Of swords, cigars, and books

If you were an 18th century officer in the British Empire posted to the rock of Gibraltar, besides your military duties, you wouldn’t have a lot to do. So to keep his troops out of mischief, Colonel John Drinkwater created the Gibraltar Garrison Library in 1793 with reading rooms specially built for it in 1804 opposite the Governor’s Residence.

Newspapers brought news from home, books provided training on military history and strategy, and maps outlined world geography. The library eventually became an exclusive club where officers could meet and socialize out of the heat of the Gibraltar sun.

It existed as a military library until 2011 when its administration was handed over to the Government of Gibraltar and now exists as a reference library and research centre.

This summer, I took a tour of the facilities with library director Dr. Jennifer Ballantine Perera. She said they had just finished an inventory of materials to determine the extent of the collection and its condition. The next steps will be figuring out a classification system to identify materials for placement and retrieval.

Besides the books in the extensive bookshelves (including back issues of the London Times dating back to the 19th century and a complete set of the local Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper), there were interesting artefacts on display. A yes/no box was used to vote for or against a prospective member, and a timer with flowing sand was employed to limit a member’s reading time of popular newspapers.

Dr. Perera is also involved in efforts to renovate the building which is feeling its age. Work on re-plastering the Map Room ceiling has just been completed, but there is a lot more flaking paint and structural cracking to be addressed. However, the library still has an English clubby feel to it, which I hope will remain after the renovations.