to do, but it also tied in with other collections here, for example from the time of the United Irishmen's movement who included in their number people like Henry Joy McCracken, who was a Linen Hall member, and Thomas Russell, who was our second librarian."

By the time John Killen came to the library, huge piles of posters, newspaper cuttings, propaganda material and publications about the Troubles were sitting on tables.

John made the listing of them a priority because he, like his predecessor Vitty, saw the value in preserving them for future generations here and further afield.

"Jimmy Vitty's decision to start the collection was a eureka moment in world librarianship. No other institution would have thought of that at the time," says John.

The political collection now includes 4,000 posters as well as prisoners' books and records from the Maze/Long Kesh, among 350,000 Troubles items.

It now attracts academics and students from all over the world and there are plans to digitise the material with the aid of lottery and heritage funding over the next two years.

Even through the worst years of the conflict, Linen Hall officials thought their shared space and their attempts to encourage neutrality would guarantee their immunity from the violence encircling their oasis of calm in Belfast. But they were wrong.

In 1993, an IRA firebomb exploded on New Year's Eve and only the quick action of the Fire Service, who were nearby dealing with other similar attacks, saved the Linen Hall.

Realising the potential damage to the credibility of republicanism of an own goal by bombing one of Ireland's most celebrated libraries, Sinn Fein swiftly briefed journalists that the Linen Hall wasn't the target and that a panic-stricken bomber had abandoned his device in the library because of the presence of the security forces in the area.

John Killen shudders to think what might have happened. "We lost 1,000 books but if the fire had gone for another 15 minutes we could have lost the whole building, everything."

Ironically the Linen Hall's political collection has a box containing the burnt title pages of upwards of 120 books from that fateful night. But on a more positive note, John, who stepped up from deputy librarian to the top job in 2008 after the retirement of John Gray, is proud of what the Linen Hall now has to offer, from its Robert Burns collection - the largest outside Scotland - to its huge archive of postcards from virtually every town and village in Ireland, its Irish language collection and its theatrical memorabilia.

Handbills, programmes and posters were catalogued by John and eventually digitised with the focus on the history of the attempts down the years to establish a Northern Irish theatre movement.

Brad Pitt researched a film role at the Linen Hall and local actor Stephen Rea is on record talking about his unbridled affection for the library which quickly outgrew even its extension and now has storage facilities away from the city centre, though a re-assessment of what books and other items should and should not be retained is imminent.

John says donations of material from the public have been putting even more pressure on space, but he's not complaining because he says the library has received rare and exciting gifts, with one recent donor handing over a first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses which was printed in Paris in 1922.

The digital revolution has been enthusiastically embraced by the Linen Hall and John says: "You can find an awful lot digitally and it is certainly the way research is going. I see it as a real boon to librarians and curators because you can make them available widely and massively but it is not the total answer. At various levels of research you still need to get back to the original material and there's an emotional and intellectual buzz in looking at the real thing.

"And some things when you come across them just make you stop in your tracks and realise that they are truly amazing."

One such gem in the Linen Hall is an original document recording the first ever Acts passed by the American Congress in New York on March 4, 1789.

"To me that is the key document in the setting up of the American administration," says John.

"We have shown that to US visitors and they have been stunned by it."

John's passion for the library is boundless and he will obviously miss it, but insists: "I will always have an emotional attachment to what I believe in my heart is a massively important institution for our people and it is crucial for our society to maintain it."

John is looking forward to having more time to read and to spend with his family including his four grandchildren, but it's almost inconceivable that he won't eventually throw himself into more research projects and more writing.

"Yes, I think there are more books in me," says John, whose parting gift to the Linen Hall has been an exhibition about St Patrick, the man, his writings and his place in fifth century Ireland examining his journey through the island and the traditions, myths and legends which have surrounded him.

As for the longer term future, John sees a whole new chapter opening up for the Linen Hall if the proper funding can be found.

"International academic researchers will come, ordinary tourists will come and our own people will continue to come," he says.

"I really look forward to seeing the library develop in the next 10 or 15 years by exploiting its terrific collections and making partnerships all around the world."

A very modern take on history

The director of the Linen Hall Library, Julie Andrews, insists her unique and historic institution has moved confidently into the 21st century and is ready for the challenges of the new technological age.

She says: “We know we have to be more accessible to people, so outreach is vital, but we want people to realise that while we do have fee-paying members, anyone can come into the library and use the facilities.

“We are making more and more of our material available digitally all the time and we are also developing educational programmes for students around the GCSE age, plus classes for children.”

But the library is also encouraging older people to feel at home in the Linen Hall and is offering training on iPads alongside projects for them to remember the days of the Troubles.

“We have also had focus groups in local communities to see how people want the library to look and what they want from it,” says Julie, who adds that the library is only too well aware that  times are hard financially.

“We know all about austerity and while we have been here for 227 years, we want to still be here in another 227 so we have looked at new initiatives like developing a tourism offering here to generate fresh income for the library.”

But the Linen Hall staff don’t want to frighten off their traditional supporters.

“We don’t want to change the charm and everything else associated with the library, but we have to find other ways of sustaining ourselves.”

The role of the performance space at the Linen Hall is also crucial for the future, according to Julie, and the library hopes its Irish language classes will go from strength to strength.

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