The young George Boole had an insatiable appetite for learning, and was a voracious reader. This owed much to the tuition and encouragement provided by his father John Boole, which began with English and progressed to elementary mathematics, in which George was already becoming absorbed by the age of seven.
He was also an avid reader of history, biography, travel and science, and developed a taste for poetry and fiction, including the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott. But his great enthusiasm was for classical languages and literature. With the help of a tutor, he mastered Latin by the age of 12 and went on to teach himself Greek, showing a gift for translation. In his teens, he also taught himself French and German and later Italian in his spare time.
Much of the young Boole’s reading and personal study depended on books that he borrowed, principally from a scholarly circulating library run by his former Latin tutor, the bookseller William Brooke. When Brooke’s library closed in the early 1830s, Boole had to buy his own reading material; he commented that mathematical textbooks offered the best value.
Boole’s intensive study of mathematics during the 1830s involved reading and re-reading mathematical texts by leading French mathematicians associated with the École Polytechnique — Lacroix, Lagrange, Laplace — until he had mastered fully each mathematical argument.
Through his membership of the Lincoln Mechanics’ Institute, Boole came into contact with Sir Edward Ffrench Bromhead Bart. who was elected its first President in 1833. Bromhead was a Cambridge graduate in mathematics, a close friend of Charles Babbage and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He encouraged Boole’s mathematical studies, and allowed him to borrow volumes from his fine library of advanced mathematical works at Thurlby Hall near Lincoln.
A strong believer in self-improvement through learning, Boole gave many classes free of charge at the Mechanics’ Institute, and took an active interest in its library of 3,000 volumes. In 1846 he was asked to report on the state of the library, and his comments and recommendations indicate which authors he preferred, both for introductory treatises and advanced analysis in mathematics, and for works of ‘mental and moral philosophy’.
Following his appointment to Queen’s College Cork in 1849, Boole made a significant contribution to the Library Committee. He attended its inaugural meeting on 30th October 1850, and was elected chairman and convener at its second meeting on 9 November.
Requested by the Committee to propose a method for keeping track of books lent by the library, Boole applied his talent for classification. He presented his scheme on 28 November 1850, proposing an alpha-numerical notation for book identification and retrieval, where a ‘mark’ representing each book being lent would be entered against a number representing the borrower, the ‘marks’ and numbers being recorded with dual entry in two index books.
After his system was adopted, Boole resigned from the Library Committee in 1852 to join the Museum Committee. He was again elected chairman of the Library Committee for 1863-4, but it seems only one meeting was held during that session.
The library of University College Cork, inaugurated in 1850, now contains 800,000 books. It subscribes to some 4,000 print periodical titles, and offers access online to approximately 60,000 research journals. Each year, the library adds around 20,000 items to stock.
The main library building, erected in 1983 to the designs of Murray Murray Pettit Architects, is a rectilinear, flat-roofed structure of pre-cast concrete. It was named the Boole Library following a decision of the Governing Body of University College Cork in 1982.
In 2008, the Boole Library was refurbished and revitalised. A major extension was added on its eastern side, the Postgraduate Research Library, designed by the Boston architects Shepley Bulfinch in association with Wilson Architecture of Cork. The extension is built of dark red sandstone and glass, with pre-oxidised copper cladding.