Review of Helen McGonagle, A Room of Their Own


Helen McGonagle, A Room of Their Own: Cork Carnegie Free Library & its Ladies Reading Room, Cork: Cork City Libraries, 2015. ISBN 978 0 9928837 2 0 , €10

Reviewed by Aoife O’Leary McNeice

 A welcome feature of the current ‘Decade of Centenaries’ is the re-emergence of the stories of women who have been wrongfully excluded from Ireland’s revolutionary narrative. Examples of this include Senia Pašeta’s Irish Nationalist Women, Sinéad McCoole’s No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923, and Richmond Barracks 1916: ‘We Were There: 77 Women of the Easter Rising, edited by Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis. There has also been a recent movement in Irish historical scholarship away from traditional political histories towards social history. The apotheosis of this was perhaps the publication in 2017 of the Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland, edited by Mary Daly and Eugenio Biagini. Helen McGonagle’s book A Room of Their Own: Cork Carnegie Free Library & its Ladies Reading Room is a lively fusion of these two strands of historical discourse. McGonagle’s reflection of the role played by libraries one hundred years ago also feels very relevant to ongoing discussions about the changing nature of libraries today precipitated by the advent of digitisation and electronic resources.

McConagle’s text is divided into five chapters, the first is an introduction to Edwardian Cork City. McGonagle deftly paints a picture of an economically divided, but bustling port city, succinctly providing a macro-context for her micro-history of the city’s Carnegie library. In her second chapter McGonagle gives a brief overview of the lifespan of the library itself, from its stone-laying by Andrew Carnegie in 1905 to its untimely end during the burning of Cork in 1920. In her final three chapters McConagle focuses on the running of the library, devoting her last two chapters to a discussion of its ladies reading room.

McConagle brings the library to life through her use of annual library reports. These reports are a rich source, providing information as diverse as names of book donors, income accrued from library fines and what books and periodicals the library stocked. McGonagle uses them to effectively argue that the library played a crucial role for residents of Cork City, pointing to the fact that it was open seven days a week from 9am-10pm. Furthermore the list of both male and female borrower’s trades included in the book demonstrates the wide social spread of library users with professions such as architect, printer, domestic servant or artisans, to name but a few. McConagle also uses these reports to resurrect the everyday realities of running the library, fusing the social history of the demographics of library users with the material reality of housekeeping issues, describing troubles the librarian encountered with faulty heating, and debates over the public’s use of the lavatory.

A huge amount of primary material is included in the book, from excerpts of librarian reports, to newspaper clippings, to images and architectural plans. The inclusion of so much primary material gives the reader a welcome glimpse of the sources McGonagle used to provide her account. However, sometimes the balance between McGonagle’s analysis and this primary material is skewed towards the latter. For example, in the second chapter much space is given to the minutiae of Andrew Carnegie’s travel plans for his visit to Cork, during which he laid the foundation stone of the library and was given the freedom of the city. Two pages are devoted to reproductions of correspondence between Carnegie’s secretary and the Lord Mayor’s secretary, organising Carnegie’s visit. Whilst these details are interesting, it may have been more helpful for a general reader to include a short biography of Carnegie or a description of what Carnegie libraries are. This information would enable the reader to understand the importance of Carnegie’s visit, and to position the Cork Carnegie library within the worldwide network of Carnegie libraries.

McGonagle locates her discussion of the ladies room within the wider context of the feminist national press and women’s reading rooms in other libraries in the United Kingdom. For example she notes the correlation between the rise of women’s rooms in public libraries and the growth in journals catering exclusively to a female readership. McGonagle’s analysis of the ladies room is particularly impressive, given the disappointing lack of information about the room in the librarians’ reports. McConagle discusses the publications ordered for the ladies reading room listed in the librarians report, but also identifies the limitations of the report, by highlighting a report from the Women’s Franchise League which noted that the League had placed copies of their paper Votes for Women on the tables of the ladies’ reading room.

McConagle concludes that the presence of the ladies’ room in the library proves that the ‘Cork Carnegie Free Library did not welcome women as full participants’ (49) and also suggests that the absence of the advanced feminist press from the official collections of the ladies room reveals that the library and society at large did not consider women to be ‘serious readers’ (45). However, such a reading may also serve to deny agency to the women who used the reading room. Most women at this time were not radical feminists and perhaps took advantage of the reading room as a semi-public space in which they could enjoy a degree of independence without being seen to breach decorum. McConagle’s narrative might benefit from a more detailed analysis of the gender dynamics which led to the formation of these women’s rooms. This may have been achieved by reducing the space in the book given over to reproductions of primary source material, or even confining this material to the appendix, thus giving McConagle more room to develop her analysis.

Overall, however, McConagle’s book is a lively, nuanced account of a fascinating and overlooked part of the history of not just Cork, but of cities across Ireland, the United Kingdom and the world that benefited from Carnegie libraries. The book is characterised by a finely tuned attention to local detail, offset by an awareness of the broader social, political and cultural context of its subject matter. Furthermore McGonagle presents a strong case for further research into the role played by public libraries at the turn of the century, as centres of research, leisure, and politics.

Aoife O’Leary McNeice is a history PhD candidate at Cambridge University studying global humanitarian networks during the Great Irish Famine.