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Meet the woman starting an exciting new chapter at Belfast's Linen Hall library

By Lee Henry

Published 03/12/2015

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th October 2015
Senior Librarian Samantha McCombe pictured at the Linenhall library in Belfast..
Picture by Stephen Hamilton/Press
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th October 2015 Senior Librarian Samantha McCombe pictured at the Linenhall library in Belfast.. Picture by Stephen Hamilton/Press
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th October 2015 Senior Librarian Samantha McCombe (centre) pictured at the Linenhall library in Belfast with her team,Ita McGirr,Karen Law,Julie Andrews and Monica Cash Picture by Stephen Hamilton/Press

History was made when Samantha McCombe, from Carrick, was appointed head librarian at the iconic institution.

For every era through which the Linen Hall Library has progressed, another name or two has been added to its illustrious roll call of leading librarians. Solemnly academic or boisterously bookish, forward-thinking or conservative, Catholic or Protestant, the owners of each name, while differing in their capabilities and approaches to the position, have all shared one thing in common: namely, their sex.

Through wars and revolutions, incendiary devices and exhibitions, modernist extensions and unfathomable funding cuts, while the Linen Hall's industrious staff body has largely been made up of females, as is the case today, the top job has always been granted to a male applicant.

Before the library's current librarian was appointed in October 2015, there had been 22 in all, the first being Robert Caey, when the institution was originally founded as the Belfast Reading Society in 1788, and the latest John Killen, who retired in early 2015, leaving the board to acquire a replacement capable of guiding the institution through choppy waters.

As Ireland's only remaining subscription library, after all, the Linen Hall has felt austerity's pinch as many other businesses have and continue to do. These are trying times for librarians as they are for the rest of us, but the board should be congratulated for putting its trust in an all-female management team for the first time in the library's lengthy history.

Samantha McCombe became the Linen Hall's 23rd head librarian just over a month ago, joining director Julie Andrews and deputy librarian Monica Cash as the Linen Hall strides with a renewed sense of purpose deeper into the 21st century, its will to change with the times evident if, perhaps, a little overdue.

McCombe is, as a glance over her impressive curriculum vitae suggests, one of the most qualified individuals to have ever held the post. Her career began in the academic libraries at Queen's and Strathclyde universities, progressed to the Bar Library and Northern Ireland Assembly library - where she worked as assistant librarian - before McCombe was rewarded with promotion into management at global law firm Allen & Ovary.

Now, she takes the bibliographic reigns in one of Northern Ireland's truly august institutions, patronised by poets - particularly the late Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley - beloved of tourists keen on learning more about the history of the "Athens of the North", comparable with Trinity College Library, Dublin for its literary associations and archive of extremely collectable first and second edition books.

The Linen Hall Library has been at the heart of Belfast's academic, educational and literary life for 227 years, mainly in its current location at 17 Donegall Street North, opposite City Hall. As it turns out, McCombe has been a humble and unassuming part of it for decades.

"As a teenager, I had a notion to be a music or political journalist," McCombe explains. "My A-level studies brought me to the Linen Hall Library and I remember thinking at the time that it would be an amazing place to work - and the seed of my future career was planted. It has just taken me 25 years to get here."

The Linen Hall did not feature in McCombe's formative library experience, however. Born and raised in Carrickfergus, McCombe was brought up by "avid readers" Clarke and Anne McCombe, who, she says, "instilled a love of books and reading. Bedtime stories were routine".

McCombe's favourite book as a child was Oscar Wilde's beloved Stories for Children, particularly The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant - "I remember the illustrations were as beautiful and engaging as the stories" - and her first experience of a library occurred quite close to home.

"Carrickfergus has a fantastic public library, which is at the heart of the community, and I recall regular family trips there to borrow and return books," McCombe remembers. "Later, I was very lucky to do my school work experience there and I especially enjoyed going out on the mobile library van and helping kids to pick their books. Public libraries are essential and I am proud that I started my career in that sector."

McCombe went on to study English as an undergraduate degree.

