The proposal to built yet another large hotel in Edinburgh alongside the Central Library is more than a local tragedy. It is an international disgrace.
Andrew Carnegie, son of an unemployed radical weaver, was a philanthropic American for much longer than he was a proud Scot. His family was so poor they spent their first night in the USA sleeping in the open because they couldn’t afford a lodging house. Andrew was eleven years old, and throughout his life was always keenly aware that education had been the key to his success.
Carnegie’s rags to riches story was the classic fulfilment of the American dream. What’s more, he helped countless others from underprivileged backgrounds on that same journey by endowing thousands of libraries across the world as ‘universities of the people’ – some were free public libraries, others academic, and there were a few specialist ones, like the one in a Tennessee Veterans’ Hospital.
His Edinburgh building, designed by architect George Washington Browne in French Renaissance style, was one of his proudest achievements. He laid the foundation stone on Friday July 8 1887 in the presence of 1000 people, many of them workers he’d delivered a lecture to on the rights of labour and the need for world peace. After the ceremony the band struck up ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
As well as purchasing ground for the building itself the committee responsible bought – with Carnegie endowment money – an area of land so that the rear facade ‘could be guaranteed plenty of light and air without the threat of interference from other buildings.’ This was vital, since the entrance, with its famous ‘let there be light’ motto over the door, was alongside the 1837 viaduct built over the Cowgate valley and most floors on that side were subterranean. The west facade was essentially a secondary principal elevation with a high ratio of glazed windows to solid to allow natural light to flood into the reading rooms, as well as to retain the view of Edinburgh’s ancient castle on its rock.
Thanks to the philistinism of Edinburgh Council all of this could now be lost.
The additional land was earmarked for future expansion by the library. A 2002 conservation plan drawn up in anticipation of UNESCO’s 2004 designation of Edinburgh as the world’s first ‘city of literature’ was developed in 2008 into a proposed refurbishment, with appropriate extensions on the site. The Childrens’ and Music Annexes were culled, their collections crammed into the main building on a short term basis. It was claimed there would be much improved facilities in the new development.
Having now sold the land which, since the beginning, has always been a library asset – and having previously disposed of the premises which housed the Childrens’ and Music libraries, our politicians have decided to betray the original intentions of Andrew Carnegie and his trustees.
Even by the standards of our inept city council this is a scandal of the worst order. Statistically, Edinburgh has less central library provision than any of Scotland’s major cities, calling into question its ‘City of Literature’ status. Glasgow, for example, offers almost fifteen times as much space per head of population.
‘There is nothing so terrible’ said Johann Goethe ‘as ignorance in action.’ How very true.