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Volumes of Knowledge at Magee

7 June 2011

Experts in book and paper conservation are at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus this week to discuss challenges and opportunities facing historic book repositories, including important but lesser known ones such as the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Library.

A two day conference under way today, organised by the University, marks the final phase of the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Library Project in which conservators attached to Magee have been using specialised techniques to safeguard thousands  of volumes of great antiquity.

Keynote speaker is the world-renowned conservation expert, Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, Director of the Ligatus Research Centre, which is dedicated to the history of bookbinding.

He is also project leader with St Catherine’s Monastery Library Project based at the University of the Arts London.  The monastery, at Mount Sinai, Egypt, is the world’s oldest Christian library and houses some the most precious documents of the early Christian period.

Other speakers are from universities and institutes across Ireland and further afield.Joe McLaughlin, the University of Ulster’s Archivist and Rare Books Curator, who is speaking at the conference, says: “We’ve called this conference ‘Historic Libraries in Context; the Derry & Raphoe Diocesan Library – Past, Present & Future’.

“The Library Project has been exciting and hugely beneficial for everyone involved. It has conserved and publicised a collection that, before this, was relatively unknown to modern scholars. Part of its legacy is a wider public appreciation of the collection’s importance and the assurance that the contents are in fit condition for access by scholars and public.”

The Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Library Project draws to a close in December 2011 at the end of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s three-and-a-half year £500K funding period.

By that time some 5,500 books and pamphlets in the diocesan collection will have received the close attention of the team of international conservators, whose studio is based at Shantallow Library.

Joe McLaughlin says: “The aim of the conference is to engage with bibliographers, historians and conservators, each with their own understanding of book culture, to identify future avenues for research within the collection and within similar collections in general. 

"We hope to generate an interdisciplinary discussion about the current and possible future uses of such libraries and the curatorial and preservation issues that have been raised over the course of the project.”

The printed material, most of which is 16th-19th century and contains books of national and international importance, was housed at the Diocese’s former offices at London Street in Londonderry, since the early 19th century.

The ravages of climate and time meant storage conditions were far from ideal and, to protect them, the volumes and other documents were handed over on long-term loan to the University of Ulster in 2004.  

The Project’s first stage saw the collection stored in a purpose built Rare Books Room at Magee and the second stage has focussed on ‘Conservation and Outreach’.

Outreach officer Mary Delargy says the Project has made an enduring contribution to the understanding of the social, religious and political climate in the North-West and the region’s place within the history of these islands in centuries past. 

She added: “Schools and the general public have benefitted greatly by visiting the studio, watching the experts at work and gaining an awareness of a written information heritage that they have then been able to use in various study projects of their own.” 

4552 jpg:  Caption: Conservators and archivists gathered at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus today (Tues June 7) for the opening of a two day conference marking the final phase of the Derry & Raphoe Diocesan Library Project. Pictured left to right are Joe McLaughlin,Archivist & Rare Books Curator, University of Ulster, Right Rev Ken Good, Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Professor Deirdre Heenan, Provost, Magee Campus and Jennifer Jarvis, Project Director/Chief Conservator, Derry & Raphoe Diocesan Library Project.