Maths Week Scotland

Here at Edinburgh Libraries our Children and Young People’s facebook page will be celebrating all things mathematical next week as they help celebrate Maths Week Scotland which runs from the 28th September until the 4th of October.

Join us throughout the week on our facebook page for all our usual activities but with a number or counting theme!

Maths week Scotland have kindly funded our new digital maths ebook collection for children which you can borrow using your Edinburgh Libraries card. Simply install the Libby app on your tablet or smartphone or go to the OverDrive website on your computer and login with your Edinburgh Libraries membership card and PIN.

Maths Week Scotland have a fantastic range of events and activities over on their website  – and you can follow the news on twitter with #Mathsweekscot.

Fountainbridge Library in 1940

Alice Strang is a Curator and Art Historian.  As part of Edinburgh Doors Open Days 2020, she takes us to Fountainbridge Library in 1940, thanks to photographs in Capital Collections

Fountainbridge Library exterior

Unknown photographer, Fountainbridge Library, with Murdoch Terrace on the left and Dundee Terrace on the right, 1940

Fountainbridge Library stands on the corner of Dundee Street and Murdoch Terrace on Fountainbridge. It opened to the public on 11 March 1940. It replaced the combined ‘Nelson Hall and West Branch Public Library’ of 1897, which had proved to be too small and too expensive to maintain.

The new building was designed by the architect John A. W. Grant and it was constructed between 1937 and 1940. It is a rare and important example of modern Scottish architecture. It is a four-storey building which consists of two wings on either side of a central corner tower; the back is stepped so that the top floor is only one room deep. The main features of the exterior are the large windows, which fill the open-plan interior with natural light.

The stone carving above the entrance, of a fountain under a bridge, is by the sculptor Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson. It is inscribed ‘Fountainbridge Public Library 1939’ – which is wrong! The library was meant to be called ‘Dundee Street Library’ but the Public Libraries Committee liked Pilkington Jackson’s design so much they decided to change the name, whilst construction delays meant the library opened a year later than planned.

Pilkington Jackson was also responsible for the panels on the library’s exterior. They feature papyrus reeds, from which the paper on which books are printed is made, as well as a god of knowledge. The largest panels feature a working man (signified by his flat cap) reading whilst a librarian hands books to a mother and child. All of them wear contemporary clothes, showing that this building was – and remains – a place of learning for everyone .

Interior of Fountainbridge Library  with tables layed out

Unknown Photographer, The Nelson Hall at Fountainbridge Library looking towards the back of the building, 1940

The ground floor consisted of the Nelson Hall, now the main Library Reading Room and the Newspaper Room, now the Banfield Room for computer and community use.
The Nelson Hall was named after the publisher Thomas Nelson Junior, whose bequest funded the original and new buildings. It was used for concerts and lectures, held on the stage at the far end, under which 350 chairs could be stored. The last door on the left was an ante-room for performers and speakers and is currently used as a staff room. The nearby lavatories were only for gentlemen!

Interior of Fountainbridge Library

Unknown Photographer, The Nelson Hall at Fountainbridge Library looking towards Murdoch Terrace, 1940

During the day, the space was set up as a Games Room, with thirty tables at which draughts, chess and dominoes could be played.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with tables and chairs

Unknown Photographer, The Newspaper Room at Fountainbridge Library, with the right-hand windows looking on to Dundee Street, 1940

The adjoining Newspaper Room was through a glazed internal wall. It contained fourteen adjustable, sloping reading stands, to suit the reader’s height and sight. Racks for twenty newspapers were provided, as was table space for twenty-four periodicals. Rumour has it that the librarians stamped out the day’s horse racing information to discourage gambling.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with tables and chairs

Unknown Photographer, The Newspaper Room at Fountainbridge Library, with windows looking onto Dundee Street, 1940

The room has since been divided and a lift has been installed, where the double doors can be seen in this photograph. The internal window at the back right gave into the caretaker’s kiosk in the entrance hall.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with book shelves

Unknown Photographer, The Home Lending Department at Fountainbridge Library, with the right-hand windows looking towards Murdoch Terrace, 1940

The entire first floor was given over to a vast Home Lending department, with lay lights (areas of glazed ceiling) to admit extra daylight.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with book shelves

Unknown Photographer, a display case in the Lending Library dedicated to the ‘ABC of Psychology’, 1940

State-of-the-art open access bookshelves meant it was possible to browse and choose books for yourself, ran than the usual procedure of consulting a catalogue and requesting a title from a librarian. Cutting-edge illuminated display cases were also installed.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with bookshelves

Unknown Photographer, the trolley park in the Lending Library, 1940

A trolley park in the corner beside the Librarians’ Office meant extra stock could be efficiently stored and administered. This floor is now home to an NHS clinic and offices.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with book shelves and tables

Unknown Photographer, The Junior Library at Fountainbridge Library, with the right-hand windows looking on to Dundee Street, 1940

The top floor is one room deep. It housed a Reference Library running along Murdoch Terrace with accommodation for thirty readers. A dedicated Children’s Library, which looked on to Dundee Street, was a novel feature. The walls were fitted with bookshelves, above which windows were evenly spaced; they plus lay lights meant that even these more modest spaces were brightly lit. A curved, glazed Librarian’s station between the two wings made supervision of both possible at the same time, with a glazed entrance to the Children’s Library providing a buffer from its users’ noise. Library records reveal that the children had to wash their hands before they were allowed to enter! This floor is now a Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

Surprisingly, the library’s stunning stairwell does not appear in the 1940 series of photographs. It allowed access to the whole building and is topped with an octagonal skylight. At its heart is the caretaker’s kiosk. This control hub had a counter on to the entrance hall, internal windows with an openable panel into the Nelson Hall and Newspaper Room, switches for all the building’s electric lights and a tube system to send dockets to and from the first and second floors. The basement accommodated staff rooms, a boilerhouse and a fuel bin. The renowned Moir Library of the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association can now be found there.

Fountainbridge Library opened in 1940 with a stock of 25,656 volumes. It cost just over £25,252 to build and was referred to as the ‘Dundee Street Library’ within the library service for decades. It had to be closed at dusk as it was impossible to black out the windows; the blackout also meant that it could not be flood lit as planned. In February 1941 the council agreed to use the tower as a watchtower, with its almost 360 degrees views over the city. At the height of enemy action, the Reference and Junior Libraries moved in with Home Lending and never returned to their original locations. Following its closure earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fountainbridge Library will re-open on Tuesday 13 October.

More photographs and information about the building can be found in the Capital Collections exhibition.

Doors Open Day goes digital at Central Library

Doors Open Day takes place in Edinburgh over the weekend of 26 and 27 September and this year goes digital. Previously on Doors Open Day in Central Library we’ve organised tours and displays of our Special collections but this year we’ll be taking you on a virtual visit tracing the history of our magnificent library building with some historical photographs and other images.

Starting with the opening of the Central Library building in 1890…

“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”, so said the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie from a telegraph read out at the Central Library’s opening.

In 1886 Andrew Carnegie offered £50,000 to establish a public library in Edinburgh and less than a year later, laid the foundation stone. The site selected for the library was the former home of Sir Thomas Hope, 1st Baronet Hope of Craighall, advocate for King Charles I. The structure, built in 1616, was demolished in March 1887 to make way for the library. You can still see the lintel from Hope’s home, bearing the carved inscription TECUM HABITA 1616 from the fourth satire of Persius, above an inner doorway of the library adjacent to the Reference Library. Roughly this translates to keep your own counsel.

Central Library opened on 9 June 1890 with 30 staff including a caretaker and fireman although only one member of staff was a woman. Library regulars will know that there are many more women working today and a few more staff. On opening there were three main departments: Lending, Reference and the Newsroom. Lending and Reference occupy the same spaces as they did on opening and the Newsroom now houses our current Edinburgh and Scottish Collection. Specialist local studies, music, art and design and children’s libraries were introduced during the 1930s.

