A Visit to Edinburgh Central Library: Literary Walk 25th November 2013

With the afternoons becoming shorter and colder, the literary walks are becoming more like visits or walks “in spirit”.  The ninth confirmed the growing trend.  The group spent the entire afternoon at the Edinburgh Central Library where they were fortunate enough to enjoy the excellent guidance and company of librarians, Yvonne Kennedy and Jimmy Hogg.

The Edinburgh Central Library:                      

We trust this Library is to grow in Usefulness year after year, and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of Edinburgh for all time to come

Andrew Carnegie 9th June 1890

andrew carnegie[1]The Edinburgh Central Library, located on George IV Bridge, was the first library in Edinburgh to be founded under the provisions of the Public Libraries Act 1850.  The purpose of the Act was to enable local councils, then burgh councils, to make provision for “Free” or non-subscription libraries which would provide access, free of charge, to all sections of society.  The cost would be met by the local rating system. The imposition of the Act was permissive, subject to the approval of local rate payers, and, in Edinburgh, initially met considerable resistance.  A public vote at the City Music Hall on 18th May 1868, heavily defeated the proposed incorporation of the Act.  There was a prevalent feeling that the city was already well served by subscription libraries, a notable example of which was the Advocates Library . However, the use of subscription libraries was only available to those who could afford to pay subscriptions. During the parliamentary enquiry prior to the passing of the Act, it had become apparent that the public nature of existing subscription libraries was unclear.  A second vote in 1881, again rejected the incorporation of the Act.   For the shopkeepers of Edinburgh, the imposition of the Act would lead to an increase in both domestic and commercial rates.

In 1886, the millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) offered £ 50,000 to the City for the purposes of founding a “Free Library”, on condition that Edinburgh adopt the terms of the Public Libraries Act.  The city was overwhelmed by Carnegie’s generosity. On 27th October 1886, at a public meeting in the Free Assembly Hall, attended by 2500 citizens, an enthusiastic majority approved the terms of the Act.  On 14 June 1887, the council awarded the design of the Library to a well-known Edinburgh architect, George Washington Browne (1853-1939), then president of the Edinburgh Architectural Association.  Washington Browne’s architectural sympathies  are reflected in the design of the building.  The east front was “pillastered, arched and panelled like a simpler version of Francois I’s villa at Moret”.  On 27th June 1887, the town council appointed Hew Morrison, a school master from Elgin, as first City Librarian.  Of the short listed candidates, Morrison was the only non-librarian.  The town council were attracted to him by the weight of his scholarly and educational background.  On 9 June 1890, the Edinburgh Central Library opened to the public.

The 1890 library reflected the era in which it had been conceived and built.  The lending library, then as now, was located on the ground floor of the principal building, the Washington Browne building.  Readers were unable to browse the shelves and checked the availability of titles on an indicator board at the entrance to the library.  The librarians stood behind a long (110 feet) counter which ran round three sides of the lending library.  The reference library, with its fine dome, on the second floor, had areas specifically designated for 36 female readers, and 160 male readers.  The ethos was paternalistic and broadly educational, the aim to encourage a taste in literature in the working classes. Morrison, the principal librarian, was able to spend about £ 15,000 of the original Carnegie donation on 40,000 books.  There was a realisation that the library could be used for associated activities.  An early innovation included a series of talks introducing practical works of reference to the working man.  The first session on 10th December 1890 attracted over 300 masons, joiners and plasterers.   A Newsroom on the ground floor of the building, now the site of the Scottish Reference Library, provided newspaper stands for fifty provincial and national publications.

The Edinburgh Collection:

Robert BurnsEdinburgh books – and Jimmy produced a trolley full – included a subscriber copy of Wind in the Willows with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, Robert Burns’ collection of Fergusson’s poetry and a copy of Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd, also gifted to Burns.  Fergusson’s poems bore the monograph of RB, and, within the cover pages, a poem in Burns’ hand.  To be able to handle so many Edinburgh books seemed to put our literary walks in some sort of context.    The visit was the culmination of much of what we had seen before.  The sheer possibility of the stacks, certainly in the eyes of one visitor, triumphed over the certainty of the computer search.


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