Can you imagine a library where you can’t touch the books? The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland might just be the only library in the world where you can’t touch any of the books. But don’t let that stop you from visiting. It is home to an amazing collection of books and book-related artifacts that will have your head exploding with information overload.
Sir Alfred Chester Beatty was an Irish-American mining magnate and millionaire. Born in New York City in 1875, he graduated from Columbia University as a mining engineer. He made his fortune mining in Cripple Creek, Colorado, and other mining operations around the world. Chester was called the "King of Copper"
A collector from an early age beginning with stamps, he had, by the 1940s, built up a remarkable and impressive collection of Oriental art and books. He also owned 19 ancient Egyptian papyri that he gave to the British Museum. He moved his collections to Dublin, Ireland in 1950.
Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, Beatty lived his later years in Dublin and was made honorary citizen of Ireland in 1957. On his death in 1968, he was accorded a state funeral by the Irish government – one of the few private citizens in Irish history to receive such an honour. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
Beatty saw collecting as “a great adventure." He obviously had a great eye for quality and loved books where the text and images formed a pleasing composition. Fun back story: he could be considered an early adopter of twitter acronyms using DCI for “don’t care for it” and NFE for “not fine enough” in correspondence and his own records.
No Touch Library
The Chester Beatty Library is really an art gallery where all the books are in well-lit display cases with interesting didactic information and stories. The depth and breath of the collection truly is mind-boggling. It doesn’t take long before your brain is saying “no more, no more!”
Perhaps the first hint that we were in for a brain freeze were the Chinese jade books at the beginning of the Art of Books exhibition; neither of us had seen anything like them. From there, we were presented the Great Encyclopedia commissioned by the Ming Dynasty emperor Yongle in 1403 and completed in 1408 – all 11,095 bound volumes. Incredible!
Later we encountered Joan Blaeu’s Great Atlas of 1162, which consists of 600 beautifully bound, hand-coloured maps. Each of the bound volumes is about 20” high x 11” wide x 3” in depth; these are serious books.
There was even a small display of contemporary Chinese Ceramics that was definitely rooted in the 8,000 years of ceramic history in China. Not sure how this fit in with the books but it was interesting nonetheless.
The collection included a series of Goya etchings from the 1892 edition of Los Desastier de la Guerra and the 1855 and 1876 editions of La Tauromaquia and Los Proverbois. The pain and suffering portrayed in these works still haunts me hours later as I write this. It made me realize I have never really suffered in my life.
Back story: when you visit a place like Ireland, you realize what human suffering is all about given the millions who died in the famine between 1845 and 1852, or those who died in the numerous independence rebellions and senseless religious bombings. This is a country whose people know suffering.
Later in another exhibition “Sacred Traditions” (the history of religions around the world), I found a didactic panel about Siddhartha Gautama (563 – 483 BC) with the text “be aware of the human inability to escape suffering.” We are then told Gautama decided to leave his wealthy home to seek the causes of unhappiness and the way to relieve suffering. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out if he was successful.
Another panel about Buddha states, “the world is a place of suffering…joys are fleeting…life ends in decay.”
The Chester Beatty Library is a “must-see” for anyone visiting Dublin. I would suggest you give yourself at least two hours and probably three to explore the art and text. There is a great cafe on site so you could take a break and have lunch or a coffee and then go back for more.
There is also a tranquil rooftop garden if you wish to take some time to contemplate and absorb the centuries of history. Outside the Library is a larger green space with a fun narrow brick pathway, as well as a sculpture garden.
The biggest negative is that you can’t take photos (you can view photos on the Library's website); on the other hand, admission is free.