Designed by Reginald Fairlie in 1934-36, with construction commencing in 1937 and the building completed in 1958 (after work had been suspended during the Second World War). It is an imposing national library in a classical-Modern style with stylised bas-relief and sculptures by Hew Lorimer. Its two tall upper floors, accessed from George IV Bridge level, sit on top of seven bookstack floors below the bridge. Structurally the building has steel framework encased in concrete and reinforced concrete floors. The front and side elevations are clad in cream coloured Blaxter ashlar sandstone. The rear elevations are rendered brick with raised margins. The northeast corner of the library adjoins and is internally connected to the Advoactes Library (see separate listing, LB51179).
The elevation to George IV Bridge comprises a tall, nine-bay central block, flanked by three-bay, lower-height wings. It has a grey granite base course, rusticated stonework at the ground floor and ashlar above, including a plain entablature. Between the ground floor windows is a plain ashlar panel. The upper two-thirds of the building (indicating the central reading hall) is windowless. The central seven bays are separated by plain pilasters and each bay has a sculptured allegorical figure in a niche and carved roundel above. The central entrance has a tall, moulded architrave with a carved Royal Arms above the door. Each bay of the lower flanking wings and the side return has a tall ground floor window and a carved panel just below the cornice.
Wrapping around the southeast corner of the building and occupying most of the former Cowgate yard area is a three-storey, steel-frame, flat-roof extension built in 1982-86. The Cowgate (south) elevation has rusticated stonework at the ground floor and ashlar Blaxter sandstone above.
The windows are predominately a 12-pane glazing pattern in timber sash and case frames. The taller ground floor windows in the flanking side wings have an 18-pane glazing pattern. The glazed entrance door is a replacement. The rainwater goods are cast iron.
The interior was seen in 2017. The entrance hall has green Westmorland slate flooring and octagonal columns clad in slate, teak panelling, and some original geometric light fittings. Flanking the entrance is the exhibition room to the right and the former boardroom (now lecture hall) to the left, which has an oak parquet floor. A barrel-vaulted passage leads to the main staircase. This staircase splits into two returns at the landing. The stair treads and risers are of green Westmorland slate with black and grey marble borders. The wrought-iron decorative balustrade is painted in black with gold leaf and has a mahogany handrail. The main staircase window comprising square glass panels each etched with alternating panes of a thistle and Scottish crown and the arms of the principal benefactors of the library, designed by A R Conlon. The entrance wall was remodelled in the early 21st century to create a café and information area.
The catalogue hall and reading room have two-leaf timber and glazed doors with bronze door handles with a thistle motif and a fluted timber architrave. The timber fixtures in the catalogue hall are mahogany and include bookcases, timber panelling to the columns and door architraves. The catalogue hall was remodelled in 1986 and 1998-9 and the desks have been replaced.
The timber fixtures in the reading room are walnut, including bookcase, timber panelling and original desks with a green leather covering. The compartmented plaster ceiling has large circular glazed cupolas. The mezzanine floor was added in 1973-4. Flanking the reading room are the former special collections rooms (now offices) which have floor to ceiling painted pine bookcases and are lit by a central rectangular cupola.
Below the George IV bridge level are seven floors of bookstacks. Beneath the George IV Bridge roadway are large water storage tanks for the sprinkler system and walls of the former tenements.
Statement of Special Interest
The National Library of Scotland is an interwar classical modern design by the leading architect, Reginald Fairlie. Completed in the mid 1950s it is the most important library building to be designed and built in Scotland at this time and is a nationally important example of 20th century civic architecture.
The public elevations of the building, those that can be seen from the George IV Bridge, are almost completely unaltered. The austere stonework of the street elevation is broken by sculpture and relief work by leading mid-20th century artists and includes seven large stone figures by the renowned sculptor, Hew Lorimer. The principal interior spaces have had some significant changes, but in plan form the interwar design remains readable and a large proportion of its high quality finishes and fixtures survive.
Age and Rarity
The National Library of Scotland is Scotland's largest library, and one of the six largest libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland, because of its role as a legal deposit library. The library has a legal obligation to receive, free of charge, at least one copy of every United Kingdom publication, with its purpose to preserve material of that country for the benefit of future nations.
The origins of the library stem from when it was founded as the Library of the Faculty of Advocates in 1682, endowed with the collection of Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, Lord Advocate and Dean of Faculty. The Copyright Act of 1710 gave the library the right to claim a copy of every work published in the United Kingdom. Consequently, it became a library of national importance and its ever expanding collection meant continual relocation and piecemeal expansion of buildings. The National Library of Scotland Act 1925 transferred the collection to the state and a new building was required. A £100,000 donation specifically for a new building by Sir Alexander Grant of McVitie and Price, biscuit manufacturers, was match funded by the government. Sir Grant had previously given £100,000 in 1923 towards a permanent endowment for the national library.
