Working in the manuscript room at Trinity again, with its codes and alarms and alternately friendly and supercilious staff. About noon Aisling, the assistant who does most of the retrieving of materials, announced to the small group of us working in the room that, beginning at 1pm, we would not be able to leave via the normal route (down the elevator, back up the steps, around the velvet ropes, through the Long Room, down more steps and through the gift shop). She said that a member of staff would escort us out and, if we needed to return, back into the room ‘until further notice.’
I finished my work at about 1:30. At that point there were three of us left. The man next to me decided to leave at the same time to spare the staff two trips to escort us out. We packed up and the young student worker jumped up from her boxing and sorting to lead us. Instead of getting on the lift we went through a large door, and there we were in the empty and silent Long Room. We were up on the balcony that extends down both sides the entire length of the room.
You’re lucky, she said. No one is allowed up here. It was amazing to be so close to the books, to be able to touch them as we walked by. What looked from the floor below like a solid mass of brown leather was in fact row upon row of ordinary books, many with their library stamps on their spines. These are the books that form the Early Printed Books collection, the ones the librarians retrieve when readers request them. Our guide pointed out that the low bookshelves that were in between the floor-to-ceiling cases were stacked two deep, an eighteenth-century iteration of today’s collapsible library shelving. The front case could be moved out along metal tracks that were built into the floor so that the back case became accessible. These tracks were beautiful in their own right, carefully calibrated to allow the shelving to swivel so the back shelves are easier to get at.
Later I was told that the original design of the Long Room had a flat roof, but when the librarians realized that all of the books would not be accommodated the architects created the domed roof that allowed for more storage and created the iconic space we marvel at today. What a difference between that outcome and the notorious dumping of books at San Francisco Public Library when the architects created an enormous atrium but failed to make space for the library’s holdings.
I wasn’t supposed to photograph anything, but I managed to get two pictures, the first of one of the glorious corkscrew staircases that go from balcony to main floor, and the second of the room itself. In the foreground of that photo is a small crookneck lamp that sits on a desk, a reassuring reminder of the quotidian use that the room is put to despite its period grandeur.
At the other end of the room we stepped into the Early Printed Books Reading Room, and now I understood that the two rooms I had been working in for days sat at either end of the Long Room, made accessible to readers via the circuitous pathways I had been taking in order to keep the Long Room open for the hundreds of public that moved through it every day.
My brief passage along the balcony felt like a holy pilgrimage. It is impossible not to be awed in those surroundings and in the presence of so many books. The wide planks of the wooden floors gave a bit under my feet, the unmistakable odor of books was profound, the space was hushed and the thin light of a Dublin afternoon made its way past layers of dust to light our way.
In the Early Printed Books room I was told by one of the librarians that the closure was so that a page could be turned in the Book of Kells. When I went outside to head off to lunch there were only a handful of people lurking at the doorway of the Old Library, perhaps waiting to see if they could be first in line when the building opened again. And when I left later, finished for the day, the queue was as long as I had seen it, all of them on their own holy pilgrimage in the mundane way that Trinity has chosen to expose its treasure to the world.