Designed in 1887 by George Washington Browne (1853–1939) and opened in 1890, the Central Library is one Scotland's first Carnegie Libraries, which were endowed by the famous Scottish industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919). It was the first public library to be built in the city, some years after the first Public Libraries Act of 1850 was extended to Scotland in 1853. The commencement of building public libraries after this Act was relatively slow up until the turn of the 20th century because the act effectively introduced a tax burden on local authorities.
On 16 November 1886 the Town Council elected a committee to manage the building of the library. This committee considered various sites in the city for the new library, including one on Chambers Street and the Lawnmarket, but the George IV Bridge site was chosen for its central location and its low price. It was proposed that a library on this site could hold 187,000 volumes (compared to 74,000 in Leeds, 58,000 in Newcastle, 54,000 in Dundee). The site was enlarged by the purchase of a portion of the site behind India Buildings. This allowed the library to be self-contained and provided plenty of light.
The design of the library was the result of a competition sponsored by the Town Council in 1887. The council recommended that the library was arranged with a lending library at the entrance level of George IV Bridge and a reference library above, and the newspaper room below. The competition brief stipulated that the library was to be a grand building of any style and the principal rooms should have plenty of light, with the windows at a height to maximise the walls for shelving.
Browne's entry labelled 'Bibliotheque' was selected from 32 submissions and was published in The Builder (16th July 1887), just a few days after Carnegie laid the foundation stone for the building at a ceremony on Saturday 9 July 1887 (a non-working day was chosen on purpose to allow a large attendance). The building was to cost £35,000.
The library was officially opened on 9 June 1890 in a ceremony led by Lord Rosebery (Carnegie was not present), and opened for use on 16 June. It was an immediate success with 1,428 books issued on the first day of opening and by the end of the first year 44,774 registered readers. Such success required more space and by 1896 the Library Committee agreed that additional accommodation was needed.
To respond to the changing needs of the library there have been three significant periods of change to the building. Although part of Browne's original scheme, the book store wing to the northwest was not constructed until 1901-1903. It cost £6,000 and was designed to store 125,000 as well as a magazine room. The book shelves were loadbearing, specially designed to support the weight of the floors.
The second significant change to the building took place in the 1930s. Known as the lift and loft scheme, a new passenger lift was installed in 1930/31 to improve access to the loft above the main stair, which was used as the Edinburgh Historical and Topographical Library. In 1934 the Highland Society headquarters building, which adjoins the central library to the north (at 9-9A George IV Bridge) was converted for use as the Junior Library, Fine Art Library and additional storage. This building is listed separately at category B (LB27592). This phase of work did not have a significant degree of impact on Browne's library, with only a couple of openings made in the north wall to connect the two buildings internally.
The third significant change to the library came from 1957-61 and affected the former Newspaper Library. As people increasingly read newspapers from home the use of this room was reduced and was moved to 9-9A George IV Bridge. To increase accommodation in this room a mezzanine floor was added and offices were created in the east section of the room. More recently some changes have been made to the entrance hall and lending library, by the removal of barriers and replacement of the large lending desk, to improve access. Reinforcement work to the lower floors of the book shelves is currently ongoing following the collapse the loadbearing bookshelves.
The foundation of the public library system as we know it today began by the passing of the Public Libraries Act of 1850, which was extended to Scotland in 1853. Although subscription, collegiate, and private libraries existed from as early as the 16th century, the Act established the new concept of the public library, free for everyone, to be funded by from local taxation. In practice, however, it was unsatisfactory and as late as 1878, only six burghs had adopted it and four (including Edinburgh) had rejected it. The introduction of the Act met strong opposition as rate payers felt that local taxes were already burdensome and there was no lack of books available from circulating libraries, Mechanics institutes or churches.
The funding and building of public libraries relied heavily on the donations of philanthropists, most notably the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who was, according to the previous listed building record, responsible for the endowment of over 2,500 public libraries throughout the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The first Carnegie funded library or Carnegie library, was opened in his hometown of Dunfermline, Fife in 1883 (LB25979) and this began the most significant period of public library construction in Scotland, with over 70 libraries built between 1883-1914.
