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The Department of Fiction in the RCB Library

For November’s Archive of the Month, the RCB Library returns to exploring its early years, focusing on the evolution of its small but diverse literary range of titles. These incorporate novels, poetry, drama, and literary essays that reflect the eclectic nature of those who visit the Library, whether to borrow items or to spend time reading these items. Many of these items formed part of the original Guild of Witness Lending Library or were donated in the 1930s after the establishment of the RCB Library.
Rosamond Stephen signs off her service to the Guild of Witness Library with this note.
Rosamond Stephen signs off her service to the Guild of Witness Library with this note.

For a small and niche Library, it often comes as a surprise to visitors at the vast amount of print material that is held on site. At the moment, there are currently nearly 60,000 print items catalogued on the Library’s online system.  During the pandemic, Library staff used the opportunity presented by remote working to continue to retrospectively catalogue the large number of print items that were not present on the Library’s online catalogue. A large percentage of these items are classed in the literature section. Being able to devote this time in a systematic fashion allowed Library staff to gain a valuable insight into how the Library developed, from its initial incarnation as the Feenish/Ardfeenish Library (sometimes called Leabharlann an Chomhluadair on its bookplates) through to its eventual incorporation as the Representative Church Body Library in 1932.

Our Archive of the Month explores this development, looking at Rosamond Stephen’s role in the founding of the Guild of Witness and the Guild’s library, as well as her successor Geraldine FitzGerald.  The novels that make up this part of the Library’s collection are very much of their time, and were added to the collection in order to inform the moral and spiritual education of contemporary members. Given this, it is no surprise to see collections of the work of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy among others, particularly in items accessioned in the very early part of the 20th century, particularly by the Guild of Witness Library. An area of particular interest to Rosamond Stephen at this time was that of historical fiction. Indeed, Stephen kept individual handwritten books tracking accessions of this genre, as well as what novels were being read by members. During the 1930s and Geraldine FitzGerald’s time as Librarian, we see the introduction of contemporary novels.

The article also tells the story of those who donated substantial items to the Library, and the importance of donations to building the print collection as a whole, as well as the literature section specifically. The article looks at two important donors to the early Library, Ethel Goddard and Linda Hillas, both of whose generous bequest made a significant contribution to adding to the original 5,000 items that were donated by Stephen from the Guild of Witness Library.

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