James Robertson comments…

Scottish novelist James Robertson contacted the campaign recently and commented: “I have spent many, many hours reading, researching and borrowing books from the Central Library over the years, and am appalled at the City Council’s low regard for what should be cherished, and cared for, as one of Edinburgh’s cultural jewels.”


James highlighted that he had contributed some essays to a book published by Historic Environment Scotland, entitled Who Built Scotland, where he wrote about “libraries civilising, enabling and democratising influence”.


James has given us permission to quote from these passages:


The Public Library Acts of the 1850s had given local burghs the right to raise taxes in order to establish libraries. The problem was, the relatively small number of ratepayers tended to be very reluctant to see their taxes rise for the dubious benefit of giving the working classes free access to knowledge. Who knew where that might lead? From the 1880s, however, this move towards a universal public library system was massively boosted by the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie: local government authorities could apply to Carnegie’s charitable foundation for funds to build libraries. What resulted was a network of working monuments dedicated to the printed word. They varied enormously in size and style, yet the tiny reading room added on to the village hall at Tarves, in Aberdeenshire, and the mighty edifice that is Dumbarton Library grew from the same seed – a recognition of the transformational power of books. In the end, well over 2,500 Carnegie libraries were built worldwide, 660 of them in the British Isles, at least seventy of these in Scotland.

The first of them all, the Central Library in Carnegie’s home town of Dunfermline, opened in 1883. From the French Beaux-Arts-influenced libraries of James R Rhind in many districts of Glasgow, to the equally splendid libraries in a range of architectural styles from Dumfries to Wick and from Dundee to Stornoway, the Carnegie libraries became places of self-education, sanctuary, peace and discovery for hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom lived in circumstances that closed down opportunities to change their lives for the better. As William McIlvanney put it in his poem, ‘In the Library’:

In the library the first time
I stood in a pool of awe.
Wonder for taking, acres of promises.

The experience of Dundee, the city nearest to where I now live, was not untypical. In the early years of the twentieth century Carnegie funded five libraries there – more than anywhere else in Scotland apart from Glasgow – but these were not Dundee’s first. A free public library had opened within the Albert Memorial Institute in 1869: subscribers who paid an annual fee had immediate access to new books, while those who could not afford to subscribe had to wait a year before they could borrow them. Then, in 1895, a library and public baths, paid for by a legacy from the mill owner Thomas Cox, opened at Lochee, but the popular demand for access to books continued to outstrip supply and the city corporation turned to Carnegie for help. The city architect, James Thomson, designed all five Carnegie-funded buildings, including Coldside, a single-storey beauty with a neo-classical curved frontage, and the imposingly pillared Blackness Library in the west of the city. Both are still in operation today. These are places that proudly announce through their architecture, ‘We value books, and we value the people who want to read them.’ When the Dundee songwriter Michael Marra composed his song ‘Hermless’ he impertinently (his own word) suggested it as an alternative, non-aggressive national anthem for Scotland. I like to imagine the meek, self-effacing hero of that song collecting his reading matter from one of these fine places:

Hermless, hermless
There’s never nae bather fae me
I ging to the lehbry, I tak oot a book And then I go hame for ma tea

Andrew Carnegie visited Dundee, for the third time, in 1911, to open St Roque’s Library in the Blackscroft area. On this occasion he commented that he thought future generations would say, ‘Well, well, there were men and there were cities in that day that did pretty well.’ That building is now a music venue which acknowledges its heritage by using the name etched in stone over the entrance, Reading Rooms. Its website carries the cheeky strapline ‘Authorised by the Dùn Dèagh Department of Counter Culture’ and notes that

the site was laid out as a landscaped garden in the Italian style, in an attempt to upgrade what was described at the time as a ‘sordid district’. Many Edwardians held the belief that by improving a district you could improve the people who lived there – they may even have been right!