Central Library by City Librarian, Charles Sinclair Minto, 1935

Selected from thirty seven competition entries, Central Library was built to a design by the Scottish architect George Washington Browne. As a young architect Browne had won a travel scholarship in 1878, travelling to France and Belgium. Browne’s architecture was greatly influenced by this period of study abroad: visiting Paris he was inspired by the city’s fairy tale gothic design and used the buildings of this romantic city as his model for Edinburgh Central Library, his design inspired by French renaissance architecture. Central Library is a magnificent stone building, standing three levels tall above George IV Bridge and reaching down to the Cowgate below.

Architectural Drawing of Central Library by George Washington Browne, 1888

Above the entrance are written the words in relief, ‘Let there be light’, which Carnegie insisted be placed above the entrance to every library he funded. Then higher up three large roundels, the coat of arms of City of Edinburgh, the coat of arms of Scotland and the Royal Arms. The iron gates are original to the building and comprise organic forms of thistles. There are also nine small square reliefs all relating to printers.

Inside the Central Library as you enter to the right is a grand and expansive central staircase leading up to the Reference Library which has a magnificent domed ceiling and gallery of book shelves accessed through spiral staircases hidden in the pillars.

Sketch of the proposed interior of the Reference Library by George Washington Browne, 1887

Another notable internal feature is the beautiful red and cream tiled text outside the entrance to the Mezzanine floor; this text originally formed a frieze round the News Room when it opened in 1890. These tiles were specially made for this building by Burmantofts of Leeds, an outstanding Arts and Crafts firm of the time.

Tiles on the stairs outside the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection

The tiles read:

`The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the Knowledge of the Holy is understanding. Take fast hold of instruction, let her not go, keep her for she is thy life. Wisdom is the principal; therefore get wisdom and with all thy Getting, get understanding and….’ (Proverbs).

The Mezzanine is now home to the Music Library, a Teenage area, the George Washington Browne room, an exhibition area, an acoustic pod and a public seating area. This Mezzanine was not part of the original plan of the library but was installed between 1957 and 1961.

Central Library has been adapted and expanded many times over the years. Only a year after opening the library was already running out of space and a book store was added in 1903. By 1928, the library was short of space again. Proposals were made for a better use of the space and a public lift was installed. In 1930, the adjacent building known as the Henderson building at no.3 George IV Bridge was acquired allowing the library to expand again. Designed by architect John Henderson in 1836, this building is basically a rectangular block with large windows and ornamentation inspired by the Renaissance. The Art & Design Library, housed in the Henderson building, opened to the public in 1936 occupying its top floor, and is much admired today in its original location for its magnificent views and light filled room of particular appeal to artists in the city.

Fine Art Library (now called the Art and Design Library), by City Librarian, Charles Minto Sinclair, 1949

Come for a virtual tour of the Central Library with Susan from our Digital Team. This film was made in 2010 – you might notice a few changes. Can you tell us what they are?

Feast your eyes on this wonderful collection of photographs of mainly Central Library: most are recent but you’ll also find some historic items included too.

Look back over 125 years of the history of Edinburgh City Libraries in our 125th  anniversary exhibition celebrated in 2015.

Read from our collections about the people who actually built the original library in the handwritten ledgers kept by the then Clerk of Works, William Bruce, which record in detail the building works as they progressed. Read more about the work of the tradesmen that built Central Library.

Edinburgh Libraries phased re-opening

While we all want to see our libraries up and running again, our top priority is the health of residents and colleagues.

How we safely manage the reopening of any of our services is directed by Scottish Government guidance and Safer Workplace Guidance for Public Libraries. The planning also considers that each library building has its own specific considerations.

In planning the re-opening of Edinburgh’s libraries, we have considered different approaches adopted by our colleagues in many services across Scotland and more widely afield in England, Northern Ireland and Europe.

We are confident that opening our buildings in this phased approach follows the Scottish Government guidelines and maintains health, safety and comfort for our staff and customers.

The first phase of opening will see a selection of library buildings across the city reopening on Tuesday 13 October.

We envisage that, initially at least, services will be limited to browsing and borrowing, returning items, free access to computers, internet and WiFi, support with National Entitlement card online applications, Hey Girls free sanitary provision, hearing aid batteries, printing and photocopying.

As you might expect, numbers within buildings will be limited, social distancing measures will be in place and some services will only be available by booking in advance.

The 6 libraries are Central, Kirkliston, McDonald Road, Fountainbridge, Stockbridge and Newington.

Further information will be advertised in the coming weeks.

We will of course continue to closely monitor developments and government guidance as the situation can change rapidly as you’ll have seen from other areas of Scotland and the UK.

Our Home Delivery service continues to deliver library books to our most vulnerable and housebound customers, and our digital and online services have remained active throughout – you can use your card to access resources.

We appreciate your support and look forward to welcoming you back.

Six degrees of separation

In the week that marks the anniversary of legendary French horn player, Dennis Brain’s untimely death, Douglas from the Music Library remembers a celebrated musician and shares his remote connection.

“Many years ago I was a French Horn player, I still love to listen to horn music, concertos, concert pieces, sonatas, great orchestral works which feature French Horn sections.

I have favourite horn players as well, players, soloists whose recording I might seek out first. The finest of those, English horn player, Dennis Brain, a player whose ability, assuredness and virtuosity on the French horn had not been achieved before, eclipsing his family forebears and raising the standard for those that followed him.

Dennis Brain was born in 1921 to a line of French Horn players and musicians. His grandfather Alfred Brain was a well-known horn player and soloist. Dennis’ father Aubrey and Uncle Alfred were also horn players. Aubrey Brain remained in London leading the horn section of The BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Busch Chamber Players. Dennis’ mother was Marion Brain, a composer and teacher who wrote works for her husband. His uncle, Alfred Brain made his way mostly in America, his first job as a player was with the Scottish Orchestra the forerunner of the RSNO. He later emigrated to America, where he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and for the orchestra of 20th Century Fox, so he can be heard on the soundtracks of many of the movies from the 40s and 50s.

For a few short years just before the Second World War, Dennis quickly made a name for himself and became sought after as a chamber player, an orchestral musician and a soloist. War interrupted this rise but only for a short time, with Dennis managing to continue to play and record during his career with the Central band of the RAF and the RAF Symphony Orchestra. Towards the end of the war he came to prominence with an effortless recording of the Beethoven Horn Sonata, then Benjamin Britten wrote his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for Dennis Brain and Peter Pears, the tenor. They gave the first performance of that work in 1943.

His fame continued to go before him and stories abound about the effortlessness of his ability. Whilst recording the Mozart Concertos with Herbert Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan stopped the orchestra and went to discuss a musical point with Dennis Brain. Karajan found that rather than having the score of the Mozart concertos on his music stand, Dennis Brain had a copy of Autocar, cars being his great love. Famously frosty, Karajan, also being a car lover found this very funny and gave the men another bond over and above their music.

Unfortunately, fast cars cost Dennis Brain his life when returning to London from a concert at the Edinburgh Festival on the morning of 1 September 1957. His Triumph TR2 aquaplaned off the wet road and hit a tree. Dennis Brain died at the age of 36.

Front cover of the Edinburgh International Festival programme, 1957

Now for the six degrees of separation, which is just one degree. Many years ago, I taught French horn and Brass in a few schools. Whilst returning to Edinburgh I was travelling in a car with the Headmistress of one of those schools. She being a musician, we were talking about music and musicians and out of the blue she said that she had been at Dennis Brain’s final concert in Edinburgh on 31 August 1957. She had chatted to him outside the Usher Hall and held the door of his car open as he climbed in. She did say, with that perfect hindsight which people acquire, that she and others had warned him about the weather and encouraged him to stay or take the train, but he loved to drive and that was what he wanted to do.”

