When the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922, there was an immediate need to form a library to tend to the need of elected officials. After two years preparatory work the Oireachtas library was formed in 1924.
This exhibition examines some of the challenges in its development into today's integrated service. It also describes how the role of the library has changed over the years, and shines a light on some of the influential figures who helped shape the library to become what it is today.
Acquiring a collection
- In 1922, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Irish state came into existence.
An early priority for the new parliament (the Oireachtas) was the establishment of a library to inform its work. The process of collection acquisition was immediately initiated by the library, and in 1923 it acquired the significant acquisition of the Dublin Castle Collection. This collection originated from the library of the Chief Secretary’s Office in Dublin Castle, the centre of administrative power during the British reign in Ireland.
What makes this collection particularly interesting is that it was created by the British administration. In essence, it is their view of Ireland, of what materials were important to be able to run an effective reference collection.
It contains approximately 6,800 items, including books, pamphlets, press cuttings, newspaper runs, maps, and other archival material. The earliest item in the collection dates back to 1647, and it covers material from the 17th to early 20th centuries.
These materials had research potential and value to the new administration and there exists a series of correspondence outlining the attempts by the Oireachtas to have this collection moved to Leinster House.
On June 22nd 1923 the Ceann Comhairle Michael Hayes notes that
“We have been obliged to purchase expensive sets of books which we know are available there and which were refused to us on request, by the people in charge”.
A copy of the correspondence between W.T. Cosgrave (L.T. Cosgair), President of the Executive Council of the Free State, and the Ceann Comhairle is also present. It confirms that the Castle library would ultimately be placed under his disposal for use in the Oireachtas.
By 1926, following the transfer of the Dublin Castle collection, the Oireachtas Library held over 19,000 volumes. The collection comprised of a large part of the ex-Chief Secretary’s office in addition to volumes dealing with the House of Commons and Lords, parliamentary procedures, the Dublin Gazette, annual registers; Newspapers and Pamphlets, Law State Papers, History, Biography, Miscellaneous Reference books and Dictionaries.
From the Oireachtas Library Archival Material Collection, AW1820069000
We have been obliged to purchase expensive sets of books which we know are available there and which were refused to us on request, by the people in charge.
Ceann Comhairle, Michael Hayes, 22 June 1923
The first librarians
- The Oireachtas Library was established in 1924, following over two year’s preparatory work.
Amongst the initial challenges were the acquisition of new collections, the identification of a suitable location and the recruitment of new staff.
In 1922 Alderman Thomas Kelly (1868-1942) was asked by President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State W.T. Cosgrave to procure a collection of materials for a parliamentary library. Alderman Kelly (who had been imprisoned twice during the Troubles), had a renowned knowledge of antiquarian collections, having worked as a book dealer. He accepted the role, until a permanent appointment could be made.
Henry Egan Kenny had been the librarian at the Chief Secretary’s Office (CSO) in Dublin Castle. Sometimes assuming the pseudonym ‘Sean Ghall’, he was transferred to work in Dáil Éireann, requiring some clarification as to their respective roles and responsibilities. In a memo in 1922 W.T. Cosgrave noted “I saw Sean Ghall and Alderman Kelly, recently and … told them they would be appointed Librarian and Assistant Librarian to the Oireachtas. I think it is generally accepted that Shan Ghall would be a decided acquisition in this capacity, and later he might take up some work in connection with ‘records’. Alderman Kelly is an admitted authority on books”.
Both men promoted the use of the Collections and in 1926 a Joint Library Committee of the Dáil and Seanad was set up to advise the Ceann Comhairle and Cathaoirleach on the development of the library.
12 December 1922 – 16 May 1923.
From the Oireachtas Library Archival Material, AW127110086
Relationship with the National Library
- While there was general acceptance of the necessity for a parliamentary library, the exact form and function was the subject of some debate.
While some members of the Government saw this as the opportunity to establish an entirely new service, others felt it presented the opportunity to utilise the resources of institutions in close proximity to Leinster House.
As the National Library of Ireland is in such close proximity to Leinster House, there were some who felt the National Library should play an active role in the new establishment. The possibility of a borrowing arrangement with the library was considered. In a letter from the clerk of the Dáil Colm O’Murchadha to the Dáil Librarian, he advised he would be in favour of a working arrangement to be organised with the National Library whereby books could be freely borrowed by Ministers, Officials, Senators and Deputies. O’Murchadha felt it would be “economical and salutary if a wider and more flexible co-operation between the two libraries could be fashioned” (24 February 1926).
