Inside Trinity’s book repository: Santry Stacks

Ever ordered a book from the santry stacks and wondered what the place is like? Trinity News takes a look inside the repository

“The library’s status as a legal deposit or ‘copyright’ library, the only one in Ireland,  means that it is entitled to free copies of any material published in either Ireland or the United Kingdom”


The Trinity College Library has a book repository in Santry which acts as storage for over three million books, a staggering 80% of the library’s material. Items from the rapidly expanding collections are rotated from open shelves to storage and back to open shelves as per request. The library’s status as a legal deposit or “copyright” library, the only one in Ireland,  means that it is entitled to free copies of any material published in either Ireland or the United Kingdom within twelve months of its publication. These rights were first bestowed on the Trinity Library in 1801, as well as on the Cambridge University Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the National Library of Wales and the National Library of Scotland, and were later renewed by the British Legal Deposit Libraries Act of 2003.

With an estimated 600,000 books published per year in the UK and Ireland, these institutions handle the administrative hurdles of obtaining material through the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries. The Agency acts on behalf of the five legal deposit libraries outlined in UK and Irish law. It makes submissions to publishers on behalf of the libraries, and the publishers are then responsible for sending copies of material directly to the individual libraries. The libraries themselves are also entitled to submit requests directly to publishers, and frequently copies of works are submitted to the Agency in advance of requests. Materials from the UK are handled in the British office, which has recently been relocated due to space constraints from London to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, materials from Ireland are forwarded to the Trinity Library.

The Library now also offers a voluntary deposit service for electronic publications, where Irish publishers can log in and deposit their publications directly in a distinct collection in their profile. The service is free of charge and the online repository is user-friendly for both publisher and reader, as each publisher has its own collection search facility and available usage statistics and every document has a permanent URL.  Online book repositories are increasingly useful for students and researchers, especially in cases of high-demand books. Though tactile loss is a significant factor in the e-book revolution, the efficiency of no shipping costs or wait time, searchable and linkable texts, adjustable fonts, bookmarking and highlights is uncontested. For large-scale libraries in particular, online journals, e-books, academic articles and newspaper or periodical archives save considerable physical space, acting as a solution to what is one of the most prominent issues faced by libraries today.

Inside Santry Stacks

“Their work seems almost insurmountable to the untrained eye due to the feeling of smallness induced by the very physical towers of books and boxes.”

The Stacks library, otherwise known as the Closed Access Book Stacks, is located in Santry, a suburb in North Dublin. The Stacks library itself is situated amidst department stores, housing estates and industrial storage rooms. It shares its premises with the Trinity Sports Grounds, and is located to the far right of the pitches. The library consists of four buildings of four storeys each. Every floor is a vast compartment of long corridors with a wide, flat roof. Appropriately, stacks of books line the floor tiles by the entrance. Two desks with computer screens and scanners seem busy and disordered, prompt for work. There are heaps of blue and yellow boxes corresponding to either the Stacks library or commercial storage, in which books are safely packed and sent according to requests.

On Monday mornings, requests for Stacks books may reach 200, providing plenty of work for the seven full-time employees in Santry. Their workload seems almost insurmountable to the untrained eye, the very physical towers of books and boxes inducing a feeling of smallness. The Santry library receives new material daily, and dealing with the return/restore books takes up the bulk of a working day. Working on a rota, the employees alternate between scanning, heavy lifting, deliveries and administration. Over the summer, the Stacks library offers jobs to students, particularly those with experience as student shelvers, where they have the opportunity to gain insider knowledge about working in a copyright and storage library.

In the next room, the space opens out into long shelved corridors. Every row is controlled by a steering wheel in order to push shelves closer or apart for space-saving purposes. The air was strong with the musty scent of dusty books and humid walls. Thin neon strips are attached to the ceiling, the lighting low and discrete. Upon inquiring into the choice of such lighting and whether it was perhaps related to book preservation, it was clarified to me that it was not. The poor lighting was part of budget cuts, and there have been periods of time when light bulbs would remain burnt out for weeks before being replaced, making entire areas unworkable due to the lack of natural light. My tour guide and full-time Stacks employee joked of the place: “if you send someone to work on their own, they may not come back”. The winding back stairs and the labyrinth-like rooms can be exceedingly confusing for a first-timer.

The different floors divide paperbacks, hardbacks, periodicals, newspapers and colonnades (older books that were once in the Long Room) by size. Some of the sections that were arranged decades ago tend to vary, yet efficiently storing same-size books in plastic labeled boxes seemed to be the prevailing preference. There are approximately 285,000 books in a single room. Commenting on what it’s like to work in the Stacks library, my tour guide said: “when people ask me what it’s like to work in such a unique and vast library, they imagine I work in tall rooms flicking through books on high stairs. I tell them I work with a lot of dirty books and they laugh at me.” They further expanded on how many wonderfully unfathomable books they have encountered within the dust and clutter.