Between Innerpeffray’s David Drummond and Andrew Carnegie there have been many other benefactors who left libraries to the Scottish people. Walter Stirling, a Glasgow merchant, left his own book collection as the basis for a free reference library in 1791: it occupied his former home in Miller Street, and was moved to other locations before settling in the Royal Exchange building, as one of the city’s branch libraries, in the 1950s. Stephen Mitchell, one of a dynasty of tobacco merchants, left a substantial bequest in 1874 which, with additional funds from others including Carnegie (who laid the foundation stone), enabled the construction in 1911 of Glasgow’s great Mitchell Library, designed by W B Whitie. James Dick, who with his brother Robert founded an enormously successful business making shoes and other items from gutta-percha, provided the funds for Kilmarnock’s Dick Institute, a museum, art gallery and library which was opened in 1901 and remains a vital cultural asset for East Ayrshire to this day.

On the other side of the country, the publishing firm of Thomas Nelson funded most of Edinburgh’s branch libraries – but the capital’s cathedral-like Central Library on George IV Bridge is one of Carnegie’s. When it was finished in 1890, he sent a telegram to be read out at the opening ceremony: ‘We trust that this library is to grow in usefulness year after year, and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people for all time to come.’ Over the entrance was carved Carnegie’s favoured motto, ‘Let There Be Light’. Ironically, a recent decision by the city council to permit a new hotel at the Cowgatehead will have the effect, if the development goes ahead, of cutting out much of the light that the Central Library’s reading rooms have enjoyed for 130 years.

…There is…a close historical link between access to books and Scottish aspirations to self-improvement, egalitarianism and liberty, but at root this is no tale of Scottish exceptionalism. People the world over respect books and libraries because they represent freedom of thought. To read a book in a library, or to borrow one and take it away to read somewhere else, is to set up a private relationship between you and the book – its author, its ideas, its characters, its complete otherness. No other activity can create quite such a relationship: that really is exceptional. It is why oppressors and suppressors of all kinds, secular or religious, ban books or burn them. And, as Michael Marra wrote in another of his songs, ‘Houseroom’, it is why in some places people risk death or indeed are killed trying to have that experience:

If you ever hear me grumbling

Give me the old heave ho

If it’s I want my MTV
My prick shaped pool

And my interactive video

Don’t give me houseroom
But a scornful look
As some soul makes a midnight sprint

Through a sniper’s sights
For a library book

Weighing all this up, we might conclude that there must be a consensus in this land that libraries are a Good Thing. We would be wrong. There is a view, not infrequently expressed, that libraries are of the past, expensive spaces providing unnecessary services in the digital age. I have heard this opinion voiced by local councillors and council executives, the very custodians of the library as a public amenity. Perhaps it should not be a surprise that, in the face of ever tighter budgets from which to deliver education, social care, waste disposal and recycling, the idea grows that ‘culture and leisure’ are dispensable. This leads rapidly to the idea that a library, any library, is just a lot of books on shelves and that if volunteers can be found to manage the lending and returning of them then the books will look after themselves. It’s an even shorter step from there to saying that a library is just a free bookshop, and why should everybody pay taxes for a free bookshop when those who really want books can go and buy them themselves, in ‘real’ bookshops? That is, if you can find such a place – there are some local authority areas in twenty-first century Scotland which contain not a single shop dedicated to selling new books. Yet, go into almost any public library and you will find it being used by children, students, pensioners, visitors and homeless people – for all of whom it is still, as it was in the nineteenth century, a vital place of information, investigation, refuge, hope and renewal.

In the libraries of our cities, it is often difficult to find a free desk, so great is the demand for a place to sit and read. A city that does not have a great library is something less than a city – it is not really civilised. Perhaps more tellingly, when a socially deprived neighbourhood loses its local library – sometimes the last remaining community space after the closure of factories, shops, pubs and schools – it feels to the residents like an act of officially sanctioned vandalism. That’s because that’s what it is. Andrew Carnegie wrote: ‘There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library; this republic of letters, where neither rank, office nor wealth receives the slightest consideration. A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never-failing spring in the desert.’

One can argue with other aspects of Carnegie’s career as an industrialist and capitalist, but that is a noble statement of principle, one that he backed up with vast amounts of his own money. It is a principle that needs to be loudly restated and proudly upheld a century after his death.


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