After a LONG bus ride on Monday (during which I wrote out a bunch of blog posts and all my postcards—apparently, I need to be trapped on a bus for 8 hours to get something done), we arrived in Edinburgh and rested up for a visit to the New College Library at the University of Edinburgh on Tuesday.
The space is beautiful and has a cool history. The building itself started out as a church. When the Free Church of Scotland formed in a break from the established Church of Scotland in 1843, it was determined that a “new college” and library were needed to educate new ministers. An appeal went out asking for private individuals—especially women—to donate their books to the collection. (You know, because what are they going to do with them?) The college asked for publishers and authors to donate books as well. The library ended up with around 10,000 books, which were kept in a professor’s rooms. The collection moved a few times and, when the Scottish churches reunited in 1929 and New College joined the old college—the University of Edinburgh—the church vacated this space and the library moved in. The library officially opened in this space in 1936. Since it is an historical space, the building still has its original furnishings from the 1930s; though, it does have some modern updates: it is a wireless network zone.
The library now holds around 250,000 volumes, about 90,000 of which are rare books and special collections. The library supports the college’s School of Divinity (and what a great space for it—imagine coming to this reading room to study divinity, surrounded by old wood [circa 1930s], stained glass, and quiet), but also serves as a general reading space. The library serves a large postgraduate (what we would call graduate in the U.S.) population, but local ministers also come in to do research for their sermons and other work.
The library houses materials on all religions and none at all. It seems they collect anything remotely related to religion or religious themes—a classmate and I peered into a drawer of DVDs and found a copy of The Priest in there.
Much of the collection is listed in the online catalog, though not all. About 40% (mostly special collections) are still slowly being added to the catalog, usually as they are returned by users. The library, in fact, has a large online collection of e-books and e-journals as well as databases; however, it still has quite a few print journals and references available. Many library users prefer print. And many are from the local community, not part of the college, and so wouldn’t have access to the online materials. So, library staff hesitate to put all of their more current resources solely online.
The library collection is housed on 5 levels and expands downward, with load-bearing stacks—they’re actually holding up the building. Before 1936, a reader would have to ask a librarian to fetch a book for them (and the librarian had the right to deny them, if they thought the choice was inappropriate). Now, library users are free to go down in the stacks for themselves. Having gone down there, I think I would still ask a librarian to retrieve an item for me. The shelves are close together, the ceilings are low, and the rooms are poorly lit. It was a bit creepy.
Most of the lending stock is located in the main reading room, however. Undergraduates are allowed to borrow up to 40 items for 4 weeks; postgraduates and college staff can borrow up to 60 volumes for 12 weeks—and many of them do! Readers may also borrow items from the special collection to view for up to 3 hours in the glass-enclosed Funk Reading Room.
Our hosts set out some items from the special collection in this room for us to see. The one that interested me the most was a book describing, in detail, the types and locations of the animals aboard Noah's Ark, along with their locations. This definitive work clearly shows that unicorns were on board this historic vessel. I wonder if any materials in the library’s collection reveal what happened to them…