One of Ireland’s most unusual libraries is set to open this week – with the world being asked to decide what should be in its collection.
The Library of the History of Civilisation is the brainchild of Frank Kennan, who lives in Roundwood House, a remarkable Palladian villa nestled in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains in Co Laois.
After a year long odyssey trying to step outside the maelstrom of everyday news to discover where the human race was headed, he has come up with around 700 books he believes sums up our journey so far.
The collection was helped by a “shocking number of opinions” from guests who come to stay at the house – saved from ruin by the Irish Georgian Society and taken over by Frank and his wife Rosemary in the 1980s.
“There was no one came into the drawing room and said they were a philosopher, but there were an enormous number of philosophers,” he said.
But now he wants to take it beyond the drawing room, and is asking the wider world to help determine the permanent collection.
Finishing touches are being put on a purpose-built library in one of the old grain stores at the rear of the historic house which will house the books.
The library attempts to map out what French philosopher Voltaire described as the steps by which men passed from barbarism to civilisation, according to Frank.
But he says years of reading and thinking about civilisation and what it meant led him to less than obvious choices for the project.
“It’s easy to say Newton, Einstein, Dante, Shakespeare, these are books we would all agree on, and the Bible and the Koran,” he said.
“But I think in looking in books, I had a sudden realisation that actually everything is involved in civilisation.
“So books on spices show us spices affected our history, and so did salt and pepper – in terms of trade routes, and taxes, and revolutions.”
Frank said there would be little serious argument about the first 300 or 400 books in the collection, but the remainder will constantly change as civilisation itself changes.
Some will become less important and others will become more so.
“The library doesn’t match most people’s ideas of a library. Books don’t usually get thrown out of a library,” he said.
The quest has left him optimistic about civilisation, he says, despite the chance the human race could “wreck it” with the bomb or climate change.
“I’ve become more optimistic the more I read, the more I think about it,” he said.
“An awful lot of people spend their time thinking the world is getting worse, or we’re facing incredible dangers or we’re going in all sorts of directions and none of them mean much.
“But if you know we are on an upward path, it would stop us worrying, stop journalists writing about the terribleness of the world and talking utter rubbish about the good old days.”
The library is to open this week, and the public is being invited to visit or get in touch to offer their opinion on what should be in – and out – of the collection.
They should expect to be challenged.