Archive of the Month
The RCB Library Marks 90 Years
by Dr Susan Hood
On Monday afternoon December 21, 1931, the books were taken to Stephen’s Green, on what was, we hope, their last journey. They went properly through the streets drawn by a fine pair of cart horses. R. S. watched them vanish into the mist
Thus did Rosamond Stephen (1868–1952) founder and librarian of the Irish Guild of Witness, record in her journal the handing over by the trustees of the Guild the contents of its library (housed within her home on Upper Mount Street, Dublin) comprising some 5,000 volumes to the Representative Church Body (RCB) of the Church of Ireland.
From the spring of 1932, dedicated rooms within the headquarters of the RCB at no 52 St Stephen’s Green, together with a small basement strong room, would function as the Library.
Like all evolutionary journeys within the Church, however, this was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. Whilst much relieved that the theological and historical books were to be securely housed and made available to a wider readership, Rosamond’s hope that this would be their last journey would not be realized.
The Archive of the Month for November featured the Fiction Department of the early Library. You can read this article here.
In October 1969, the Library was moved again to its present location at Braemor Park, Rathgar (Churchtown today) when the RCB sold its Stephen’s Green property and moved to Rathmines, with the Library becoming part of the campus of the then Divinity Hostel (which has evolved into the Theological Institute). Here it has supported the reading and research needs of generations of ordinands in training for ministry ever since. To read more about the background to this move see a previous online presentation here.
Less well known is the fact that prior to its time in Dublin, the original content of Rosamond’s Library was actually in existence from 1901, operating on the Crumlin Road in Belfast. The Guild of Witness which she had helped to found in that year with the Revd Raymond Orpen (1837–1930) then rector of Tralee and Archdeacon of the dioceses of Ardfert, who would later serve as bishop of Limerick can be seen as a genuine form of ecumenical outreach to Roman Catholics that was ahead of its time in some respects, trying to find common ground between ‘Roman Catholics and Protestant Catholics’. The small lending library for the use of its members included ‘a good many books on the history and doctrine of the Irish Church’, as revealed by this article published in the Church of Ireland Gazette in October 1903.
The Library and the Representative Church Body
The archive of the Guild of Witness Archive (now in the Library as RCB Library MS 89) reveals that it was renamed the Irish Guild of Witness in 1918, when its primary focus became promoting the use of liturgy from Irish sources and in the Irish language and encouraging the study of Irish history and antiquity. This coincided with Rosamond’s decision to relocate the operation to Dublin (although she maintained a close connection with Belfast) along with the Guild’s growing library collection.
Each annual report of the Guild included an update on library and by the summer of 1918 it housed some 1,000 volumes. Rosamond made an entry in her ‘Record’ in October of that year about how concerned she had become about its long–term future, and reflecting the best way to secure this would be to ‘put the books in safety’ by ‘making them Church property’.
The logistics of them actually becoming the property of the central Church would in fact take several more years to work out. The collection was offered to the Representative Church Body in 1926, but they turned it down, prompting Stephen to enter into a deed of trust with the Archbishop of Dublin, John Gregg, the Bishop of Meath, Benjamin Plunket and others in 1928, when it was renamed the Sir James Stephen Library (after her grandfather). The incorporation of the family name solidified the connection with Rosamond’s family in particular the fact that as well as the books of the Guild, she had added considerably to these from the library of her late father Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1829 –1894), the lawyer, judge, writer, and philosopher.
Notwithstanding the change of name, she and all members of the Guild of Witness Committee remained concerned about the collection in the long–term and ensure it would, as the annual report of 1928 put it would end up ‘into other hands than its own’. With the two significant episcopal trustees (Gregg and Plunket) behind her, Rosamond kept the pressure up, and eventually during 1931 the RCB as trustee of the entire Church agreed to take acquire the Library’s collection and arranging for their relocation (together with items of furniture, including Rosamond’s writing desk, portraits and other artefacts from Ardfeenish in Mount Street to their Stephen’s Green headquarters at Christmas 1931.
Thereafter it is the records of the RCB that capture the evolutionary story of the Library’s organic growth and expansion. In January 1932 (as its minute book records) the RCB established a committee for the management and organisation of the Library, to consist of seven members – five nominated by the RB and two by the Standing Committee of the General Synod.
This committee set to the task of devising regulations for the use and safety of the Library in its new home and for promoting its collecting policy, with donations of books being recorded in the minutes as they were acquired, seen in this minute example recording the acquisition of the Prayer Book printed in 1750 donated by Miss Angel Stopford Brooke, a friend of Rosamond Stephen.
The minutes further reveal that a Mr John Roy (former Librarian at Rathmines Public Library) was contracted by the RCB to act as librarian for six months and began the task of cataloguing the 5,000 books in the Stephen collection, and additionally the extensive printed collection of the RCB scattered throughout departments within the Stephen’s Green building using the Dewy Decimal System of Classification.
Undoubtedly he was assisted in this work by Rosamond Stephen herself who continued to have an influential role in the solidifying of the Library’s position within the Church as a whole. So on 7th May 1932, in response to her personal request, an ‘at home’ event was organised for members of the Guild and others to enable them to engage with the new library space.
Having got the cataloguing work off to a good start, Mr Roy resigned after the initial six months, and in July 1932 the Finance Committee of the RCB appointed Miss Geraldine Fitzgerald, then Assistant Librarian in the Royal Irish Academy Library as the first permanent fulltime librarian.
