Early Presbyterian Libraries and the Gamble Library

Many thanks to Joy Conkey, Librarian of the Gamble Library in Union Theological College, Belfast, for this guest blog.

The Gamble Library of Union Theological College celebrates its 150th anniversary on 8 April 2023. In preparation for online and physical exhibitions on the history of the Gamble Library, I had to research one of the first Presbyterian Libraries, the Belfast Library, which became known as The Antrim Presbytery Collection, and is held in the McClay Library’s Special Collections. The Belfast Library dates back to 1765 when the Rev James Mackay, minister of the First Belfast congregation, decided to collect together books to establish a library. The Antrim Presbytery Collection contains works on the classics, theology, politics, philosophy, and civil and ecclesiastical history dating from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Initially the collection was housed in First Belfast Presbyterian Church, then had various homes before being transferred to Queen’s College, Belfast in 1873, the same year as the Gamble Library was opened. Special Collections staff kindly provided pictures of a Belfast Library bookplate for an online exhibition and leaflet on the history of the Gamble Library. The online exhibition can be viewed here.

The Gamble Library owes its existence to Mrs Caroline Anne Gamble who donated £1,500 towards the establishment of a theological library in memory of her late husband, Rev Henry Gamble, who had been minister of Ballywalter Presbyterian Church. The donation was used to purchase 2,500 books and convert the College’s Common Hall into a Library. A marble bust of Rev Henry Gamble, given to the Library by Mrs Gamble, remains in the centre of the Library today. In the intervening 150 years the Gamble Library has grown to become the largest theological library in Northern Ireland with around 64,000 books and over 20,000 pamphlets, it regularly receives more than 50 theological journal titles. Staff and student members have access to almost 1,000 eBooks, several key databases and electronic journals. The Library also holds a number of special collections, such as a rare books collection and the Presbyterian Mission Archive, which may be consulted in the main reading room.

The Gamble Library, Union Theological College, Belfast. Picture provided courtesy of Joy Conkey.

Further details about the Gamble Library can be found on the Union Theological College website.

Many thanks to Queen’s University’s Special Collections staff for all their help.

Joy Conkey, Librarian of the Gamble Library, Union Theological College, Belfast.