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.
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 .
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.