The assistant librarian had a different view. In a memo dated 29 March 1923, he scruitinised the role played by the main libraries in Dublin and advised he was in favour of the creation of a new national library and felt that a legislative library could be encompassed within his vision of a new national library.
Minister of Finance Ernest Blythe was of the opinion that the newly established Oireachtas Library should co-operate with the National Library to avoid any unnecessary duplication of books between both libraries. Blyth also felt the Oireachtas library should take the form of a parliamentary library, and only contain books that were of a “specialised interest in of Parliamentary utility, such as books dealing with legislation in all its phases” (letter by the Clerk of the Dáil Colm O’Murchadha, 4 February 1926).
This view was officially confirmed at the first Joint Library Committee meeting, when it was agreed that the purchase of books be restricted to works of Parliamentary interest or utility.
29 March 1923
Oireachtas Library Archival Material Collection, AW385125156 OL/18(10)
Perceptions in the press
- As the working parliamentary library, access to Oireachtas Library has always been restricted to Members of the Dáil and Seanad.
Photographs of the library room were not, at that time, in general circulation. Most citizens could only imagine its interior and the manner in which it conducted its business. It was therefore, the subject of some curiosity.
This cartoon is one attempted by a magazine to satirise daily working life in the library. Dated July or August 1953, the cartoon depicts Eamon de Valera in the Dáil Library asking the librarian a reference question. The librarian replies, “That book on Coalitions is still out to Mr Costello, but I have your name down for it next”.
The cartoon reflects the political situation in Ireland at the time. Fianna Fáil was in power, forming a minority government, with the support of Noel Browne and the former Clann na Poblachta TDs. De Valera was Taoiseach. At the time Ireland was in a state of economic turmoil, and had a balance of payments deficit. To combat this, Minister for Finance Seán McAntee introduced a harsh budget, with the aim of cutting spending and reducing imports. It reduced spending, but caused an increase in unemployment. As there was unrest in the country it was assumed Fine Gael, under the leadership of John A. Costello, would form a coalition in the next general election.
The new coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and the remaining Clann na Talmhan TDs, would proceed to win the election when it was called in 1954.
The cartoon is taken from the monthly satirical magazine Dublin Opinion. Founded by cartoonists Arthur Booth, Charles E. Kelly, and Thomas J. Collins, it was published in the years 1922-1968. At its peak Dublin Opinion sold 60,000 issues a month, and was a showcase for Irish cartoonists. The magazine was launched at the outbreak of the civil war, and as such, took a carefully balanced stance between Free Staters and Republicans. Its popularity had begun to wane by the 1960s, and it was wound up and sold in 1967.
From the Oireachtas Library Archival Material Collection, AW1879196383
Establishment of the L&RS
- Once established, the Oireachtas library remained relatively underdeveloped over the following decades.
Until the 1970s, the basic staff structure remained that of one librarian, one assistant librarian, and one clerical assistant.
By the mid-1970’s there was a need to review and develop the services being offered to ensure it supported a modern parliament. Although lending and information services were provided there was insufficient capacity to expand the services. A survey of other parliamentary libraries in 15 countries around the world noted that research services were provided in 11 of the countries sampled and all had a higher Member to staff ratio than the Oireachtas.
Following a review of the survey results the Committee of Procedure and Privileges (CPP) recommended the establishment of a new research service. Additional Assistant Librarians were employed to deliver these services with priority given to Chamber related queries (work being undertaken in the Dáil or Seanad) and only on subjects which were directly related to the work of Members of the Houses.
In 1995, the library systems were finally automated and Members and staff could use an online catalogue to look for items and access a small range of online databases.
Arguably the greatest transformation of the service was in 2006 when the library was redeveloped into today's Library & Research Service (L&RS). A team of professional researchers and librarians was recruited to deliver a range of research and information services and to manage and curate the significant collections in its care.
Today the Oireachtas Library & Research Service continues to support Members of the Oireachtas in respect of their parliamentary business. Services provided include on demand research and reference service to individual members and Committees; legislative briefings; statistical analysis; information literacy training; and providing access to the collection of newspapers, books, parliamentary material, and databases.
A public service is provided online via the library catalogue which provides access to the documents laid and the digitised special collections.
8 April 1976
Oireachtas Library Archival Material Collection E36/43 0L/22(5)