Reginald Fairlie was appointed as architect for the new building in 1934, acting as nominated architect to the Ministry of Works. The Dictionary of Scottish Architects notes that the design stage was fraught with difficulties. The Cockburn Association proposed that the façade of the Sheriff Court, (which previously occupied this site) was retained, a proposition Fairlie dismissed. There was also conflicting advice on the style of the new building. In 1936 his plans were approved by the Royal Fine Art Commission who described his design as 'scholarly and dignified' (quoted in Nuttyens, p.38).
Construction work began in November 1937 but stopped in September 1939 because of the Second World War. The building stood as a steel frame until work resumed in 1951. In 1952 Fairlie died and his partner, A R Conlon was appointed to complete the work, supervised by the Senior Architect of the Ministry of Works, Stewart Sim. Sim would later design the map block extension to the building in 1958.
Whilst Fairlie died a year after construction work resumed, the design of the building is his. Conlon is known to have simplified some details, such as the capitals of the pilasters and the entrance doorpiece. The building was officially opened by HM the Queen on 4 July 1956.
There have been some changes to the building each reflecting the changing needs of the library. The most noticeable changes have been to the principal public rooms of the interior and these are described in more detail in the Interior section below. The building also has a variety of extensions to the rear, including a new special collections room on top of the catalogue hall which was added in the early 21st century and a 1980s three-storey extension on the southeast corner. This extension increased facilities for cataloguing, conservation and reprographics.
Libraries are an important part of Scotland's educational and social history and they are among our finest public buildings. The most significant period of library construction in Scotland was 1883-1914, when over 70 public libraries were built. In contrast after the First World War very few libraries were built. After the war the United Kingdom Government categorised libraries as 'luxury buildings' and it was more difficult to obtain construction permits. In 1925 grants established by Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), shifted from funding buildings to purchasing books. New library buildings tended to be smaller branch libraries, with a number built in Edinburgh. Branch libraries ranged from single purpose buildings, such as that at Dundee Street in Edinburgh (1937-1940) to those constructed as part of other municipal complexes, such as Leith Library and theatre (1929-1932), and particularly those associated with schools, such Balgreen library and primary school (around 1929, not listed).
Although completed in the mid 1950s, The National Library of Scotland is an interwar design. As a national library it is inevitably rare. On its completion the building was described in the Scotsman as 'in design and workmanship worthy of a place alongside the finest examples of Scottish Architecture …It is a building which combines the majestic and beautiful with the functional' (Scotsman's article quoted in Nuttyens, p.39-40). With restrained ornamental detailing, both inside and out, the building relies on its considerable massing and proportions for its effect. Reginald Fairlie's design is a distinctive example of 20th century civic architecture, after St Andrew's House on Calton Hill, it is one of Edinburgh's most prominent examples of the classical-modern style and the most important library building to be built in Scotland at this time.
Architectural or Historic Interest
The interior decorative scheme continues the restrained classical-Modern style of the exterior of the building and is devoid of the intricate and elaborate ornamentation that is more characteristic of 19th century libraries. The main changes to Fairlie's original design have been to the principal public rooms of the interior but a large proportion of its original high quality stone and timber finishes and fixtures have been retained. Building materials were restricted following the Second World War until 1953 and the design of the interior embraces the lifting of these restrictions.
Each public room was carefully designed with its fixtures and fittings in a different wood (the entrance hall is teak, the catalogue hall is mahogany, the reading room is walnut and the former special collections rooms are painted pine).
The main staircase is impressive and is dominated by an engraved glass window designed by Conlon and executed by Helen Turner of Edinburgh College of Art. It acknowledges the benefactors of Sir George Mackenzie, the Faculty of Advocates and Sir Alexander Grant and includes emblems of the Thistle and Scottish Crown.
The most significant of the alterations is the addition of the mezzanine floor in the main reading room in 1973-4. This has divided this tall space into two and the lower level is no longer lit by natural light from the circular cupolas and has to rely on artificial lighting. The narrow first floor galleries and their access staircases have been removed, with only the narrow round-arched openings between the bookcases surviving as a reminder of the original layout. The original large walnut desks with green leathering covering have been retained, and have been turned at right angles to their original position.
In the early 21st century the walls flanking the barrel vaulted corridor from the entrance steps to the main staircase, were removed to create an open entrance hall with an information point, café and registration desks. The exhibition hall was remodelled in 1989-90 and many of the original cases, flooring and partitions were removed.
The public locker room (in the northeast corner) was the map room, added by Sim in 1958. Its distinctive interior scheme with a world map ceiling light was lost when the facility moved out in 1975.
The catalogue hall was remodelled in 1986 and 1998-9. A new opening on the north wall was created to access a microform reading room (now multimedia room). The architrave to this new opening matches the other architraves in this room, suggesting that it may have been taken from an adjacent opening, which was then blocked.
These changes have not had an adverse impact on the special interest of the building in listing terms.
Fairlie's main considerations for the design of this library was the storage of a large and ever-expanding amount of material and the quick supply of this material to readers. National libraries typically are 'closed access' because of the volume and rarity of their collection. A 'closed access' library is where the public does not have direct access to the book stock but requests them from staff. Open access libraries commenced in the 1890s and many earlier libraries were adapted to this style.