Discover Dennis Brain’s timeless musical genius on Naxos, our free streaming and download service for classical music.


A fool’s errand – a story by Harry from Fountainbridge young writers group

Today we hand the blog over to Harry Kitchener, a young writer from Fountainbridge Library’s Teen Writing Group, but first, Simon from Fountainbridge Library tells us a little about the group:
The Fountainbridge Writing Club has been running for a few years now and it’s been wonderful watching their work – which was already good to begin with – get better and better. We couldn’t care less about spelling and grammar. What really counts are the stories themselves, which we come up with there and then in the session and share afterwards.
We’re always open to new people, so if you know anyone of high school age who gets a kick out of writing, get in touch with me at
Simon contacted us to tell us how the group have been continuing to meet online, and how one member of the group, Harry, has been particularly busy throughout lockdown continuing his creative writing.

We’re delighted to share the first chapter from Harry’ story, ‘A Fool’s Errand’ here. Humorous, sophisticated, original, intriguing – we love it and can’t wait for further instalments! Read on and enjoy:

A Fool’s Errand: Chapter 1

Harold sat, drooping slightly over the edges of his chair at the top of the Ministry of Astronomy. His squidgy eye was pressed airtight over a telescope lens. His hand, which was grasping a trusty pen from his breast pocket, was hovering loosely over a small note pad. He sat and gazed into the sprawling galaxy before him. Most people, not Harold, would be totally encapsulated by the sight. To think that so much beauty could exist just out of reach. Most people could stare into the galaxy for hours at a time and lose themselves in its silky smooth nebulas and clockwork solar systems. It was the sort of job that kept you from feeling you’d worked a day in your life. This is why most people lost Harold’s job very quickly and why he was one of the very few able to keep it. Each day, he did his usual routine of covering vast swathes of universe for anything his bosses described as fishy. Harold always appreciated how his bosses could put things in a way he could easily understand. As he passed each quadrant he wrote down the name and, to his delight, ‘nothing of interest’ next to it. Harold did not have any tolerance for such spectacular concepts as excitement or wonder. He then popped his ‘report’ (as his bosses so kindly called them) into a plastic capsule and slid it into an outgoing tube. It seemed that Harold always had a capsule at hand. He’d probably deposited thousands in his time but hadn’t the faintest idea of where they came from. If he paid the slightest bit of attention, he would have found out very quickly and discover that the answer was very dull. However Harold occupied himself entirely in his work, which he foolishly deemed extremely important. He was never much of a multi-tasker.

The tube worked its magic and sucked up his parcel with a cheerful whoosh. Most people would have been blown away at the fun, mysterious inner workings of this tube. Harold grunted. This particular tube lead directly up to corporate. They would respond by chucking most of his capsules on a big fire without checking them and sending him a thank you note in return. If Harold took the time to open these notes, he would find a large sum of money ‘hidden’ inside but he always chucked them in the bin behind him, much to corporate’s amusement. The bin would suck up the parcel and send it back into position for his next report. Harold never found out that he got paid for his job and corporate never felt much compulsion to enlighten him on the matter.

There were many things that corporate didn’t feel the need to correct Harold about. For example, he had decided very early on that, being a man who respected hierarchy, his bosses worked on a made-up floor just above his own. He had this very peculiar notion that any serious corporate office should at least be at the top of their place of work. This notion came about because his outgoing tube, rather falsely, shot his parcels up through his ceiling. However, unbeknownst to Harold, this pipe then hastily curved back down, with a gasp of relief, and went in a direction that Harold had always thought of as down. You may assume that all of these scraps of lies and deception are cruel but Harold could unravel them all in an afternoon if he so wished. If Harold had the attention span he would be able to see his capsules rattling along with him as he went down in the elevator. Of course he was always too busy not being busy to notice. Having never met anyone else in the Ministry of Astronomy as of yet, Harold had to create his own social embarrassment. There was nothing to keep him from noticing that the button on the elevator for his floor read ‘0000’, which would imply he is in the basement. Nothing to stop him relaxing on an expensive yacht somewhere enjoying the vast wealth his bosses put in his thank you notes. Not a single shred of resistance to keep him from realising that the thousand member workforce (the one the ministry billboard boasted about on his way in) probably didn’t exist. Little did Harold realise but Earth had been deserted for a little over a decade. In fact Harold was the only human left. All the rest (and I do mean every single other person) went on to explore the galaxies and claim new stars. Of course, none of it was new to anyone else however humans have quite a talent for discovering things that have already been discovered. There was a certain quality in humanity that Harold was not cursed with. Something everyone else had that Harold didn’t. This quality was the difference between travelling the stars and peering at them through a telescope lens. It was the reason Harold had such a great relationship with his employers despite never having met them.

The reason corporate loved Harold so much, and I should stress that they adored him, was that he never truly opened his eyes. Instead he was on a rail. He walked directly in the direction he went and never expelled any extra effort looking around or (to the dread of a corporate office who valued efficiency) taking one extra step just to see what it would feel like. Such notions of fun or adventure simply didn’t fit in with the busy, formal atmosphere of the Ministry of Astronomy. Harold, of course, knew that he was a good fit for the ministry and was very happy to fill out reports mindlessly as the work day ticked by, ignoring as much nonsense as he could at the same time.

One day however something happened that he simply couldn’t ignore: his job. Whilst squeezed once again into his telescope (which had changed several times throughout his career without him noticing) he spotted an imperfection. This originally referred to something that took him by surprise or at least that’s what his bosses told him. However Harold had left a number of things out under this faulty definition. Several alien sightings, a pair of life threatening black holes and confirmation of God’s existence, to name a few. So they had changed it to fishy. Corporate wasn’t concerned with aliens or religious empiricism but they’d have quite liked to have seen them and were a little bummed when the subject came up five years later having thoroughly missed the boat.

Harold watched, a little too vacantly, as a thin, white line splintered slowly through the dark of space. The line got thicker and longer until there was a gaping hole with cracks zig-zagging out of it like the legs of a tarantula, spanning multiple quadrants each, pouring pale light into the universe. After much deliberation, Harold decided that this was rather fishy and reported it to corporate immediately. He tore a piece of paper hastily from his pad and wrote “QUADRANT 1384 – V” in large, rigid letters, then added “Really very fishy.“ Corporate always seemed to value his descriptions of the general fishiness. The moment he posted the capsule, Harold squished his eye back into the lens to check in on the scene. At this very moment, the hole, now closer resembling a bottomless crater exploded, leaving the sky almost completely white aside from a couple of writhing patches which continued to fight against it. The planets remained, orbiting their suns. Comets continued to fleet by, only a little harder to make out on the new colour. The universe kept going as if nothing had happened. The only thing that had changed was that space, the very cosmos itself, had now turned completely white.