One of Carnegie's early benefactions was £50,000 for Edinburgh Central Library, and this is the only Carnegie library in Edinburgh, compared to Glasgow which has 13 and Dundee which has 6. Edinburgh's branch libraries were funded by the publisher and inventor of the rotary printing press, Thomas Nelson, although it should be noted that the 1904 Corstorphine library was supported by Carnegie but was only taken into the city's jurisdiction in 1920. Glasgow's largest library, the Mitchell Library which was built in 1906-11 (LB33095), was not endowed by Carnegie but rather by the local tobacco merchant, Stephen Mitchell.
Libraries are an important part of Scotland's educational and social history and they are among our finest public buildings. Libraries which are listed range from early examples that predate the 1850 Act, such as Wanlockhead Village Library (LB17192), or important civic architectural complexes, such as the Paisley Museum, Art Gallery and Library (LB39025), Playfair Library which is part of Old College (LB27989), or the Signet Library (LB27709) and Advocates library (LB51179). Later examples which are of notable quality and survive in predominantly in their original form may also be listed such as Inglis Memorial Hall in Edzell (LB11261).
At the time of its construction Edinburgh Central Library was one of the largest and best detailed examples of a public library in Scotland, and is early in a United Kingdom context. It remains one of the busiest lending libraries in the country. It is among the earliest Carnegie libraries in Scotland and because of its relative lack of alteration, its scale and its architectural quality both to the interior and the exterior, it is considered one of the best late 19th century and Carnegie libraries in Scotland.
Architectural or Historic Interest
The building's principal interior spaces – the reference library, lending library and a wide processional staircase between them – remain largely as designed with bold classical detailing and outstanding plaster and timberwork throughout. The reading room retains its cast iron galleries containing upper level bookshelves (which are accessed by hidden spiral staircases set within the corner piers). The walls are pilastered and the coffered domed ceiling is particularly fine. The main change to the reference room has been the loss of the screening wall to the ladies section at the east arm of the Greek cross plan and the room is now accessed by a single entrance (the original Ladies entrance).
The changes that have been made to the lending library reflect the social change in library use. In Browne's design the lending library was 'closed access' with a counter around the walls to separate the public from the books (which were held in bookcases on the arms of the cross plan. Books were requested from staff and the availability of books was recorded on the Cotgreave Indicator. This arrangement was the norm for lending libraries at this time, however the introduction of open access libraries commencing in the last decade of the 19th century gradually rendered such systems obsolete and the design of closed access lending libraries consequently had to change. At Edinburgh the counter has been removed (before 1929 as it is not evident in a photograph from this date) and the Cotgreave Indicator has been removed but otherwise the fixtures and fittings of Browne's late 19th century scheme largely survive.
The most significant change to the interior is to the former newspaper library (now Scottish library and Edinburgh room). A mezzanine was added between 1957 to 1961 and offices to the east of the plan, the effect of which is to block light to this library from the George IV Bridge light well, a key consideration in the design of the building. The original tiling, from Broseley in Shropshire, on the walls has been removed, with only a portion of it surviving to the door architrave. The newsroom frieze inscription has been reinstalled on the staircase to this part of the building.
Also of interest and pointing to the history of the area are two 17th century doorpieces which came from a house previously occupying the site, belonging to Sir Thomas Hope, Lord Advocate in the time of Charles I (as shown in a sketch in MacGibbon and Ross p 489). The one on the main staircase has the inscription 'TECVM HABITA 1616', which roughly translates as 'Keep your own counsel' or 'Be true to yourself' and is from the 4th Satire of Persius. The one at the entrance to the Edinburgh and Scottish Library, near the basement is inscribed 'AT HOSPES HVMO' which translates as 'but (I am) a stranger on the earth' which is also an anagram of Thomas Hope.
The interior and plan form of a library was an important design consideration and was dictated by the location of the building. The primary concern was for the maximum amount of light and double height spaces with tall windows were typical devices to provide enough light. The walls were often left free of ornamentation to provide space for book shelves.
Early public libraries were highly compartmentalised and typically required a reference room, newspaper room, lending room, ladies and juvenile room, and lecture room. Some of these functions commanded higher status than others and this was reflected in the positioning, size and architectural treatment of the rooms. The reference room was the most important as it was the reserve of 'serious scholars' in comparison to the newspaper room. Therefore the reference room was typically the most elaborately decorated and usually on the upper floors, as can be seen at the Central Library.