A previous Archive of the Month tells part of her life–story here.
An essay on the Library in St Stephen’s Green by the Very Revd Robert McCarthy who vividly remembers the “Stephen’s Green” days as a student in the Trinity College History School, captures the atmosphere created by Miss Fitzgerald:
You arrived at the top floor to be greeted warmly by a formidable elderly lady clad in a hair–net and many layers of decrepit cardigans. This was the celebrated Geraldine Fitzgerald … Portraits surmounted the bookcases and there was a beautifully framed history of the collection tracing its provenance from Miss Rosamond Stephen and the Irish Guild of Witness.
The portraits and framed history remain in the Library to this day.
The succession of librarians has been as follows:
- 1901–1931 Rosamond Stephen (Irish Guild of Witness Library)
- 1932 John Roy
- 1932–1962 Geraldine Fitzgerald
- 1962–1980 Geraldine Willis
- 1980–2016 Dr Raymond Refausse (Librarian & Archivist)
- 2016– Dr Susan Hood (Librarian & Archivist)
In addition to maintaining and making accessible the printed collection, the new Library committee identified that a further important role for the new Library would be oversight of archives and record keeping, or as it was framed in the original minute of 1932: ‘the proper recording of Ecclesiastical Records’.
The RCB had appointed an Ecclesiastical Records Committee in 1925 in direct response to the destruction of the Public Records Office of Ireland in 1922 when over 500 collections of parish records, together with the medieval and early modern diocesan archives all of which had been deposited there in accordance with the requirements of the Public Records Act since the late 19th century, were destroyed.
Several prominent clerical historians – including the Revd Dr St John Seymour, the Very Revd Henry Swanzy, Canon James B Leslie, and Canon Charles Webster all renowned record keepers and antiquaries in their own right – made up its first members and as the minutes of their first meeting reveals they resolved to concentrate in the first instance on collecting copies of manuscripts concerning the Church of Ireland that were in the Public Record Office, ‘now destroyed’.
The early collecting policy of the Ecclesiastical Records Committee had a significant impact with treasures such as the typescripts of extracts from the 1766 religious census of Ireland, the 17th–century subsidy rolls and hearth money returns compiled by the record agent Tenison Arthur Groves (the son of a rectory) being acquired before 1932. Once the RCB Library formally came into being, with its additional focus on ecclesiastical records, this collection was catalogued and securely held along with other unique or rare materials in the basement strong room of the RCB building.
Meanwhile other materials were gathered in from external sources. In parallel with the acquisition of printed books, the Library became equally proactive in encouraging the donation of manuscript material, all of which are listed in its annual report to the General Synod. Within the relatively small Church of Ireland community, and indeed among Rosamond’s circle of friends the word spread about its record–keeping remit and this could have particularly far–reaching consequences. So in January 1949, a Miss C. Erck of Shankill, Co. Dublin, sent in her grandfather’s books with a cover note ‘in case they should be of interest to you’.
Her grandfather was John Caillard Erck (who died in 1851), Chief Clerk to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for Ireland, who had carefully copied from the Irish patent rolls and Chancery Inquisitions in the Birmingham Tower at Dublin Castle. Little did he know when he carried out his work, nor did his grand–daughter fully understand how significant the donation of these “books” would be because they became in effect primary sources replacing all the originals that were lost in 1922.
As a participating institution, today the RCB Library is proudly associated with the Virtual Treasury of Ireland, the ground–breaking attempt to virtually reconstruct the content of the Public Record Office of Ireland lost in 1922. Some seven volumes of transcripts by JC Erck, together with those by Tennison Groves and a number of other materials in the Library’s custody have been digitized and made completely searchable using the technology Transkribus which trains a computer to read the hand–writing, thus recovering and sharing the names of people and places previously untapped in the context of thousands of other recovered records. To view and search the content of RCB Library MS 23, the Tennison Groves, click here.
To view and search the seven volumes of “Erck”, RCB Library Ms 104, click here.
Such modern innovations could never have been predicted by Rosamond Stephen and those who established the original library. As mentioned above the Library moved to its current suburban location in 1969, where it has expanded considerably over five decades. At this point its printed holdings were recorded as 18,000 volumes. In the intervening period the printed collection has risen over threefold, with almost 54,000 volumes accounted for on its online catalogue alone. The Library’s archival role was formalised in 1980, with the appointment of an archivist, Dr Raymond Refaussé, and following an agreement with the National Archives of Ireland it was deemed the official place of deposit for all Church of Ireland registers in the Republic – those predating disestablishment being national archives, and thus technically belonging to the state.
Today (in addition to a substantial printed collection) the Library holds over 1,128 collections of parish records together with the archives of the Church’s dioceses, cathedrals, architectural drawings, the administrative records of the Representative Church Body and its multiple committees, and thousands of manuscripts relating to the Church’s people, buildings and activities, spanning from medieval times to the present. Detailed lists of the contents of each of these are available through the Library’s website.
(If you would like to contribute to the RCB Library Conservation Fund, please click here.)
Librarian and Archivist
Dr Susan Hood
01 492 3979
(If you would like to contribute to the RCB Library Conservation Fund, please click here.)
Librarian and Archivist