The interior and plan form of a library was an important design consideration and was primarily dictated by the location of the building. The constraints and challenges of a narrow and split level city centre site, is skilfully addressed in Fairlie's arrangement of the building.
Seven levels of book stack floors rise from the Cowgate to the bridge with staff offices and facilities grouped at the rear of these floors. Above the book stacks are the public rooms, which had to be accessed from the bridge level. Fairlie designed a large and open entrance hall with the view directed towards a wide staircase. The largest public room is the reading room on the top floor, which occupies most of the footprint of the building.
The footprint of the building was never designed to fill the whole site. Fairlie always intended that extensions could be added on the unbuilt sections to accommodate the ever-expanding collection, which was why the rear wall and southeast corner was built in brick and not clad in stone.
The building has a number of smaller extensions at the rear and the arrangement of some of the interior spaces has been altered, such as the entrance hall and the reading room. In plan form, however, the interwar design remains clearly readable.
Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality
Like other public buildings, libraries of this period were re-worked traditional styles, particularly neo-classical, but were influenced in design, planning and steel frame construction by the ideas of European and Scandinavian Modernism, such as the civic work by Erich Mendelsohn, Gunnar Asplund and Willem Dudok and 20th century classical American public architecture such as of Bertram Goodhue and Gilbert Underwood. Asplund's Stockholm library (1928) is a notable example of a library building from this period. Sculpture and other applied decoration was often kept to a minimum in order to maintain the simple geometric forms of the building, but where it was employed it tended to be in simple, shallow reliefs that did not detract from the overall massing.
Fairlie's scheme is an austere classical-Modern design with some sculpture and other decoration by renowned artists. It echos the European neo-classicism of public architecture of the later 1930s as well as American Beaux Arts classicism. The contemporary high profile commission for the new Scottish Office buildings by Thomas Tait on Calton Hill (1933-39) for a monumental modern classical administration building would also likely have influenced Fairlie's design. Glendinning in Rebuilding Scotland: The postwar vision 1945-1975 describes the National Library building as one of the most distinguished examples of a public building of this period and 'the last national setpiece of interwar classical monumentalism'.
To ensure that the principal space of the building, the reading room, was quiet and undisturbed from the noise of a busy city centre street, the upper two-thirds of the principal elevation are windowless. Natural light to this room is provided by the large circular cupolas and further windows in the east wall (now an internal wall between the reading room and the new special collections room).
The austere stonework of the street elevation is broken by the seven large stone figures by the renowned sculptor, Hew Lorimer, the second son of Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. They symbolise the arts of civilisation: Medicine, Science, History, The Poetic Muse, Justice, Theology and Music. Lorimer also agreed to select and supervise other sculptors for the other work. Over the figures are rondelles by Elizabeth Dempster. Above the entrance door is a carved Royal Coat of Arms by Scott Sutherland. The lower wings have carved panels by James Barr, each with two children depicting various ways in which ideas are transmitted to the mind. Maxwell Allen made the acanthus motif relief panels on the north and south elevations.
Beneath the bridge level the building is necessarily very plain, reflecting the functional nature of these floors. There are seven book stack floors below the level of George IV Bridge and descending down to the Cowgate below. Built using the Snead system, the intermediate floors depend for support on the slender steel columns of the bookshelves. There are 50 miles of shelving containing over two million books. The books are organised by year of publication and size for efficiency of storage. The idea of using the bookstack shelving as the structural system is a common feature in library design and was used in 1857 in the British Library as well the nearby Central Library of Edinburgh.
Snead and Company, based in Louisville, Kentucky, revolutionised and standardised library book stacks and their cast iron or steel book stacks can be found in early 20th century libraries all over the world. The length of book shelf and stack range spacing was standard, but the shelves could be moved according to the height of book being stored, creating an efficient system for storing lots of books.
Reginald Fairlie (1883-1952) trained under Robert Stodart Lorimer and in 1909 he set up his own practice at 7 Ainslie Place, Edinburgh. His ethos was based on nationalism, traditionalism and religion. He carried out a number of country house renovations and estate lodges, although churches formed the largest part of his work. Whilst his civic commissions were comparatively few, the National Library of Scotland is his most important and best known work. Fairlie is said to have described the building's appearance as one of 'frigid serenity'.
The location for this new library was much debated in the 1920s, with a variety of sites in the city suggested. The George IV Bridge site was chosen because it was central and close to other libraries, including the Central Library, the Advocates and Signet libraries and the University of Edinburgh. The library was built on the site of the former Sheriff Court House, and construction was delayed as a new sheriff court had to be built before the old one could be demolished. (See Walker)
The library occupies a restrictive, narrow and sloping site that is bounded on its north, east and west sides by the George IV Bridge and the court house. The constraints of this site were critical in determining the planning of the building.
The building 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. Because of its scale and high quality design it is an imposing building in the streetscape of George IV Bridge.
There are no known regional variations.
2.3 Close Historical Associations
Statutory address, category of listing changed from B to A and listed building record revised in 2017. Previously listed as 'George IV Bridge, National Library of Scotland'.