A glimpse at books of old

Katie Meegan investigates Early Print Books and discusses their digitalisation and care

An Introduction to Early Printed Books

Getting to the Early Printed Books reading room can be a disorientating experience. In the foyer of the Berkeley it is easy for one’s eyes to skip over the sign while trotting into Iveagh Hall. So it was with a sense of anticipation and trepidation that I pushed open that black door for the first time. Walking down the concrete steps into the twisted underground tunnel, I couldn’t help feeling that this would be an excellent place to hole up in event of a zombie apocalypse. Apart from the extensive signage and scattering of framed vintage photographs there is very little sign of human life in the tunnel.  You could be forgiven for repressing the feeling that this is some place that your humble undergraduate eyes are not meant to see. Then you reach the elevator, a metal contraption whose doors shut with a disconcerting bang. Finally, you reach the second floor of the Long Room, airy and bright with special book holders on the neat rows of tables.

Like the use of a paper call slip, there is something comfortably archaic about Early Printed Books. The Old Library has been home to the oldest and most valuable of Trinity’s books for almost 300 years. However, the manuscripts and books of old have been given a surprisingly modern treatment. The reading room is tightly air-controlled, and laptops are allowed, though pens are not. Visitors are allowed to take their own photographs provided they get prior permission, and photocopying is only allowed by special request and carried out by staff on specially-equipped copiers.

“The Old Library has been home to the oldest and most valuable of Trinity’s books for almost 300 years.”

The reason for this strictness about copying and photos is twofold: firstly, to ensure the preservation of the books by not exposing them to harmful flashes or copying lights, and secondly, copyright issues. Irish copyright law states that copyright ceases to be enacted 70 years after the death of the artist, so you might be forgiven for being confused if you believe the common misconception that most of the authors of these works have been dead for centuries – not a difficult mistake to make considering that it is called Early Printed Books. A major part of Early Printed Books is special collections. The library is host to a range of special collections on topics such as Anglo-Irish fiction, botany, drama and politics.

This multi-disciplinary approach can also be seen in the Fagel Collection, recently the focus of intensive restoration and digitalization. Purchased for Trinity College in 1802, this library was assembled over a period of a century and a half by several generations of the Fagel family, many of whom held high public office in the province of Holland. It is enormously rich in French, Dutch and English works on politics, religion, economics, sciences, natural history and travel, and reflects the professional concerns of the family.

In the course of five generations of public service to the States General and Holland, beginning in 1670, the Fagel family built up one of the most important private libraries in early modern Europe, with the dates of the material ranging from 1460 to 1799. But the collection is not solely of interest to students of European history; the “library of use” contains evidence of a wide expanse of human endeavour including travels, natural history, visual arts, politics and law. Another substantial element of the Fagel Collection is a portfolio of over 3,000 sheet maps covering Europe as well as explorations of Africa and North America. Through the acquisition of this collection of approximately 20,000 volumes, Trinity’s library was transformed, increasing its holdings by 40%.


“With more of the books online, less people will need to access the real versions. And the less that Early Printed Books are exposed to people touching them the better preserved they’ll be.”

For nearly two centuries, this collection remained a secret to all but a handful of experts. However, digitization is changing all that, and Early Printed Books and special collections like the Fagel are now widely available not only to Trinity students but to the entire internet. Over the past few years the Library’s Digital Resources team has been digitising materials from the Manuscripts & Archives, Early Printed Books, and general collections, as well as designing and programming a unique new online repository interface. The Digital Collections Repository is providing access to the remarkable treasures of our library to students, and to researchers anywhere in the world. The digitization of materials and manuscripts is a delicate and multidisciplinary process. For most regular copying requests camera technology is used, along with controlled studio lighting and adjustable large-format copy stands which capture final image files. This studio can be adapted quickly to an extensive range of materials, from vellum and papyrus to delicate paper and photographs, as well as artefacts housed within Trinity’s collections.

The Early Printed Books Librarian and Archivist, Helen McGinley, explains the hidden benefits to having digitized collections: “Not only is it a great benefit for researchers to have all these resources online but it’s good for the preservation of the books themselves. With more of the books online, less people will need to access the real versions. And the less that Early Printed Books are exposed to people touching them the better preserved they’ll be.” However, McGinley admits that there is something lost in accessing materials in purely digital form: “Nothing can compare to the feel and the smell of a book. Especially with the books here, you’re holding history.” Her personal favourite book is a first edition of Dante’s Commedia dating from about 1472, and is available online for public viewing. This edition is of particular interest due to the nature of the illustrations. The cover page, heavily illustrated title pages and borders grace the first part of the manuscript, but the following pages remain devoid of art. McGinley suggests a number of reasons for this: the patron running out of money, or growing impatient with the rate of production; the death of the illustrator or of the patron. Whatever the reason, the edition remains in its unfinished state for eternity, and, thanks to digitization, preserved both in material and in cyber forms.

The acquisition of Early Printed Books

“To this day, Trinity is entitled to a copy of every copyrighted book across the UK and Ireland.”

Not only does Early Printed Books hold centuries of history in its shelves, but it is also a testament to the history of College itself. Trinity became the first legal deposit library in 1801 with the passing of the first Copyright Act in the UK and Ireland. Since then, and to this day, Trinity is entitled to a copy of every copyrighted book across the UK and Ireland. The cataloguing and management of this number of books requires a huge amount of labour. Not just any vintage book is considered as an addition to Early Printed Books. McGinley emphasises the importance of targeted acquisitions: “Due to the time needed to catalogue specific books, we are more interested in acquiring books that are unique for some reason – first editions, signed by the author, specific reprints, for example.” A common practice for retiring professors is to donate their office book collections upon leaving Trinity.

Most recently, Early Printed Books acquired the collections of History Professor John Horan and Professor Skally of the French department. The Special Collections contain not only donations from professors past, but also the history of the student body itself. “Alumni Dublinensis: A Register of the Students, Graduates, Professors, and Provosts of Trinity College, in the University of Dublin 1593-1860”, and the college entrance books, are two resources that may be used to discover if a person attended or graduated from College. The entrance books date from 1637 and are currently available online up to the year 1910. However, if you think that it would be a clever way to creep on alumni you are out of luck. There is a strict 100-year non-access policy in relation to records containing personal information relating to students of Trinity, and consultation of records that are less than 100 years old is not permitted.

A true symbol of the importance of preserving our past, Early Printed Books is a shining example of the modernisation of our archives, making history accessible and preserving it for generations to come.