Vitty, James Weatherall (1910–88), librarian, was born 31 May 1910 in 37 Lichfield Avenue, Belfast, one of three children of Lawrence Vitty, shipyard angle smith, and Margaret Vitty (née McCullough). He was educated at Euston St. primary school and the College of Technology. His first job was as an office clerk in a shipyard; he soon left and answered in 1926, at the age of 16, an advertisement for a library assistant at QUB. He remained at Queen's until he was appointed sub-librarian of the Linen Hall Library (13 October 1951). Since the health of the then librarian, Francis Burgoyne (qv), was deteriorating, Vitty assumed responsibility for the day-to-day running of the library, and on Burgoyne's retirement (February 1956) he was appointed librarian, a position he held until his own retirement in 1978.
Vitty's tenure was during one of the most difficult periods in the library's history. After the war the Belfast Public Library began establishing branch libraries in the suburbs, thus attracting potential members away from the Linen Hall, which was not helped by its own archaic membership requirements and high subscription rates. It soon had a dwindling, aging membership and suffered serious financial difficulties, since it was entirely self-financing until 1970, when it began receiving a grant of £8,000 a year. During the financially constrained years the governors had adopted a hand-to-mouth approach, rather than working out a long-term strategy. Due to understaffing, functions were increasingly devolved to the librarian; over the years Vitty found himself auditing, keeping the minutes at meetings, and writing the honorary secretary's annual reports – not tasks best suited to the main librarian. The grant solved some staffing difficulties but did not redress the library's fundamental problems, since the governors still failed to develop a long-term strategy. The situation was not helped by the onset of the ‘Troubles’, which saw the premises suffering bomb damage and membership falling still further. The library continued to operate at a loss; the deficit in 1975 was £3,470.
Vitty did his best in difficult circumstances; he had good contacts in the media, the arts, and academia, and he used them to emphasise the library's unique collection and its place at the centre of the province's cultural life. He helped increase use of the library by students and non-members, and this was one of the bases for the recommendation of a grant. His most important contribution to the library – and one of the library's most significant innovations of the twentieth century – was the creation of the Northern Ireland Political Literature Collection. Handed a civil rights newsletter in a city-centre bar in 1968, he realised that here was history in the making, and determined to collect material from all sources and all sides. The result is probably the world's most extensive collection on the ‘Troubles’, comprising thousands of newspaper articles, pamphlets, posters, handbills, postcards, etc. Since 1986 the entire collection has been microfilmed and is available to libraries worldwide.
In July 1978 Vitty retired due to arthritis. The following November a feasibility study carried out by QUB led to the decision of the board of education to stop the grant and close the library. It was saved only by a strong public awareness campaign and by selling off one of its main assets, the collection of paintings and drawings by William Conor (qv), bequeathed to the library thanks to Vitty, who was a relative of Conor and had encouraged him to make the bequest. In 1981 Vitty arranged the sale of the collection to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum for £50,000, thus providing the library with funds at a crucial period.
He remained consultant to the Linen Hall governors, but died in Belfast on 7 April 1988, barely a month before the bicentennial of the founding of the library. He was survived by his wife, Edna, and by three daughters.