Ask Paolo Defant about his favourite book at the library where he works, and he may disappear silently among the shelves and re-emerge, excited, with a small volume from 1901 entitled The Book of Asparagus.
It has a pastel pink and green embossed cover, and a handwritten card from the 1930s noting, for the reader not yet sold on it, that it contains a section on celery, too.
It is one of the more niche items in the Department of Agriculture library on Kildare Street, which will be inviting the public in during this year’s Open House festival on 13 October.
For those who can’t make it, the library is public year-round anyway. Anybody with an appointment can come browse, says Defant, the head librarian.
Back in Time
Walking into this library is like going back in time.
Its vague beige carpets match the walls. The shelves are stuffed with thumbed pages of old gardening manuals, veterinary textbooks, and ancient departmental reports.
The physical space “hasn’t been updated in any way since it opened in 1974. It’s literally a time capsule,” says Anne Kearns, coordinator for the Open House festival, an annual free series of architecture tours.
The building as a whole is sometimes overlooked as an example of 20th century architecture, says Kearns.
But it was designed by Sam Stephenson, the divisive architect credited with the destruction of a large part of the Georgian Mile, who also designed the brutalist former home of the Central Bank in Temple Bar, Liberty Hall, and the ESB building on Fitzwilliam Street.
The 13 October tour will cover the library. On the fifth floor, there is also a link corridor and the staff canteen – which has an impressive view of the city, including Charlie Haughey’s helicopter pad.
It’s the library, though, that staff expect will surprise visitors. The collection isn’t unique to Ireland, says Defant. “But what makes it nice is that it’s all focused on one thing: the history of agriculture.”
The book collection includes The Deer Refresher Course (1984) and Danish Experiments with Malt Barley. There are also the 1902 reports from the Committee on Butter Regulations.
Also instructive is The Horse: Its External and Internal Organisation from 1906. It has a pop-up section, with detailed musculature, skeleton, and blood vessels.
There are also items here documenting the history of the state. “Photographs in time,” says Defant.
Up until the 1980s, the library was part of a network that swapped departmental materials with other countries. So there’s a large US Department of Agriculture Collection, says Pauline Clifford, an executive officer at the department.
Defant lifts a monumental tome from a shelf at the back. It’s a 1789 volume of statutes of the Irish Parliament.
“This is perfect technology,” he says. Not everything is worth digitising.
Out in the Open
These days, the offline collection is mostly static. The library has a lot of digital services, too, serving the department’s more than 3,000 staff.
Most of the books have no monetary or historic value, says Defant. But the library looks after them.
They get requests from colleagues and sometimes a PhD scholar or lawyer too might come by, to track down a reference.
“Books stop being alive when people stop using them,” says Defant. “They should never be put away because they stop being books.”
At the moment, Clifford is putting together an exhibition of old department materials from the 1930s. It would be impossible without the library, she says.
Rare and old books need to be preserved, says Defant. But that doesn’t mean they have to be locked up.
“The way the library was made, the books preserve themselves if the temperature doesn’t change a lot,” says Defant. “They’re fine the way they are.”
Dublin’s Open House festival will run from 12 to 14 October.
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 3 October at 9.52am to include make it clear the library also provides digital services and what was in the 1789 book of statues. It also corrected the date of the tour, apologies for the error.]