It was announced in July that the Linen Hall Library will temporarily close on Saturdays for a six month trial period commencing in October. Despite being Belfast’s oldest library with a unique political collection and the largest source on poet Robert Burns outside Scotland – not to mention a charity and a museum – the 230-year-old Linen Hall, like a majority of the creative arts sector in Northern Ireland, are under pressure in this recession. A number of economic factors have led to this Saturday closure trial period, one of the most significant being that the library’s application for £25,000 of funding through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has been declined.
As a volunteer at the Linen Hall, I was very upset upon hearing this news so I sat down with Library Director Julie Andrews to discuss the decision:
What led to the decision?
This was not a decision that was in any way taken lightly. A number of unforeseeable circumstances have converged that have forced us to take a very hard look at how we operate. These include the recession which still significantly affects financial resources available, the substantial increase in competition for residents’ and visitors’ attention, and the changing face of libraries in general which have all had to embrace modernity in one way or another in order to survive. This is in addition to the recent announcement that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has pulled funding for our cultural programme of events (approximately £25,000).
The Library undertook a number of financial feasibility studies and Saturday closure was flagged up as the most economically viable option for the time being. We did look into every conceivable configuration.
How important is funding – from both the Arts Council NI and from other sources – to the Linen Hall?
Library membership contributes about 13% of our total costs. People do forget that we are a charity – one of Belfast’s oldest. It is imperative that to keep our doors open we receive funding from other sources. Not only do we receive money from Government, we also constantly seek funding from other streams, for example our ‘Linenopolis’ project is being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), Tourism NI and the Department for Communities Historic Environment Division to mark the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 (EYCH).
Other income generators include our room hires, gift range, popup Charity Bookshop and café. We are constantly exploring ways to generate income.
What steps can be taken by yourselves, and the general public, to appeal the decision?
We have led a very proactive campaign to draw attention to the cessation of funding. All of our 2,000-plus members were contacted, emails were sent to supporters, MLA’s, artists, and anyone else we could think of to alert them to the news and also to ask them to write/email or contact the Arts Council voicing their protest. We also put the word out through social networking and our website as well as conducted interviews in the media. Although we have been unsuccessful in our appeal to the Arts Council, we still encourage people to make their views known to the Arts Council NI and to their MLA’s and local councillors.
As any library can argue that they are worth supporting, what makes the Linen Hall unique?
The Linen Hall Library is part of the cultural infrastructure of Northern Ireland. Very few cities can boast the continuance of a 230-institution. It has worked quietly and impartially through the centuries to present all facets of Ireland’s history. The many world-renowned collections held in the Library are available for all to come and view. Not only that, its location in an historic building intrinsic to the city’s booming linen trade, make the Library even more of a unique gem.
The Linen Hall truly is one of Belfast’s treasures. You can help them by becoming a member (a cheap monthly rate is available to students), general donations, and by writing to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to express your support for this unique cultural infrastructure.