The original competition brief for the building largely dictated the main arrangement of rooms. However, Browne's Greek-cross plan form was innovative for its time and made the best use of the constricted site. This plan form greatly extends the available wall spaces as well as providing circulation spaces and ancillary rooms in the corners of the plan. The hierarchy of these internal spaces is expressed by the roof pattern, with steeply pitched and ornamented roofs over the library and main staircase and smaller roofs to the corners. Each library can extend across the whole width of the building with tall windows to each elevation to provide the appropriate level of light, and the light levels in the reference room are increased by the large domed skylight over the centre. In Browne's drawing, tables are shown in the middle of the library rooms, so that the walls could be devoted to bookshelves and could be easily accessed by staff.
After the addition of the bookstack in the early 20th century the footprint of the library remained unaltered, and is shown on the 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey Map of 1908. As noted in 'Interior' above the most significant changes to the plan form have been the mid-20th century changes to the former newspaper room.
Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality
The end of the 19th century was a period of stylistic eclecticism for large public commissions and not one single architectural style dominated. At the time of building this library was the largest public library commission in Scotland. Browne's design in the Francois Premier idiom is outstanding and appropriate for a large public commission. The confined site with a substantial change in height between the Cowgate and George IV Bridge is very challenging which Browne's skilfully addressed.
Other buildings in Scotland designed in the Francois Premier style are the Partick Burgh Halls (LB32852) and Craighouse in Edinburgh (LB27736). Browne also used it later in his doorpiece for the former British Linen Bank on the High Street in Edinburgh (LB23489).
The facades above the level of George IV Bridge have a wealth of ornate stonework including numerous carved panels to the east elevation. The turret to the angle between the library and the main staircase wing is the only major change to the exterior design from Browne's competition scheme. With the exception of the loss of the decorative pinnacle to this turret, the exterior of the library is almost completely unaltered since it was built. The building is more plainly detailed to the levels below George IV Bridge, however the ornate detailing found above is hinted at the lower levels by the decorative door architraves. Uniformity is achieved by the window pattern, overall creating imposing elevations to all streets.
A particular concern of the Library Committee was to maximise light, and the committee commented on a deficiency of light to the newspaper room in Browne's scheme. As a result this library was moved further away from George IV Bridge with the entrance accessed by a small footbridge (in Browne's original scheme only a small flight of steps are shown). This had the effect of creating a lightwell to the east wall of the newspaper room, so it could be lit from all four sides. The newspaper room was also heightened and consequently the floor level of the lending library above was raised requiring two steps at the entrance.
Consideration was also given to the structure of the building and an article in the Edinburgh Evening News of 8 November 1887 states that the building was to be lined with Portland cement with cement floors supported on steel girders, so the building was fire and damp proof, a major concern for library buildings.
Carnegie's endowment did not extend to the design and planning of library buildings until the early 20th century, when designs required approval from Carnegie's private secretary, James Bertram, who was in charge of administering the funding. In 1911 he produced a pamphlet "Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings" which provided advice on the planning of the building but did not specify a preferred architectural style or require that Carnegie was directly referenced in the design. Prior to this much input and research was required by the chosen architect.
Libraries were often designed by local architects and a handful of architects were slightly more prolific and known to have designed more than one, often competing against each other in library competitions. George Washington Browne (1853-1939) was a prolific library designer, known to have designed five public libraries: Jedburgh (1898) (LB35486), Annan (1906) (LB21068), Bo'ness Town Hall and Library (1901) (LB22397), Castle Douglas (1902) (LB49671), and Kelso (1905) (LB35708). He also prepared completion entries for the Library for Solicitors to the Supreme Courts of Scotland (or Signet Library) in 1888 and Ayr Library in 1891.
The Central Library was a landmark in Browne's career, establishing him in independent practice and leading to a host of commissions across Scotland and he also published a paper on the Planning of Public Libraries circa 1890. Browne was a renowned 19th century architect and was recognised as such when he was knighted in 1926. In her article 'A Profile of George Washington Browne' Mays describes the library as follows: "The choice of the Francois Premier style and dexterity with its vocabulary, combined with the successful planning, places the library among Browne's outstanding achievements' (p.55).
