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The Library That Put Readers in Cages

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The reading cages at Marsh’s Library in Dublin (via Marsh’s Library)

Recently we explored a medieval form of book security: chained libraries. But a reader brought to our attention a library in Dublin, Ireland, that went a step further and locked its readers in cages.

Marsh’s Library located by St. Patrick’s Cathedral, dates to the 18th century, and was started by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh. Little has changed over three centuries at the late Renaissance space. According to Marsh’s Library’s site, it’s one of the city’s few 18th century buildings serving its intended function, and most of its books are still in their same places. 

One of those original features is three scholar alcoves with wire doors. These cages would be locked when a reader was using a rare book so they wouldn’t walk off with it. Although books were more widespread than the middle ages that spawned the chained libraries, there were still books precious enough that libraries weren’t comfortable without some restrictions. Marsh’s was the first public library in the country, and at the time it was still a fairly progressive idea to offer a not-always-trustworthy public books for free. Marsh himself was very specific on library etiquette, stating “in case any person shall carry Himself otherwise (which We hope will not happen) We order Him to be excluded, if after being admonished He does not mend His manners.”

Now visitors will find there is a skull in one of the reading cages. Don’t despair that it is some biblio-miscreant. It’s actually a cast of the cranium of Stella, the ambiguous companion of one of the deans at the cathedral — author Jonathan Swift. 

The library is still open to the public with over 25,000 books dating back to the 15th century and has woven itself into Dublin’s history. It even appears, although perhaps not in the best light, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, alongside a sly Swift reference for good measure:

Beauty is not there. Nor in the stagnant bay of Marsh’s library where you read the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas. For whom? The hundredheaded rabble of the cathedral close. A hater of his kind ran from them to the wood of madness, his mane foaming in the moon, his eyeballs stars.

Yikes! Well aside from the lovely Marsh’s being far from a “stagnant bay,” we do hope no readers were ever forgotten in its cages. 

article-imageMarsh’s Library (photograph by William/Flickr user)


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