Sunday, 28 January 2007

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Belfast: Falls Road library One of the curiosities of my recent visit to Belfast was to find myself in the public library on the Falls Road, being shown round upstairs rooms mostly closed to the public. Here's where they run English language courses for Polish immigrants, the flipchart poignant enough for me. The flag flying from the airplane on the mural declares 'Falls Family Centre.' (Yes I know - round here you half-expect something more aggressively political). From the adjacent window, I took this unexpected view of the Sinn Féin offices next door. The librarian I was speaking to was reassuring about how the library seems to have been seen as a cross-community resource through the troubles. In spite of years of service, she would recount nothing more than a vague reference to an instance when someone had placed an Irish tricolour on the roof, visible from the protestant housing beyond, and it had to be taken down. A little research suggests that staff endured more demanding times, however. An article by Darren Topping and Geraint Evans published in Library management in 2005 describes 'a litany of damage' and offers this quotation: . . . the Falls Road branch has been damaged by explosives, petrol bombs, burning vehicles, stones, bricks and bottles. It has been occupied by protesting republican women and a platoon of troops. It has not, in short, been quite the haven of tranquil contemplation a library is supposed to be. As for the incident of the flag on the roof, Topping and Evans report: When Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) were pushed on the issue, they claimed that a steeplejack would be required to remove the flag. Unsurprisingly, no one willing to do the job could be found. By this stage, one side was threatening to blow up the library if the flag was not removed, and the other side were claiming that anyone attempting to remove the flag would be shot off the roof. I have not the time or resources to explore and explain the contrast between these reports and what I was told, but it seems to me a touching example of the healing human attribute of selective forgetting. Libraries and other community venues can sometimes, somehow, live out in dull slow-motion monochrome the flashing real lives of their neighbourhoods. Now that (hopefully) it no longer has to play a part in its own local history, the library's role is surely to help people understand and come to terms with that past. [Darren Topping and Geraint Evans, Public libraries in Belfast and the troubles, 1969-1994, Library management, 26 (6/7), 2005.]

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