A harsh, thick-sounding buzzer went off above Harold’s head, making him jerk away from the telescope lens. Sweat now trickling lightly in his armpits, he got up out of his chair and staggered into the dingy, metal elevator. He panted slightly as the mesh doors shut around him. He simply couldn’t help but feel like a cornered rhinoceros as the elevator began to descend. For the first time Harold noticed that the only two buttons available to him were ‘Entrance’ and ‘0000’. A very effectively positioned fan blew heavy sheets of air and confusion directly into his face. Those who insist on the constant and ruthless application of fans will be very glad to know that no matter where Harold stood the fan was constantly shooting him with a jet of cool air. Whilst he waited, albeit bedazzled, to reach the ground floor he wondered what was waiting for him. His skin jiggled with fear as he trundled past the ground floor and sank even deeper into the Earth. He heard the echo of the pulleys through vast caverns. The odd leathery flutter or knocking rocks would give him a most terrible flinch. An hour went by but Harold stayed vigilant. He was beginning to think (yes, Harold was thinking) that he was plummeting to the centre of the Earth. Sentenced to the hellish fires deep beneath the surface. Corporate must have decided he wasn’t useful to them any longer. However he couldn’t fathom what he had done wrong. Harold couldn’t say he had known his bosses particularly well. They exchanged a long string of stiff correspondence when he first began working there however this had died down rather limply after a month or two and they had hardly communicated since. Maybe he should have made more of an effort. Harold was quite terrible for taking fault for things that had nothing to do with him. Despite having one thousand invisible colleagues on which to blame so many of the strange happenings he observed through his telescope, he always found a way to blame himself. It was quite sweet really. He was still under the delusion that whatever he did had profound, long-lasting consequences. As if Harold could be responsible for anything as interesting as the whitening of the universe.

Then, somehow, without Harold knowing exactly when or in what manner, he was going up again, picking up speed. His elevator was suddenly inverted from pitch dark to searing bright. It became clear, even to Harold, that he was taking an arduous trip to corporate. However this was not the corporate Harold imagined. Harold always assumed he would one day log his one millionth quadrant report at which point a mysterious suited man would stride into his office and offer him a ride on the elevator to the one floor above himself. His assumption was that corporate would be kitted out with all the latest technology. Teeming with men (Harold unfortunately wasn’t one to challenge stereotypes) who wore tailored suits (proper ones) and sunglasses and discussed finances and spreadsheets. Harold was wrong on many counts. Corporate was not a technological hub just one floor above his office. There were no male (or female for that matter) suit models talking about vague businessy terms. And he certainly would never be invited to corporate on the grounds of a promotion because, if he were, the Ministry of Astronomy would become a pair of corporate bosses aimlessly trying to order each other about. The hard truth of the ministry of Astronomy would soon be revealed.

“You can stop screaming if you like.” Came a posh English voice that gave one the instant compulsion to throttle whoever owned it.

Harold realised for the first time that he was screaming and most likely had been for the past hour. After a short internal, he debate decided to continue. He was standing in the motionless elevator, doors open. Everything was unbearably still.

“I really must insist that you stop screaming.” The voice came again, with a hint of frustration.

Harold decided it was time to stop screaming. He looked around, at the white expanse above him the last few splinters of darkness shrinking away, leaving the sky completely uninterrupted. After taking the time to really internalise the sight, he stared at the charcoal black ground, completely flat, and stretching on for miles in every direction. Once he had decided that this too was acceptable, he looked at the matching dark silhouette standing before him.

“Welcome,” began the voice, ”with you here we have finally assembled the entire Ministry of Astronomy.” Harold looked around sheepishly. No one else.

“You can leave the cabin.” The silhouette seemed to expect an awful lot of initiative on Harold’s part. Harold stepped out of the elevator with a loud squelch. His cheap shoes were soaked.

“Do you? Need to dry off?” the puzzled silhouette asked, looking rather disgustedly at Harold’s dripping body. He was drenched in sweat after the last hour of screaming and confusion. Harold decided not to answer the question. The silhouette decided to ignore the matter entirely, leaving Harold dripping indefinitely. He was now beginning to wish he had spoken up when given the chance but the moment had definitely passed.

Finally, Harold found his frail, little voice and asked, “so what’s… wrong?” Given the gravity of the situation, Harold felt a bit silly using the word ‘wrong’. Did ‘wrong’ really encapsulate the entire issue? ‘Issue’ didn’t feel right either.

The silhouette shuffled slightly on the spot, which Harold mistook for dramatic tension, before mumbling, “I don’t really want to say.”

“Oh, please do. I’d love to hear”, croaked Harold after a nasty pause. He had meant to sound warm, perhaps even comforting but it reflected his current emotions far too accurately to be considered at all comforting.

The silhouette continued to shuffle from side to side, “You’d laugh.”

Harold couldn’t believe his ears. Some strange urge to whack the silhouette over the head was welling up inside him.

“Go on”, breathed Harold, his anger surprisingly well hidden, “I won’t laugh”, Harold had always considered himself a stupid person, and rightly so, but even he was starting to find this tedious.

“Fine”, chimed the silhouette after another infuriatingly long pause “The universe is…”

What? What was the universe? In danger? Peril? Mortal peril?

“The wrong colour.”

Harold felt his left eye twitch violently as he stared fixedly at the silhouette. He was now sweating out of pure, unfiltered rage. In his great swell of emotion, he could only manage a curt, “oh”.

The silhouette looking at him searchingly. Feeling obliged to say more, Harold then added an, “I see,” for good measure. Not that it contributed anything to the conversation at hand.

There was yet another pause. “See, you’re not taking this seriously at all are you?”

“Yes I am”, trailed Harold, he was aiming for dismissive sincerity but everything he said was still rigid from a mixture of exhaustion, confusion and his severe effort to suppress his fury.

“No, you’re not,” said the silhouette in a supremely patronising fashion, “I knew it, I just knew you wouldn’t appreciate it.” The silhouette started to prowl from side to side. Harold was just now realising that this wasn’t a silhouette. It really was a pitch black figure shimmering slightly at the edges as if a shadow had popped off the wall. However Harold, not being one for adaptability, still decided to think of it as a silhouette.

“It just doesn’t seem very… important”, murmured Harold,

“Well, it’s important to me”, cried the silhouette, “Do you realise how annoying this is for me?”

Harold’s hundred billion tiny cells couldn’t afford to take on any more thinking at the moment and this development had put a rather obnoxious spanner in the works.

“So you brought me down here-”

“Up.” Insisted the silhouette shortly.

Harold began again. “You brought me down here”, each syllable was a terrific effort, “because the colour of the sky is annoying you. Shall I alphabetise the capsules while I’m at it.” he said, pointing at the massive pile of his own burning reports just a few feet behind where the silhouette stood. Quite unhelpfully, another couple of capsules slid out of the shoot above, landing right on top of the inferno. Another hour of Harold’s time burned quietly beside them.

“No”, corrected the silhouette, as if Harold had just said something silly, “it’s not just that!”

“Oh. I see”, spoke Harold trying to figure out whether this was a satisfactory explanation, “so what else is the issue?”

The silhouette decided to start on something that seemed entirely unrelated. “You see, I haven’t been especially truthful about your job description.”

Harold tilted his head at the silhouette in complete incomprehension.

“You think you’re an astronomer, right?”

“I am an astronomer”, insisted Harold though his voice was starting to trail hopelessly.

The silhouette got all apprehensive again but didn’t answer, “but your job”, Harold didn’t appreciate where this was going, “is in fact to look for…”

Alien civilisations? Supernovas? Stars, even stars would be something.

“My shoes.”

“Your… shoes”, grunted Harold, his fury had subsided into dread.

“Yes. Well actually just the left one”, he indicated politely to a white trainer lying on the charcoal ground, “I lost the other a few years ago -”

“Seventeen years ago”, Harold growled angrily.

“Oh goodness had it been that long? Anyway, it seemed a waste to buy a whole new pair so I thought…” The silhouette stopped there as if this explanation was perfectly adequate on its own.

“Thought?” prompted Harold slowly.

“That it would just be easier to have a look for the other one”, said the silhouette, “just instead of running off and getting a new pair so hastily. I hate wasting things.”

He didn’t seem to notice the irony of having wasted the better part of twenty years of Harold’s life.

“As you can see, they’re white. And so you can see the problem of a white universe”, the silhouette laughed awkwardly after another one of these terrible pauses they kept running into.

Harold didn’t answer. Being dim-witted and rather upset, he decided not to bother trying to work out the silhouette’s problem.

