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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.