Explainer: The past, present, and future of the Berkeley Library

As the former Berkeley library is currently nameless, expectations grow for it to be renamed in a progressive manner

The Library formerly known as the Berkeley Library was denamed this April after a vote taken by the College Board, in which they opined that the former name was “inconsistent with the University’s core values of human dignity, freedom, inclusivity and equality”. Opened in 1967, College’s principal law library was named after George Berkeley, a celebrated theologian and philosopher who spent close to his whole life studying and working in Trinity. Although not explicitly stated by the Board, the decision to cease the library’s association with Berkeley was most likely taken due to his now polemic owning of enslaved people and a plantation in Rhode Island. A 2001 investigation conducted by Yale University found that in 1730 Berkeley bought “a negro man named Phillip, aged 14 or thereabouts”, with other names of enslaved people who were forced to work on Berkeley’s plantation including, but is not limited to, Edward, Anthony, and Agnes.

It is expected, or hoped, that the library will thus be renamed in a progressive manner this academic year, and these expectations have led to many individuals and on-campus organisations to publicise their preferred names. These range from the Wilde Library, to honour Oscar Wilde and/or his mother Jane Wilde, to the Thomas Sankara Library, in homage to the ‘African Che Guevara’ who revolutionised Burkina Faso. While the series of events that eventually culminated in the denaming of the library is long and arduous, there is, however, no doubt in the merit that analysing the most significant episodes holds. 

To understand the wave of controversy that swept up the library and wider college community in recent years, we must first familiarise ourselves with the Trinity Colonial Legacies project. Launched in 2021 by history lecturers Dr. Ciarán O’Neill and Dr. Patrick Walsh, the project principally aimed to “contextualise and historicise the university’s deep links to colonialism both in Ireland itself and in the wider world”, as well as “to raise awareness of College’s physical and intellectual colonial legacies, monuments, and endowments in the present.” This research project did not have authority to alter College affairs, nor did it offer recommendations on either the Berkeley Library or the case of human remains stolen from Inisbofin, Co. Galway, and housed on Campus since circa 1890. Instead, it laid out its findings on these matters, and more, in successive publications.

It was in part thanks to the Trinity Colonial Legacies project that the former Berkeley library was denamed in April 2023, however it cannot go amiss that the movement to amend College’s close association with Berkeley was above all else a grassroots effort, with students and activists at the helm. Of note was last year’s Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President Gabi Fullam, who took the step not to acknowledge the library by its former name, but instead to recognise it as ‘the X library’ in all official student union communications. The movement further benefited from support led by activist groups and youth wings of political parties, such as Students4Change and Ógra Sinn Féin.

These collective actions eventually resulted in a tentative win for the movement – the foundation of the Trinity Colonial Legacies Review Working Group, an obvious successor to the Trinity Colonial Legacies project. This group, however, composed of “representatives of Trinity’s student body, professional and academic staff”, tasked itself with considering “evidence based submissions from the university community” on the aforementioned topics pertaining to College’s involvement with colonialism at home and abroad. It was inclusive in its nature and maintained a broad mindset when considering feedback, and documents released under a Freedom of Information request support the stance that the working group wished to avoid “winner and losers” in this whole affair.

The movement, of course, was not without its critics, and in particular the discussion was at times bombarded by columnists, guest writers and speakers who all cemented their stance against the apparent cancellation of Berkeley. While some of these people bordered on the benign – either having no connection to Trinity or simply having an inflated sense of prestige in the press -, others were perhaps more senior in the college community, and thus their words held more weight in public discourse. Professor David McConnell, a former pro-Chancellor of the university and president of the College Historical Society, wrote to the Legacies Review Working group, pleading with them to not change the name of the library. He argued that this would diminish the debate about Trinity’s connection to colonialism and slavery, and that Berkeley was one of College’s most impressive academics. 

After months of work which consisted of public consultation, research, analysis and decision making, the Legacies Review Working group, however, eventually took the decision to dename – not yet to rename – the former Berkeley Library, on April 26, 2023. The Senior Dean, Professor Eoin O’Sullivan, wrote in the same email to the college community that a separate renaming process will thus commence, and that “the renaming does not deny Berkeley his importance as a writer, philosopher and intellectual figure.” This decision was welcomed by the TCDSU, and activist groups such as Students4Change. 

What now remains to be seen is official word that submissions for the new name of the former Berkeley Library are open. What is to be expected in an onslaught of names of varying validity – some being closely related to Trinity, Irish life, or academia, while others may verge on the obscure or comedic. The Legacies Review Working group, already having dealt with the Berkeley and Inisbofin questions, will now continue to “continue to engage with Trinity’s legacy issues on a case-by-case basis.” That is to say, they will react appropriately whenever a new issue of Trinity’s colonial, exclusionary, or racist past catches up with us.

The question of the former Berkeley Library is one that seemingly has a simple answer: rename it. The student body, academic and professional staff, and on-campus activist groups alike have made it abundantly clear that they do not wish to be associated with a slave owning racist simply because he spent much of his life studying and working in Trinity. To justify this stance, and to calm the chorus of ‘cancel culture’ accusations, we have to look no further than Berkeley himself. Alciphron – Berkeley’s 1732 publication in which he laments and criticises the pillars of Freethought, an epistemological stance decreeing that a belief should not be held on the basis on tradition or authority, but instead logic or reason, may cruelly now serve as the last nail in Berkeley’s coffin. He was, at the time, harshly criticised for his own stance, and his views proved unpopular in his own circles, as he was thought to be a progressive, boundary pushing, multi-disciplinary philosopher.

Nevertheless, it now proves illogical to maintain Berkeley’s connection to College’s principal law library. A library for a subject that he never studied, in a university that has evolved to the point it would be unrecognisable to him, for students who, it is more than safe to say, see his owning of enslaved peoples as abhorrent and inhumane. 

It is of course rather difficult to gauge whether or not the decision to remove Berkeley’s name from the library struck effectively the campus zeitgeist, and while it may be fair to say that most students hoped for, and agreed with, this decision, it might be a stretch to say that the majority of campus rejoiced at it. Whether due to actual opposition or pure indifference, there was little hullabaloo made. Many people may be more preoccupied with current injustice, and hope to correct these wrongs with tangible actions, instead of publicised press releases. The Berkeley Library is now no more, and is currently being recognised by College as ‘The Library’, serving as a name-in-waiting.