Now, aged 44, she has since experienced many career high points, most memorably, she says, being part of the Bar Library team to win the Halsbury Award for Best Legal Information Service in the UK/Ireland.

Being appointed head librarian in the Linen Hall Library, however, understandably ranks a little higher still. And with the dust now finally beginning to settle after a whirlwind first few weeks in post, McCombe can take stock. "I'm delighted," she beams. "It really is my dream job.

"I was overjoyed to be given the opportunity to become the librarian. Initially, the news was tinged with sadness, as I knew that it meant leaving a role that I really enjoyed and a young team that I had fostered and encouraged - people are the most important part of any job - but I'm very pleased to be here. The first few weeks have been busy. I have concentrated on getting to know and understand the library and what we do well."

The historic nature of McCombe's appointment has, of course, not been lost on her. Being the first woman to have her named etched in the history books is one thing, but being part of an all-female management team is arguably a greater source of pride.

"While I was appointed on merit," McCombe says, "it is doubly pleasing to be the first woman. The Linen Hall Library is a charity and a really important part of the fabric of Belfast and it is that which is thrilling for me - being part of the history and continued success of this unique and special place.

"Women have always played a very important role in the Linen Hall Library - there were female members such as social reformer Mary Ann McCracken as early as the 1790s - and there has always been a strong female presence on the team. As a product of the Enlightenment, I think the founders would be happy with the current team."

Part of what the Linen Hall Library does so well, of course, is collect, document and exhibit materials that tell the story of Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Political Collection is arguably the library's prized possession, featuring as it does, a wealth of original artefacts and other ephemera collected during the Troubles, or subsequently donated by private individuals or organisations.

Display cases located in the library's performance space, for example, reveal messages written on cigarette papers by hunger strikers, as well as plastic bullets fired by police and china cups decorated with images of the Queen. In her new role as head librarian, McCombe sees herself as "champion of the collections".

"It is my responsibility," she declares, "to ensure that they are celebrated. My touchstones are preservation and accessibility, and the terms are not mutually exclusive. I am looking forward to undertaking some exciting digitisation projects and engaging the next generation of members."

Asked how she would describe the Linen Hall Library to an alien freshly landed in Belfast, McCombe quotes Longley. "It is the soul of Belfast," she says. "The Linen Hall is the oldest library in the city and I believe it is the closest thing we have to a national library.

"Here, tourists can step into the history of Belfast by taking a tour, or learn about researching their family tree at one of our genealogy workshops, for example. Young people can discover about Northern Ireland's recent past through our many exhibitions, or can simply enjoy the building, and the best view of City Hall, over a coffee. It's a cultural hub."

As for McCombe's own cultural preferences, from an early love of Oscar Wilde's children stories has developed a varied and sophisticated literary sensibility, and McCombe also has a fine taste in music. Let it here first be recorded that the Linen Hall Library's new numero uno is a keen soul music aficionado who regularly attends super swinging Northern Soul nights in Belfast and beyond, and in her down time is currently teaching herself Italian.

"I love music and going to gigs," McCombe confirms. "I enjoy going to the cinema as well, especially Queen's Film Theatre, as it has comfy seats and a broad range of films. Independent cinema is like independent libraries, in need of support and membership."

McCombe's determination to learn the language of love, meanwhile, is derived from a lifelong interest in Italian culture. "I love the culture, weather and food. I am trying to learn Italian and have a phrase of the day calendar. Today's phrase is: Chi trova un amico, trova un tesoro (he who finds a friend, finds a treasure). The Linen Hall feels like a good friend already and it is definitely full of treasures."

McCombe's phrasebook may be destined to gather dust over the Christmas period, however, due to a promise made in her first days in the job. "I haven't had the time yet to join the Linen Hall Book Club," she admits, "but in January the group are reading Burmese Days by George Orwell and I intend to borrow it from the library and read it over Christmas when I get a break."

That break will be short-lived, of course, but McCombe's stay in the beautiful surroundings of Belfast's oldest library will not. Watch this space to see how the Linen Hall's first female Librarian fares in the months and years ahead.

Belfast Telegraph

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