“White on white”, gasped the silhouette finally, “Doesn’t show up very well, does it.”

“You want me to turn the universe dark again so that you can find your trainers more easily?”

“No no. So you can find my trainers more easily.” Corrected the silhouette sheepishly.


Harold strode out of the Ministry of Astronomy feeling rather proud of himself. He had turned down the Silhouette, clearly thinking himself above all the bother of restoring the sky’s original colour only to go back to looking for trainers. He beamed up at the pleasant, exciting, intense, slightly eye-straining white of the night sky. Then, for no particularly grand reason, Harold stopped walking away from the ministry. He continued staring into the sky. It was, he supposed, a bit too white. He fought to keep taking steps further on but after two more shuffles he had quite given up. The sky was just annoying. It would look a lot more handsome if it were black. A nice silky black on which the constellations and solar systems had originally been plotted. As much as Harold utterly hated to admit it, that really would be a lot nicer. Another hard truth is that Harold wasn’t a talented person. His defining skill was in his lack of ability, or perhaps just interest, to question or understand anything put in front of him. A quality not particularly sought after in the world of astronomy. Regretfully, Harold really was more suited to searching for shoes hidden somewhere among the vast sheets of space than any of the other jobs in his field of study. This is why it is a relief to say that, with a heavy grumble, Harold stomped back into the Ministry of Astronomy.


Edinburgh at play, 1910-1930

As we’re able to enjoy getting out and about more, we’re looking back to the beginning of the last century in our latest exhibition on Capital Collections, ‘Edinburgh at play’, to see how people enjoyed their leisure time.

The images come from a set of glass negatives which were kindly donated to Edinburgh Libraries for digitisation for our digital collections. The glass negatives are dated approximately between 1910 and 1930.

Scenes at Portobello show girls in their best clothes waiting patiently for the Carousel to start. In others, we can see children on the beach building sandcastles, all suitably wrapped up for a Scottish summer!

Image of children in their Sunday best clothes and hats sitting on carousel horses.

Portobello – c1920

Edinburgh Zoo features too, although images taken of visitors and animals at Edinburgh Zoo show a very different view of the zoo than what you would see today.

A zookeeper leads a group of four children on a camel ride.

Camel ride, Edinburgh Zoo – c1920

Two images from the 1930s show the Royal Company of Archers, The Queen’s Bodyguards in Scotland, practising on the Meadows.

A group of uniformed archers practice archery in a park.

Royal Company of Archers, the Meadows – c1930

To enjoy more of these wonderful images, visit the complete exhibition on Capital Collections.

Lockdown Edinburgh – short films by Jim Sheach

When we put out a call for contributions to our coronavirus scrapbook on Edinburgh Collected, we were contacted by Jim Sheach, who had been making short films as he cycled around Edinburgh capturing the atmosphere of the city during lockdown.

A view of Princes Street on a sunny day but deserted of people and traffic.

A film grab from Edinburgh Princes Street, 1 June 2020, deserted

He’s kindly contributed them to Capital Collections so that we could use them to create an online exhibition. As life returns to something more like normal already these scenes, from only a few weeks ago, seem extraordinarily quiet and alien.

Jim’s short films covering a wide geographical area of the city will be a valuable historic record in years to come and we’re tremendously grateful to him for getting in touch and sharing them with us. View the full collection of short films in our Capital Collections exhibition.

You can view pictures and memories from our coronavirus collecting project on the Edinburgh Collected website, where we still welcome your contributions recording this unusual summer in Edinburgh.

You can view more of Jim’s videos on his YouTube channel.

The joy of rereading

Today’s blogpost is by Central Library’s Hope Whitmore, where she explores the joys and need to re-read beloved books.

“When I was a child, led into Kendal Library, holding my father’s hand, I looked up from my three foot something height at the shelves around me, and declared, grandly, ‘I will read all the books and then I will know everything in the world!’ 

Working in Edinburgh Central Library I would remember this, the wonder of so many books, and the way it seemed possible, to a five-year-old me, that these could be devoured. As a librarian I would see new books every day, not only the New new books, which went on the red trolley (unpacking and receipting these was one of my favourite tasks) but also new-to-me-books, the ones which had somehow (how?) remained hidden, even as I shelved trolleys and book checked. The main library was full of new discoveries to be made, slim little paperbacks, not previously noted, or huge tomes, somehow previously overlooked.

But, however much excitement I feel on discovering a new book, however thrilling it is to go down to the basement, cut open the boxes, remove the padding and reveal a box of gorgeous just published hardbacks, I am not staying true to my five-year-old self, rather, I have found myself lately going back to old familiar books, those I loved as a child, or in my early twenties, or even more recently than that.

Before lockdown I took out several books, and throughout lockdown have bought many others, but most of them remain unread, put to one side, in favour of the familiar novels I know and love, the rhythms of which I can follow, the beats of the story like the next note in a well-loved song.

Why, when surrounded by choice, do I do this? What happened to the child, who wanted to know all the things? And why do others reread books, particularly at times when things are hard. I set out to find out.

I put out a call on Social Media asking people why do you reread. Many cited familiarity as a reason to return to old books – the comfort of a story you know, the control of knowing what will happen, the pleasure of anticipation, the joy of remembering something suddenly, or pre-empting what is on the next page, with all the uncertainty and fallibility which comes with human memory (which way did this chapter lead, is this path how I remember it?) One friend, said ‘rereading gives comfort akin to rosary beads.’ Another friend wrote, ‘there is reassurance in knowing how something will end.’

There is also, however, the element of having changed, and therefore the book – seemingly once so beautiful, so strange, so romantic – having a different texture. ‘I first read Lolita when I was Lolita’s age,’ said one friend, ‘it reads totally differently reading it at the age of the character Humbert Humbert.’ 

At different ages, our life experience gives us different lenses. My favourite series of all time, The Cazalet Chronicles, follows a family with characters of all ages. You get to be so many different people, from the stubborn Louise who longs to play Hamlet, the beautiful but unhappy Zoe, to the lonely, lovely, dowdy Miss Milliment with stains on her clothes, and her glasses always hazy from the food she drops on them. Whichever stage of life you are at, you can ‘get’ the characters. 

In one of The Cazalet Books, I believe it is marking time, Clary, the imaginative little girl with always bitten nails begins to grow up, and speaks about reading for the sake of ‘meeting old friends again.’ This comes at a time when Clary feels lost. Her father, Rupert, is lost in France following the Normandy landings, presumed dead. She therefore seeks refuge in books, and the familiar friendship of these characters whose stories she knows, and who she can turn to again and again. These people are flawed, complex, human, and beloved, but on the page they don’t change, even as we do.

Perhaps this is what leads us to reread. Many people cite familiarity, in a world where things are looking far from familiar, with a lens, which is coloured by current events and different than any lens through which we have read before. Maybe, when we are so altered, so unsure, so lost, even, we need to reach for these old friends, to open their books, and greet them once again, ready to run the familiar, wild, overgrown paths, and hear their stories told anew.”

Join in with the Big Library Read

Join millions of others around the world in reading a historical fiction thriller during the Big Library Read, the world’s largest digital book club. From 3-17 August, readers can borrow and read Tim Mason’s “intellectually stimulating and viscerally exciting” ebook or audiobook The Darwin Affair from our OverDrive service. Solve the mystery from home – with your library card and no waiting lists, with the Libby app or by visiting our OverDrive website. You can even discuss the book online.

Historical fiction novel The Darwin Affair takes place in London during June 1860. When an assassination attempt is made on Queen Victoria, and a petty thief is gruesomely murdered moments later, Detective Inspector Charles Field quickly surmises that these crimes are connected to an even more sinister plot. Soon, Field’s investigation exposes a shocking conspiracy in which the publication of Charles Darwin’s controversial On the Origin of Species sets off a string of murders, arson, kidnapping, and the pursuit of a madman named the Chorister. As he edges closer to the Chorister, Field uncovers dark secrets that were meant to remain forever hidden. Tim Mason has created a rousing page-turner that both Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would relish!

