Culture Literature

Exploring Edinburgh’s Libraries: The National Library of Scotland

The National Library of Scotland (NLS), Scotland’s largest reference library, is sure to grab everyone’s interest with its 26 million items that cover a vast array of subject matters. Its manuscripts range from 9th Century Roman poet Martial to contemporary Scottish writing in Gaelic and Scots. If you are Scottish, its Scottish family history resources can help you find your ancestry. If you are into films, a century of Scottish film history is captured in the Moving Image Archive. The Maps Reading Room also holds the largest, most comprehensive map collection in the UK north of Oxford, with more than a million British Isles Ordnance Survey Maps and maps from Professor Thomas Graham Brown, reflecting his climbing activities in the Alps, making the library a major centre for Alpine studies. If you are a music person, you’d want to check out its 22,000 sound recordings starting from the early 1900s that include Scottish traditional music. Other than this, the library holds a collection of newspapers, official publications, scientific and technical material, rare books and some which are available digitally, and even business resources to help run your own business.

Angus Wark, Readers Services Team Leader at the NLS, told The Student, ‘due to the breadth of the Library’s collections, the great thing about working here is we get to handle a huge variety of books and enquiries on a daily basis, so there is a pleasing spontaneity and unpredictability to our role. As well as more traditional subjects like classic literature and art history we receive queries on subjects as diverse as ‘Wagon Wheels’, ‘Greyfriars Bobby’, and ‘Brigadoon’, and people come to the Library to study areas like ‘Horrible Histories’, ‘Mills and Boon’, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. And as well as academic researchers, we welcome people from all walks of life researching more personal subjects such as their family’s history in the military or in sports, so we like to think we are a library for everyone.’


Initially known as the Advocates Library, the NLS started off as a law books collection for advocates founded in the early 1680s. It was funded by entry money paid by newly-admitted advocates. Although then-Curator Sir George Mackenzie emphasised that the library hold only non-legal books if particularly useful to lawyers, the scope of library holdings expanded over time, with books sourced from booksellers or donors. The largest donation of printed books to the library was the Douglas collection in 1695. Many books were lost in a fire in 1700, so the library had to relocate to Laigh Hall in 1702.

The library’s capital was precariously low by 1709, but purchases of more non-legal books were made from home and abroad, especially Holland. There was a higher interest in buying Latin and Greek texts, most likely due interests of the then-Supervisor Thomas Ruddiman, an editor of classical texts. Other than classical texts, older books of Scottish interest continued to be bought. The library thus took on two integral parts of its function: firstly, classical text acquisition indicated that the library was now seen as a book museum; secondly, Scottish material acquisition meant the library was housing heritage material, rather like a national library.

Under the 1710 Copyright Act, the library was given the legal right to claim a copy of every book published in Britain, becoming a legal deposit library. Through this, the library acquired more non-legal books essentially for free, and they didn’t really have a choice in the matter given that they were low on money. This led to history and travel becoming the principal subjects, rather than law. The Advocates Library was now a national library in all but name.

By the 1920s, the library had too many books for a private body to keep, so the library was nationalised and presented to the nation under an Act of Parliament in 1925, whereby it was renamed the National Library of Scotland. Then-Keeper Meikel adopted the British Museum model of keeping collections as manuscripts rather than books.

After the war, the manuscripts that were moved to safety were brought back. At this point, Edinburgh centralised church libraries and became the forefront centre for theology. This meant the NLS obtained historical collections from leading Churches in Scotland, such as the Episcopal Church of Scotland, which deposited a fair amount between 1954 and 1970.

Collections from the NLS were moved to the main library on George IV Bridge once it opened in 1956. As more space was needed to house the ever-expanding collections, the Causewayside Building was opened in two phases, in 1989 and 1995.

Since 1999, the Library has been funded by the Scottish Government. It remains one of only six legal deposit libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and is governed by a board of management.

Special Exhibitions

Keen to display some of its finest manuscripts and books, the NLS has staged special exhibitions for the public since 1939. Current exhibitions include ‘A Better World? Scotland after the First World War’ and ‘Northern Lights, the Scottish Enlightenment.’ It’s also staging a Treasures Display about Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which is at its 20th anniversary.

Image: Maccoinnich via Wikimedia Commons.


By Shin Woo Kim


Shinwoo (they/them) is a former News Editor. They identify as a Marxist-Leninist, and have written for Voices, News and Opinion and more recently for TV & Film.

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