17 Feb 2014

The Library as legitimizer

Sir Henrys Nightclub ©Jack Lyons
Boole Library, University College Cork, is in the process of curating an exhibition about the Cork nightclub Sir Henrys (1978 - 2003). This exhibition is to take place from July - September 2014 in the exhibition space of the Library and will focus on the 25 years of the clubs existence. Eileen Hogan (UCC Applied Social Studies), DJ / Club promoter Steven Grainger (or Stevie G as he is professionally known) and I are the curators of this exhibition. The exhibition is going to contain artefacts from before the opening of the club up to its very closing. We will also be collecting oral histories from individuals who were in some way connected or involved with the club during its existence.

This material is then going to be deposited in the Boole Library's Special Collections as its very own collection.

When people hear that we are curating this exhibition their first reaction is almost always an outpouring of nostalgic goodwill - our Twitter page and Facebook page and all the emails we have received from the public offering us material and assistance for the exhibition are strong testament to this. The second response is usually something along the lines of - it's great that an exhibition like this is taking place, and it's even greater that it is taking place in the Boole Library, an academic setting. People seem to like the idea that Sir Henrys is being brought into the academy.

This response or reaction is what I would like to reflect on for the rest of this post - why is it so great that a University Library is having this exhibition and what does it mean, if anything, for libraries?

I think the reason people find it so great is because we are legitimising something which means so much to them. This might sound like a Grand Statement but that is exactly what we are doing. Eileen, Stevie and I are giving Sir Henrys new worth by curating this exhibition. The Boole Library is adding further validation by hosting it. Specials Collections, Boole Library, are then adding even further legitimacy by their intention to create a collection in their Department from the material donated and collected for the exhibition. They are stating that Sir Henrys and its paraphernalia and memorabilia and oral histories are important enough, special enough, to be curated, collected, catalogued and preserved for future generations of researchers. I believe this is a very big statement we are making.

What we are all doing is taking something which up to this moment had no acknowledged academic value. It had cultural, social, musical and nostalgic value. But it had no academic value. It was, after all, just a nightclub - a place people went to socialise, to dance, to meet people, to hang out, to have a drink, to catch a gig or a club night. It had no value outside that which the people using the club put on it. It had a purely subjective value. But with this exhibition what we are doing is legitimising an object. We are creating an academic object where there was none before. We are helping to create an object of study. We are, in essence, giving it an objective value, a value beyond that which it had. It is now a valid object of further study and further research.

The exhibition and the Sir Henrys Collection in Special Collections will provide current and future researchers with strong primary data. This collection will be a boon to scholars of, amongst others, youth culture, music, dance culture, identity, subcultures, the use of social and cultural spaces. Sir Henrys the Cork nightclub is now Sir Henrys the object of study.

I feel that this is very important for the Boole library because we are setting an agenda here - we are saying this nightclub is worthy of academic research and study. It is worthy of your academic attention. We are being proactive in determining what is important.

And we should be defining what is culturally, socially and academically relevant. I believe that with our various fields of expertise we can take a lead role in legitimizing cultural and social phenomenon. We can say that a cultural space or phenomenon is worthy of study, worth our academic time and effort

After all others in the business of education engage in this legitimisation of phenomenon.

Academics deem various phenomena or topics important and worthy of study. Just one example: who would have thought a television show about vampires and the girl whose mission is to slay them would spawn an academic sub discipline - Buffy Studies - borne of the initial work of Rhonda Wilcox.  http://slayageonline.com/

Museums do it all the time. Who would have thought rock singers or pop bands would have  exhibitions or museums based on them? http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/david-bowie-is/ and http://www.abbamuseum.se/en/groups-and-events-0

This is something that we in libraries should be looking at doing more often. Especially in this day of consortiums and shared resources which can lead to almost identikit libraries - we need something that makes us stand out from all our fellow libraries. Our special collections are a prime means of distinguishing ourselves from the horde.

It is also important for the Boole library to be collecting this material because it fits in with the College's intention to create better and stronger links with the city. We are strengthening the Town and Gown links. It is, I believe, important for libraries to be collecting and curating their local heritage. If libraries don't do this there is the chance that all this wonderful heritage and culture will be lost.

We need to be proactive in this curation. So take a look around your community. What do you feel needs to be studied? Preserved? What do you deem to be academically worthy of curation, research and study. Find it. And begin to do it...

If you would like further information on the Sir Henrys Exhibition, it can be found at:

Twitter: @sirhenrys2014
Facebook: facebook.com/sirhenrys.exhibition
Blog: sirhenrys2014.wordpress.com


  1. Apart from legitisiming (from an academic point of view) what was otherwise "just a nightclub" it directly affects how people will remember the place. The 30- and 40-somethings who have fond memories of the place can now contextualise these memories around the fact that not only did the place merit their time and attention as they grew up but now it merits academic study too from a sociological standpoint. The last paragraph of this post sums it all up for me. Fair play.

  2. Hi Loughlin. Thanks for taking the time to leave some feedback. Very much appreciated. And you are correct - by doing this we are affecting future perceptions of the club. I don't really want to get all philosophical :) but whilst writing the piece I thought back to Judith Butler's work - it is quite powerful what one can do when one names or defines something. By defining Sir Henrys as an artefact worthy of academic study we do change how it is perceived by those who were part of that scene and by those who come to it anew. And we as librarians should be aware that we hold this power as much as the academics and researchers and users we work with every day - and I would like for us to realise that we do have this power. And that it is right for us to exercise it.