The book will be available on the home page of the Libby/OverDrive apps and the OverDrive website from the 3 August and with unlimited downloads is perfect for discussing with your friends and family. If you use #biglibraryread on social media you’ll be entered into a draw to win a Samsung Galaxy Tablet!  Full instructions for using OverDrive can be found on our Your Library website.

Found in Translation Book Group

Found in Translation is a book group which has been meeting every month at Central Library for the past 5 years. They are a diverse group spanning many nationalities, backgrounds and careers. They come from different parts of the world: USA, Bulgaria, Italy, Poland and Scotland. They read and discuss English translations of fiction from around the world. Every book takes them on a literary and cultural journey to a different country.

Since libraries closed in March, the group wasn’t able to meet for their monthly discussions. They decided to move their meetings into the virtual world and discuss their books via a video conferencing app. So far they have read and discussed ‘Year of the Hare’ by Arto Paasilinna, a Finnish classic, ‘This Little Art’ by Kate Briggs (book on the practice of literary translation) and the Man Booker International Prize winner ‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi. They were able to listen to ‘Celestial Bodies’ as an audio book available to any Edinburgh Libraries member on RBdigital through the Edinburgh Libraries website.

Since last year they have been in touch with a Finnish book group in Iisalmi as part of a new partnership between Edinburgh and Iisalmi Libraries in Finland,  part of the NAPLE Sister Libraries Programme. They were planning to have a Skype discussion with the book group in Finland and talk about ‘Year of the Hare’. Unfortunately, due to lockdown that had to be postponed. Found in Translation decided to have a chat about the book during their first virtual meet up in May. 

Photos of members of the Found in Translation Book Group

Members of the Found in Translation Book Group

Here are some of their thoughts on ‘Year of the Hare’:

“I thought the idea behind this book was really interesting and intriguing but some of the actual incidents were barely credible though I did get a feel of both the countryside and the Finnish rather dark humour.” Agnes

“This 1975 picaresque novel by the Finnish author Arto Paasilinna, translated into English by Herber Lomas in 1995, feels very pertinent in 2020. It almost anticipates the moment of multiple crises we find ourselves today. The novel calls for repositioning of our values, of readressing of our work and life balance, of challenging authorities and systemic discriminations. The hare emerges as the symbol of our environmental hope.” Iliyana

“I really enjoyed reading “A Year with a Hare” and found it a great romp through the backwoods of Finland. It turned out to be a book version of the Tardis from Dr. Who, containing multitudes and providing endless adventures within a pretty small volume.” Ana

It was National Reading Group Day on Saturday 20 June, promoted by the Reading Agency. The Found in Translation book group joined in the online discussion and shared what they love about their group.  Sam, one of the members said:

“What I like about the group the most is being exposed to texts that I never would have read otherwise, and exploring new cultures through the translations we read. It’s the only way to travel right now.”

Redrawing Edinburgh event: Edinburgh Boundary Extension 1920 – in the papers

Edinburgh Libraries have been working with colleagues from City Archives and Museums and Galleries and community representatives on an outreach project to mark the centennial commemoration of the 1920 Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramways Act.

The Act meant that the city boundaries were extended in November 1920 to incorporate the Burgh of Leith in the north and the Midlothian parishes of Cramond, Corstorphine, Colinton and Liberton to the west and south of the city. This was a huge change for the city and for these parishes as the expansion saw the city grow from 17 square miles to 53 square miles and increased its population from 320,000 to 425,000.

The project entitled ReDrawing Edinburgh aims to bring together the communities which came into the City of Edinburgh one hundred years ago to commemorate the event, celebrate the diverse history of each local area and to raise awareness of the heritage of each area amongst the city as a whole.

ReDrawing Edinburgh plans have had to adapt to the impact of the coronavirus restrictions. At present, activities are focused online and we are using Facebook presentations to delve into the history of this momentous change for the city. We hope to expand the programme further over time and with activities from community groups.

Our next talk will be Edinburgh Boundary Extension 1920: In the papers next Thursday 30 July at 6.30pm on Facebook. Join Iain from Central Library’s Edinburgh and Scottish Collection as he gives a broad overview of the events of Edinburgh’s Boundary Extension in 1920. He will attempt to bring alive the voices and opinions of the time by looking through what was written in newspapers of the era to discover what was being said and written about these events.

Advert image for Edinburgh Boundary Extension 1920: In the papers Facebook event

Newspapers of the time were of course the major way people discovered information, fact and opinion. It was how authorities communicated their programmes and developments, as well as being a space where the public could make their views heard. A look back at the papers now reveals a rich historical resource that helps to bring fascinating aspects of this story to life.

You can catch up with the first presentation in the ReDrawing Edinburgh programme on YouTube. The first talk was an introduction to the history and debates surrounding the Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramway Act 1920 which led to ‘The Birth of Greater Edinburgh’, given by Henry Sullivan from Edinburgh City Archives.

Our Town Stories website gets a fresh new look and enhanced features

We’re delighted to let you know that our heritage website, Our Town Stories (, for exploring Edinburgh’s history has a refreshed vibrant design, improved functionality and additional features.

We’ve focused on making sure the website provides enhanced functionality whilst retaining the look and feel (and of course all the wonderful pictures and stories) from the previous website. Our Town Stories is a fantastic resource for education, researchers and anyone interested in discovering a little more about the history of our beautiful city in a fun and interactive way.

We’ve retained:

  • the web-friendly stories curated by library staff and partner organisations telling all aspects of the city’s past
  • hundreds of fantastic images from Central Library’s heritage collections
  • the intuitive map-based search
  • search by timeline and by content type
  • and the ever-popular Then & Now images.

The new Our Town Stories also has:

  • a search function
  • mobile responsive design so that you can enjoy the website on computer, tablet or mobile phone
  • audio and video content
  • 7 extra historical maps.

We’d love to hear what you think of it.

We’ll be adding more new stories over the coming months and we’d be really interested to know what stories of Edinburgh’s past you’d like to see.

Discover Our Town Stories online.


How library Bookbug sessions have moved online during lockdown

Today on the blog, Ian, a Library Adviser from Portobello library, talks about his experience of delivering online Bookbug sessions whilst Libraries have been closed.

“I’ve been leading weekly rhymetimes for over a decade at Portobello Library. I consider myself a bit of an extrovert and have always enjoyed the interaction with babies, toddlers and their carers and built up some great relationships over the years.

When lockdown happened the prospect of being unable to provide such a well-loved local service for an indefinite period was disheartening, to say the least.  When the chance came to deliver rhymetime sessions online via Portobello Library’s Facebook page I put myself forward immediately.

I did have a few worries though.  Although I enjoy interacting with people, I can also be quite a private person and was a bit concerned about broadcasting from my home.  I was also worried about being able to perform to a blank computer screen.  I needn’t have worried, working from home has allowed my wee dog Orville to join in, a fun added bonus that would have caused chaos at a library Bookbug session!  I have also been really chuffed to see the brilliant positive comments and thanks that we get, as well as the Facebook video views of over 1,000 a month.  Although a live library event is a great experience for both performer and parents/children and is nothing to be sneezed at, I’m surprised at how easily I’ve been able to adapt to this new method of delivering Bookbug.  I’m very proud that we have continued to deliver Bookbug during a national pandemic.

I’m really looking forward to being able to invite everyone back to the library in person and can now do live streaming Bookbugs for babies and toddlers who can’t make it to our library sessions.  The sooner we can get back to the business of singing songs and rhymes in libraries and having great fun while we do it, the better it will be for us all!”