The library is situated in a key position in the centre of Edinburgh's Old Town and in close proximity to a cluster of outstanding public buildings and libraries, including the National Library of Scotland, the Advocates, Signet and Old College libraries. Because of its scale and high quality design it is an imposing building in the streetscape of both the Cowgate and George IV Bridge, and its principal elevation with small bridge and gates is very distinctive.
There are no known regional variations.
Close Historical Associations
This building is significant historically in its connection to Andrew Carnegie, and it is one of the earliest examples of a Carnegie Library in Scotland. Whilst it is was not a requirement for Carnegie funded libraries to directly acknowledge him in the design, it was common for many do so. At Edinburgh there is a bust of him, by Scottish sculptor Charles McBride and the initials 'AC' feature in the plaster cornice above the main staircase, and these initials are also on the south elevation of the building, along with 'EPL' (Edinburgh Public Library) and the date '1889'. The motifs of his personal bookplate, the sun's rays and the bible verse 'Let There be Light', are above the main doorway (see Other Information).
Statutory address, category of listing changed from B to A and listed building record revised in 2016. Previously listed as 'George IV Bridge, Edinburgh Central Public Library, including Balustrade, Gatepiers, Gates Lamp Standards and Railings '.
Canmore: http://canmore.org.uk/ CANMORE ID 52402
Ordnance Survey (surveyed: 1893-4) Edinburgh 1894 - III.7.20. Large scale Scottish Town Plans. Scale: 1:500. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
Ordnance Survey (surveyed: 1906, published 1908) Edinburghshire 003.07 (includes: Edinburgh). 3rd Edition. 25 inches to one mile. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
Aberdeen Evening Express (02 October 1886) A Free Public Library for Edinburgh. p.2.
The Builder (16th July 1887).
Edinburgh Evening News (21 January 1887) The Free Public Library for Edinburgh. p.3.
Edinburgh Evening News (02 March 1887) The Free Public Library for Edinburgh. p.2.
Edinburgh Evening News (10 June 1887) Edinburgh Free Library Plans. p.3.
Edinburgh Evening News (08 November 1887) The Edinburgh Public Library. p.2.
Edinburgh Public Library Committee (1894) Edinburgh Public Library Report. 1887-1893. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Public Library Committee.
Fife Herald (13 July 1887) Mr Carnegie in Edinburgh. p.5.
Gifford, J., McWilliam, C. and Walker, D. (1984) The Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh. London: Yale University Press. pp.178-9.
Historic Environment Scotland (2015). Scotland's Purpose Built Libraries: Preliminary Report. Unpublished.
LDN Architects (2002) Edinburgh Central Library A Conservation Plan. Unpublished.
MacGibbon, D. and Ross, T. (1896) The Castellated And Domestic Architecture Of Scotland. Vol IV. p 489.
Mays, D. (1992) 'A Profile of Sir George Washington Browne'. Architectural Heritage: Journal of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland. Vol. 3. pp. 55-6.
Royal Commission on the Ancient Monuments of Scotland (1951) An inventory of the ancient and historical monuments of the city of Edinburgh with the thirteenth report of the Commission. Edinburgh: HMSO. p.125.
The Scotsman (15 October 1887) Edinburgh Public Library. p.1.
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Western Daily Press (03 September 1886) A Free Library for Edinburgh. p.8.
White, A (1975) The Public Libraries of Edinburgh 1800-1970. Unpublished.
White, A. (1987) Most potent agency: the building and development of Edinburgh Central Library. Edinburgh: Edinburgh City Libraries.
Capital Collections. Edinburgh Libraries - 125 Years https://www.capitalcollections.org.uk/index.php?a=ViewItem&i=35681&WINID=1466679526717 [accessed 23/06/2016].
Dictionary of Scottish Architects. George Washington Browne at http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=200049. [accessed 16/06/2016].
Dictionary of Scottish Architects Edinburgh Free Library at http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/building_full.php?id=202000. [accessed 16/06/2016].
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