Our History

The Library and Archives have expanded significantly expanded over the years, spanning across multiple collections: The NGI Art Library, the ESB Centre for the Study of Art, the Yeats Archive, the Institutional Archive and the Sir Denis Mahon Library and Archive. These collections cover national and international art from the middle ages onwards consisting of monographs, catalogue raisonnés, exhibition catalogues, collection catalogues, pamphlets, ephemera, journals, auction catalogues, rare and antiquarian publications and e-resources.

While the original building and the three wings added over the years all incorporated library facilities in their original plans, there was no dedicated publicly accessible space until 1968. Despite this, the library’s holdings expand considerably over the decades. A collection of research material relating to the artworks evolved, initially developing in an informal manner as is often the case with museum library collections. Acquisitions were primarily made by the directors or received as part of donations and gifts. Many scholars, collectors and foreign dignitaries gifted to the collection and significant acquisitions were noted in the gallery’s minute books. In the early years, this growing collection was housed in the director’s office. At that time, it was essentially only available for the use of the director and the board members. There were no library staff employed to facilitate public access. Three major gifts to the library would eventually impact on the space provided for the Library and Archives: The Milltown Gift in 1897, the Yeats Archive in 1995, and the Sir Denis Mahon library and Archive in 2010.

The Milltown gift funded an extension to the Gallery including a library space (Fig. 1). Work on the new wing began in 1900 and the ‘Milltown Memorial’ was opened to the public in 1906. However, contrary to media reports about the opening if the Art Library to the public, it appears the Milltown Library remained closed the majority of the time with no additional staff hired to operate the facility. In 1918, Captain Turton—who had inherited Russborogh House after Countess Milltown’s death—requested the Miltown Library a ‘long loan’ including the book cases on the condition that the bookcases were replaced and the adjoining walls repaired. While the walls were indeed repaired, substitute bookcases were never provided and the Miltown Library closed after being in existence for only 12 years.


Despite this set back, the NGI Library continued to develop. Although no record of the number of volumes in the collection was created until much later, the holdings of the library today indicate that it was of a substantial size by the 1920s.

Throughout the 1950s, the Gallery continued to seek government funding to refurbish and increase its size. These efforts finally came to fruition in 1968 with the opening of the Beit Wing. The new wing provided a space a library along with a restaurant, new exhibition galleries, a lecture theatre and a conservation studio.

By the 1980’s the library was encountering major storage and access problems. The space became filled to capacity, many books were moved offsite and researchers, staff or the public were no longer being served. These conditions continued for close to ten years despite efforts to amend them. When EU funding was secured for the new wing in the 1990s, a new library was to be a major part of this development but due to planning objects, these plans were abandoned. Furthermore, plans to reconfigure the Georgian house adjacent to the Gallery at No. 5 Clare Street into a library were also abandoned. By the late 1990s, discussions

Figure 1. Milltown Wing Floor Plan

with the government departments finally concluded that the basements of the two Georgian houses on Merrion Square linked to the gallery would be refurbished as a library reading room and the 1968 space would become a store. The rebuilding of the Gallery’s library service was underway.


Growth continued as the new Millennium Wing provided two additional research spaces and stores – the Yeats Archive and the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art (ESB CSIA). The Yeats Archive was built to house the 1995 gift from the artist Anne Yeats comprising of the extensive archive of her uncle, Jack B. Yeats. The inclusion of the Yeats Archive in the Millennium Wing build meant the collection could continue to grow (Fig. 2). In addition to this, the gallery’s long time ambition to establish a research centre to support the study of Irish art was realised in the form of the ESB CSIA. Within five years, the library and archive collections finally had research and storage spaces and, thus, could provide public access.

The Sir Denis Mahon Reading Room located in No. 90 Merrion Square was opened in 2015 following the 2010 gift by Sir Denis Mahon. The renowned Italian Baroque scholar and collector donated his entire personal library and archive. In 2018, our most recent space opened: a permanent exhibition space dedicated to the Library and Archives. Further ensuring the provision of publicly accessible materials.

These dedicated spaces have given the library and archive collections a future, allowing for the long-term development of the collection, providing workable storage, research spaces and access to the public and our staff.


Figure 2. NGI staff in the Yeats Archive Store

Adapted from ‘The right space: 150 years of housing a national gallery’s library and archive collection’ by Andrea Lydon, published in the Art Library Journal, 2018.