Find Portobello Library on Facebook where you can also catch Ian and Orville, doing Storytime every Tuesday at 4pm.

And remember to follow your local library on Facebook for regular Bookbug, stories, craft and holiday activities for children.

The Silly Squad has arrived – join this year’s Summer Reading Challenge!

This summer join Edinburgh Libraries for the Silly Squad Summer Reading Challenge from the Reading Agency.

The Silly Squad are all about celebrating funny books, happiness and laughter and you can join them!

Children aged 4 – 11 are invited to take part in the challenge over the summer holidays. With COVID-19, Edinburgh Libraries is running this year’s Summer Reading Challenge differently. You can join the challenge at the Summer Reading Challenge website (

On social media Libraries across the city have begun to encourage children to read 6 books or more over the summer. Anyone in Edinburgh taking part in this year’s challenge can claim their medals by either:

  • Downloading and completing the Silly Squad Book log (available from the Children and Young People at Edinburgh Libraries Facebook page) and handing into your local library once it has reopened and is safe to do so or;
  • Asking a grown-up in their house to send an email to Diane Yule ( with details of where to send your prizes to and the name to go on the certificate. Diane will the post the medal and certificate out to you. It would be great if you could also let us know what books you read and liked the most.*

Check out the Children and Young People at Edinburgh Libraries Facebook page and your local library’s social media for activities and challenges you can take part in every day during the holidays!

The daily challenge started on Monday 29 June and runs until the end of August.

(*No personal information will be stored or used in any way other than to send your certificate or medal. Emails will be deleted once this has been done.)


Phased re-opening of libraries

We’re really looking forward to welcoming you back to our buildings soon, and are currently working hard on plans for a phased re-opening to keep everyone safe. Soon we’ll be accepting returned books back and re-opening a few of the branch libraries. We’re likely to open initially with reduced opening hours and facilities, and visiting will include a range of new measures to ensure everyone’s safety and comfort. We’ll be releasing more information about when this will be and what this will involve over the next few weeks, and we really appreciate your patience as we take time to plan this carefully.

John Johnson Collection

One of the many online resources we have available that you might not be too familiar with is the John Johnson Collection which gives a unique insight into everyday life in Britain in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is an archive of printed ephemera from the Bodleian Library and contains an amazing amount of weird and wonderful pictorial information.

We’ve been having a dig about in the collection, looking at some of the things that have been keeping us occupied during lockdown and found these gems from the past.

We’ve all been trying to get our hands on soap, handwash, hand sanitiser and cleaning products. This advert below lists Bishop’s Pure Drug Co.’s ‘best and cheapest’ disinfectant supplies for combatting infectious diseases –

Special price list of disinfectants from Bishop’s Pure Drug Co., c1880

And after barbers and hairdressers had been closed a few weeks, we were reduced to some DIY haircutting from family members –

Dick Wildfire preparing for a dash – 1812

And when we all decided to keep fit, we took to the bicycle. Would we have been so keen if we had to wear all this?

The three best lady cyclists dress holders – [1890’s]

And of course, when we were finally able to track some flour down, we all took to baking-

Why they all use McDougall’s Self-Raising Flour – [1920s]

Why not have a browse through the intriguing John Johnson Collection yourself and see what you can find. All you need is your library card to access and if you’re not already a member, now’s the time to join!

William Nicholson’s portraits

A selection of celebrated personalities of the early 1800s (men, that is) sit for their portraits in a publication of etchings and engravings by William Nicholson (1781 – 1844) which makes up our latest Capital Collections exhibition.

It is notable that all the portraits are of men and this reflects attitudes towards the female sex during the early 1800s which precluded recognition of their contribution towards society and opportunities for women to gain an education and take up significant positions in Scotland. Our historic collections in Edinburgh Libraries reflect these attitudes and have impacted the make-up of our collections dating from the past.

Nicholson’s series comes with the somewhat grand title of Portraits of Distinguished Living Characters of Scotland, and although William Nicholson began the series in 1818, no date is given for this particular volume.

It’s a large book. The pages are embossed either from the typesetting or the prints, the endpapers are marbled, and the corners are rounded and worn. Usually it sits on a shelf in a closed access area of Central Library – down the back stairs, around a few corners – a companion to the darkness, dust and a lot of quiet.

Walter Scott, an etching and engraving by the artist William Nicholson

William Nicholson was born on Christmas day, 1781, in Northumberland. He was a painter and printmaker (not to be confused with the later William Nicholson (1872 – 1949), also a painter and printmaker), and he spent his early life predominantly in Newcastle and Hull. In Newcastle he studied in the studio of the Italian, Boniface Muss (or Musso); in Hull he painted miniatures – and around 1814 he moved to Edinburgh. By 1820 he was well settled there, and remained in the city for the rest of his life.

The prints use both the techniques of etching and engraving in the same image (etching is the chemical process of eating into the metal plate so that a groove is created for the ink to sit in; engraving uses only tools, without a chemical process, to change the surface of the plate). Especially at the edges of the pictures, it’s easy to see the looser marks of William Nicholson’s etching needle as opposed to his engraving tools.

For his subjects, he drew from his own paintings and from those of other artists’. Robert Burns, for example, is drawn from the famous Alexander Nasmyth painting (1787) in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collections; Henry Raeburn from his self-portrait (painted just prior to, or in, 1815, and is also held by the Galleries). And throughout the volume other Enlightenment heroes sit for their portraits, some with accompanying biographical text, some without.

Robert Burns, an etching and engraving by the artist William Nicholson

As well as his work as an artist, William Nicholson was instrumental in the founding and establishing of the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which we now know as the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1826 he was elected its first secretary, and this involvement was something for which he was well-regarded at the time.

Have a browse on our exhibition on Capital Collections for a closer look at the pictures.

Make music with Natasha from the Music Library

With Make Music Day fast approaching, Natasha from the Music Library reflects on how the department is still very much available to music lovers whilst the building remains closed.

I’ve worked in the Music Library for nearly two and a half years now and ever since my first day I’ve continued to discover a whole new world. When you step into the department, you’re greeted by a huge selection of CDs, DVDs, sheet music, and books – not to mention the vast amount of stock in the annexes! I’ve found it’s so very easy to get lost amongst such spoils, so easy to find the piece of music I need to practise for my choir rehearsals, so easy to browse the CDs for something new, so easy to chat to customers and my colleagues and hear what they recommend. Whilst we’re all unable to visit the building, you could be forgiven for thinking that all of those lovely things about the library stop too. That’s certainly not the case: much can be found, enjoyed and shared through the online resources Edinburgh Libraries offer. I already knew of the wonder of using these platforms and now, through lockdown, I’ve come to appreciate them even more.

Listen – Naxos Classical and Jazz catalogues
The Naxos streaming service gives users access to over 150,000 recordings through the Naxos Classical Music Library and almost 20,000 recordings in the Naxos Jazz Library. This means there is easily something for everyone, with new recordings being added constantly to each. The Naxos catalogues are completely free to use, no adverts interrupt playback and tracks can be downloaded to be listened to offline for 30 days.

At work, the Music Library often has music streaming from Naxos, in particular the classical catalogue. Staff either scour the new releases tab and have a listen to something unfamiliar and intriguing, or perhaps a new recording of a famous work. Often, if we’ve been discussing a particular composer or performer, we’ll find examples of their work to play. It’s a real treasure trove. If classical and jazz music are things you struggle to find a way into, there’s plenty that could appeal. For example, I recently found myself down a rabbit hole of Led Zeppelin covers and arrangements, varying from contemporary jazz to chamber music interpretations. There’s also a huge range of film music and a growing section of a genre I am very taken by, video game music. One album I find I come back to time and time again is Symphonic Fantasies, a live album of orchestral arrangements of music from a selection of Square Enix games – some of which are my absolute favourite games to play, with their music often being a huge factor in my enjoyment.

