More about damage caused by sprinkler failure in the National Library of Scotland.

Literary treasures behind the grim façade

DAVID ROSS, Highland Correspondent March 06 2009

IT has been said that if the National Library of Scotland was to burn to the ground it would be an immense architectural favour to us all, but Scotland would lose her memory in the flames and probably a little bit of her soul as well.

Last week it was not fire but water that brought the National Library back into the public eye. Hundreds of books were damaged when the sprinkler system malfunctioned and around 5000 litres of water flooded the 12th floor, prompting the building’s temporary closure.

A total of about 4000 bound volumes and 500 to 600 manuscript boxes were in affected areas. Of these, around two to three hundred items will now need conservation treatment.

The Library Reading Rooms reopened on Monday and the spring exhibition, Scots Music Abroad, was set to open as planned today.

The John Murray Archive Exhibition will remain closed for the next couple of weeks while the electronics are checked. An investigation into the cause of the incident is still continuing.

It has to be said the building on Edinburgh’s George IV’s Bridge is not the most beautiful in the land. Indeed the best its architect Reginald Fairlie could say of it was that it “exuded an air of frigid serenity”. Others are not so polite, with comparisons to Soviet or fascist architecture common.

According to Dr Iain Gordon Brown, principal curator of the library’s manuscript division, the building “belongs to the 1930s and its nearest architectural parallel is the general post office in Palermo, which I have seen and it is equally hideous”.

However, it is contents that make the library. It has two million maps, more than 20 miles of newspapers and more than three miles of shelving to support its manuscripts. There are 14 million printed items, including the first book ever printed in Scotland, The Complaint of the Black Knight, which is a lyrical poem written by John Lydgate in 1508. Pre-dating that is one of only 21 “perfect” Gutenberg 42-line Bibles known to still to exist from 1455.

As a Legal Deposit Library the NLS receives every book published in the UK free of charge – about 300,000 books a year. Bruce Blacklaw, the NLS’s communications officer, explains the storage system: “If you get books of the same height together you get more storage space. A rationalisation exercise three or four years ago freed up something like a couple of miles of extra shelving.

“We do know where every volume is but, as a result of this approach, you do now have odd sights like Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries 1939-1960 sitting between a two-volume History of Rome and a Practical Guide to Syntactic Analysis. And I think you will find Sir Bobby Robson’s autobiography further along that shelf.”

Dr Brown is in doubt as to where the library’s real wealth lies today. He shows me box after box of collected papers and manuscripts, which together amount to just about all we know of the true Scottish contribution to the total of human experience.

Scots-born governors general of India, ambassadors and soldiers rub catalogued shoulders with 20th century literary figures.

“Our printed books make us one of the great research libraries in Europe But it is our manuscripts which catapult us into a different league and make us one of the great libraries in the world. The manuscripts make us unique,” says Dr Brown.

Nearby, there is the world’s largest collection of Thomas Carlyle’s manuscripts and letters. But the endeavours of the less celebrated are equally carefully protected.

“Everything you wanted to know about the Scottish Home Guard in this box, and fur trapping in Canada in that one,” indicates Dr Brown.

If that doesn’t get you rushing into the library, what about the autobiography of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume?

It won’t take long to read. He wrote it in 1775 when he was preparing for “a speedy dissolution”. Just a dozen pages, and on the last the great man decides that it would be more appropriate to switch to the past tense.

“I am, or rather was”

Great treasures
The documents from the library’s collections, that help tell Scotland’s story:

The last letter of Mary, Queen of Scots (1587).

The order for the Massacre of Glencoe (1692) bought at an auction and donated by Ramsay MacDonald.

Signed copies of the National Covenant (1638-9), the document that sparked off the 17th century civil wars in Britain.

The first printed articles of the Scottish Parliament (1542).

The proclamation of the Scottish Parliament’s dissolution (1706).

Military and diplomatic collections, including Earl Haig’s war diary.

Scientific collections in which John Logie Baird first proposed his “televisor” and where Napier unveiled logarithms.

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