The term “book” within copyright law includes all printed publications such as newspapers, journals, magazines, pamphlets, maps and even music sheets. Walking through the endless rows, I had to completely abandon my preconceptions of what a library contains. Materials range from clerical directories, to monthly army lists from World War One, to tens of thousands of cookbooks (including Michelin Star guides), past exam papers dating all the way back to the early sixties, dictionaries for dead languages and papyrus scrolls. One of the most prized items in the library’s collection is a small cupboard of German and English classics gifted to the university by the Queen of Romania in September 1890. Many precious folios and early printed books stand on the Stacks library shelves. Some of these older books were as large as 80cm long and 60cm wide.

Preserving the books

“Many of the edges of these books were gnawed away or curled up and held the appearance of mild rotting”

When opened, the older books seemed to flap a wing of a page, releasing thick clouds of dust into the air. Many of the edges of these books were gnawed away or curled up and held the appearance of mild rotting. Despite the fact that Trinity has a book preservation lab on campus where books can be restored, the amount of books that would need work would stall the lab’s work significantly and therefore they must be kept in the best possible condition. Some of the covers and pages were tinted with a darker shade and had clearly been damaged at some stage of their life. There is speculation about an incident in the Long Room in the late 1970s when concrete that was being pumped into the walls seeped out and damaged some of the books. Another cause of damaged books is leaks in the ceiling and occasional flooding in the Santry library. Protocols are in place, with disaster bins equipped with protective clothing, wellington boots and chemicals with absorption qualities to restore the books. Unfortunately, some of the books either get damaged beyond repair or are lost due to misplacing. Occasionally, books presumed to have been lost are found and placed in their rightful position.

The rooms in the Stacks library are jam-packed. The shelves need to be systematically cleared and moved into commercial storage in order to make more space for incoming books. The fourth and most recent stage of the construction of the Santry Book Repository was completed 18 years ago. The building should have been on phase six or seven by now, but there are no current plans for expansion, despite the growing expense of commercial storage and the inevitable loss of books. The titles in every room spark curiosity about things that had never crossed my mind before: books on life-size birds or drinking customs in Old England, Disney princess annuals, post office directories, transcripts of parliamentary debates and even embryology still-shots inhabit the long shelves.

An uncertain future

“At the core of libraries we find something undeniably human, a binding tradition whose preservation is ultimately about our own self-preservation.”

Copyright libraries are wonderful relics of a different yet continuing past. They contain unbroken traditions of writing in different media and cover vast subject matters, and act as a home for recorded human knowledge. These libraries benefit authors, publishers, researchers and the general public as published material is stored and preserved for future generations, deposited publications are made available to users of these libraries and thus become an invaluable source for research while all the nation’s published output is systematically collected and becomes part of the national heritage. However, with staggering financial cutbacks and the ongoing debate about going staffless, libraries have become endangered sites. The suggestions of a skilled librarian, the rigorous cataloguing, the human touch to a forgotten book is what is in peril of being lost. Neil Gaiman said: “most people don’t realise how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn’t value its librarians doesn’t value ideas, and without ideas, well, where are we?”

Library staff are central to the operation of libraries as spaces where one can look for answers the opening of the spirit through guidance. It begs us to reflect on where we, as readers, stand without the specialized knowledge of librarians. The government’s new scheme, which introduces 23 locations that will be operating as staffless libraries, has been a heated point of debate. The government’s defense was that the intention was not the replacement of workers but rather the extending of operating hours. The estimated cost of the scheme is around €1.94 million with the local government department covering €1.41 million and the libraries providing the other €500,000. Many public attacks have been made on this decision, including a poignant letter by former minister Mary O’Rourke that delineates the bleakness of this prospect and the poverty it will bring to the conversations that invigorate libraries. Another troubling issue faced by Trinity librarians is the management’s freeze on promotions and the placement of non-academic staff within fixed-term contracts spanning one to seven years, rather than in permanent contracts. The new measures avoid contracts that would provide them with permanent and pensionable jobs. Since my visit to Stacks, non-academic staff at TCD  balloted for industrial action and the result was a vote in favour of it.

Libraries contain the multiplicity of human nature and are a place where the spirit can begin to stretch out and open. They are the sacred homes of our stories, and the librarians are their safe-keepers; both are humble beacons of hope. At the core of libraries we find something undeniably human, a binding tradition whose preservation is ultimately about our own self-preservation.