There’s something so pleasing about being able to switch so easily between Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an ExhibitionThe Lego Movie Soundtrack, classical guitar arrangements of The Beatles’ hits, traditional music from across the globe, and back again. In the absence of communal listenings in the Music Library, this variety is most welcome.

Watch –
A newly acquired service currently being piloted is which has a vast collection of concert and performance videos, documentaries and master classes to be enjoyed. As with Naxos, this service costs nothing to use and is free from adverts during playback.

If you’re like me and are unable to partake in the normal music-making you do, watching some of the masterclasses is a really informative way to learn more about your musical practice and it has certainly helped me feel less ‘out of the loop’; even though I’m nowhere near the mantle of opera singer, I’ve found Joyce DiDonato’s master classes illuminating when it comes to technique and performance.

Master Class with Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall, available to watch on

The range of performances available to view is rather impressive and I am hoping will serve as a gateway for me to understand a little more about opera, a genre that I must admit I am less familiar with. Armed with some recommendations from my uncle – whose car is constantly filled with arias, overtures and symphonies – I also turn my focus to the selections from my colleague Douglas, with whom I naturally talk about music most of the time when in the library:

“There is such a lot to recommend from that it is difficult to know where to stop. I have, so far, had time to watch a few operas and dip into the concerts, recitals and documentaries.

The opera productions seem to fall into two categories: as the composer intended them and the just plain weird. There is nothing wrong with either of these categories, though there is at least one production from the first category that should come with a warning about prevailing attitudes to race, gender and ethnicity which makes it uncomfortable to watch.

One production which would fall into my second category is Puccini’s Turandot, performed by Teatro Regio’s: a stunning, stylised, watchable production with sublime singing, notably from In-Sung Sim as Timor, the deposed King. Puccini died leaving this opera unfinished so it was completed by Franco Alfano. This production stops the action approximately where Puccini laid down his pen and, although he had sketched out an ending which Alfano more or less worked to, the Teatro Regio’s ending seems to make more sense of the work.

Puccini’s Turandot, a production by Teatro Regio Torino, available to view on

On my ‘list to watch’ is Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain and Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer. The list grows by the week as I discover more I would like to sample.”

Read – RBdigital and PressReader
In a time where information is instantly available at our fingertips thanks to the internet, it’s easy to forget the simple pleasures that come from reading publications. Our digital publications platforms, RBdigital and PressReader, have access to hundreds of specialist magazines, including the music-specific BBC MusicMojoQRolling Stone, and Billboard amongst many others. An advantage these apps give over print magazines is that you’re able to change font size, background colour and can enable text to speech, making them much more accessible to some readers.

One thing I have enjoyed about lockdown is the ability to revisit things I had overlooked before or felt I hadn’t the time to do before. This has taken the form of finishing knitting projects I’ve left abandoned, drawings I’ve not had the energy to do. The same can be said for music magazines.

I’ve looked back at my RB Digital profile; January 2019’s copy of Mojo has been downloaded, waiting to be read, the front cover emblazoned with a striking image of one of my favourite artists, Kate Bush. Other names that caught my interest are on the cover: Peter Gabriel; Jimi Hendrix; Christine and the Queens; Kamasi Washington. I’d downloaded the issue so I could read through it at my own leisure but, until recently, it had remained untouched. With slightly more time on my hands than usual, I’ve been able to come back and see what I’d missed. Looking through the Best Albums of 2018 List, seeing which of them I’d already borrowed from the Music Library, including the wonderful second albums Fenfo by Fatoumata Diawara and Chris by the aforementioned Christine and the Queens, the latter of which often finds itself played in the Music Library when Rehana and I are on duty together. Finding more albums that I’ve overlooked and making notes that I should definitely borrow them when I can be in the department once again, filling the void of feedback we get from borrowers; libraries are brilliantly communal places that allow a wealth of shared knowledge and experiences. I also finally read the piece on Kate Bush, dotted with images of her in bold costumes and bright knitted jumpers. I found a BBC Music issue I had downloaded that I have no recollection as to why I chose to keep it. It’ll be quite exciting to remember what made it catch my eye, alongside trying to find recommended recordings on Naxos.

There are aspects to music and library life that cannot fully be replaced during this very odd time of lockdown. It has, however, opened my eyes to parts that I perhaps overlooked a little before. Make Music Day takes place on Sunday 21 June and, in honour of that, I shall spend this week in particular celebrating all of the Music Library’s facets.

If you have queries or need help with any of the online services Natasha recommends, please contact

Reading towards an anti-racist world

Today, our blog is handed over to Roshni who works in the Library Resource Management Team.

“I’m a Library Adviser for Edinburgh Libraries as well as a poet and a writer. I’m also a Woman of Colour and a member of an Edinburgh-based Women of Colour (WOC) Reading group. This past week there has been an increase in the discussion over how to combat racism in our communities. This comes in response to a history of anti-Black racism and racial injustice – most recently the murder of George Floyd in the US and the race hate attack on Belly Mujinga in the UK. Working in a library, I know that books are a great tool to educate and affect positive change in the world. Under lockdown I have found myself with more time to read and I have been making use of Edinburgh Libraries’ digital collection. I have had several people get in touch with me asking for book recommendations – so I have compiled a short list of anti-racist non-fiction and fiction books which I have personally enjoyed and found informative. All of these are available via the library and most are also currently available as an ebook or audiobook.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison writes beautifully and powerfully about the Black experience. Every sentence that Morrison writes is precise and packed with meaning. This book is a coming-of-age story following Macon Dead jr, AKA Milkman, who is the son of a wealthy Black family in 1930s America. In this novel Morrison deals with the themes of pain, escape, and forgiveness. It is a story about masculinity, family, and patriarchy. All of Toni Morrison’s books are worth reading – and this is one of her best.
Available as an audiobook

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Sukla
This is a collection of personal essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in the UK. This is a good way to read about the racism that lurks in our homes and in our communities. In this collection there are moments of comedy, moments of grief, and moments of anger. All the essays in this collection are very moving. For example, the teacher and writer Darren Chetty discusses how his primary school aged students believed that the main characters in story books had to be white.
Available as an audiobook

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
This book addresses racism in Britain today and the reluctance of white people to discuss it. It’s a good starting point if you’re striving to learn more about racism at a systemic level. This book is primarily aimed at white readers and the title refers to Eddo-Lodge’s fatigue at having to continually explain racism. In the introduction she states that when she talks about race to white people, ‘You can see their eyes shut down and harden… It’s like they can no longer hear us’. This book has won the Jhalak prize and has received international acclaim.
(Available as an ebook and as an audiobook)

Surge by Jay Bernard
This is a collection of poetry that was written with the Grenfell tragedy at the heart of it. Bernard melds Britain’s past with its present, expressing what it means to be Black and British in the modern day. ‘Surge’ won the Ted Hughes award for new poetry.



Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
This is an essential collection of essays and speeches and includes her famous essay  ‘The  Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.’ Lorde writes about the intersection between race, gender, and sexuality. Her collection ‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’ is also available at branches in paperback. I found this collection formative in my personal understanding of racism – Lorde writes about the necessity to speak out against racism in all forms at all times.
Available as an ebook

How to be an antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
This is a highly informative read. Kendi dissects each way in which a person can be consciously and subconsciously racist. Kendi argues that no one can be neutral when it comes to racism – we can only ever be either anti-racist or racist. Kendi invites us to interrogate our own unconscious racial biases. Kendi also discusses quick changes we can make to the language we use to discuss racism. For example, he suggests using the more apt ‘racial abuse’ instead of ‘microaggression’.”