Fionola Meredith: The Linen Hall Library is an institution like no other - it must not be allowed to die
We should cherish and protect a centre of learning that represents the best of Belfast, says Fionola Meredith
If you have never walked through the doors of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, you have been missing out on the very best of what this city has to offer. To me, this extraordinary independent institution embodies the city at its finest. It is a place, open to everyone, which gathers up all the colourful, complicated threads of who we are as a society - stretching back centuries into the past - and holds them safe for local people and international visitors to explore, examine and reflect upon.
The Linen Hall is utterly unique. One of Belfast's oldest charities, it is also the last remaining subscription library in Ireland. Founded in 1788 as the Belfast Reading Society, it became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge in 1792. The plaque announcing the library's formal name is still on display beside the marble-draped main entrance on Donegall Square North, opposite City Hall.
The society's declared aim was to create "an extensive library, philosophical apparatus and such products of nature and art as tend to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry".
The same open-minded, even-handed, knowledge-hungry spirit of that resolution is alive and flourishing in the Linen Hall today.
The library has survived tumultuous times, miraculously escaping damage in the Belfast Blitz, and later standing firm as the Troubles raged around it. After it was fire-bombed by the IRA in 1994, charred material from the attack was collected, boxed and stored away. This tells you a great deal about the curatorial zeal that makes the Linen Hall such an endearing, eccentric and endlessly fascinating place.
Given our history, it is a miracle that the library still exists at all. In any other city, it would be celebrated and promoted as a resource of unparalleled richness, as well as a powerful symbol of civic pride, tolerance and endurance.
Not in Belfast, it seems. From October until the end of March, the Linen Hall will no longer be open on Saturdays.
The library's board has been reluctantly forced to bring in this trial closure because of funding cuts, particularly the loss of £25,000 National Lottery project funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI).
The ACNI said there had been a 33% reduction in lottery funding, the result of "the knock-on effect of government disinvestment".
To many of our philistine, knuckle-dragging politicians, arts funding is something to be completely disregarded, or damned as a frivolous, elitist and costly burden, or - worst of all - used as a vehicle for sectarian carve-ups and petty political tit-for-tats. And now even the philistines have left the stage, leaving others to clean up their mess.
The Linen Hall Library is a special case. It is an institution unlike any other in Ireland, North and South, and financial measures must be taken to protect it. With or without Stormont, it cannot be allowed to die slowly of neglect.
The political collection, in particular, is a world-renowned resource. It began in 1969, when Jimmy Vitty, the librarian at the time, was handed a civil rights leaflet in a Belfast bar and decided to keep it.
The library has now collected more than a quarter of a million items, impartially documenting the activities and views of all parties to the conflict, from paramilitaries to governments. Prison comms, defaced coins, Drumcree baby bibs, it's all there.
Seamus Heaney knew the depth of the library's value. He said that it was "not just a link with the past (though it is valuably and forever cherished for that) but a threshold to the future. In our cultural and our historical understanding that the words 'the Linen Hall Library' represent not just books, but better hopes for the way we live".
He added that "the moral and imaginative quickening that took place in the late 18th century always revives for me when I go up those stairs".
If you haven't been to the library already, go now. Just walk on in and go up the stairs, as Seamus Heaney used to do. Have a coffee or a bowl of soup in the café. Browse the latest best-sellers or read today's papers. Wander the high-stacked shelves in search of forgotten classics.
Bring the kids and let them explore the joys of the children's collection. When my son and my daughter were little, we spent many happy afternoons there.
Most importantly of all, join the library - sign up for membership. I promise you, it will be worth it.
The Linen Hall Library is the best club in town because it belongs to all of us. We must cherish it.