Our story

Image of a book with the text "This house, this poem, this fresh hypothesis..."

We believe that poetry is a vital element of the life of the imagination: ‘by leaves we live’, as it says on the library threshold.

Our aims

  • Provide a unique national resource centre of recognised excellence for poetry
  • Bring  the pleasures and benefits of poetry to as wide an audience as possible
  • Nurture creative language and reading skills
  • Provide access to poetry resources in a changing technological landscape
  • Engage with the international community
  • Work collaboratively  with other organisations to these ends

Our values

  • Passion We seek to convey our conviction that poetry can enrich people’s lives on many and varied levels, alongside our enthusiasm for the resources and the services that the SPL offers
  • Imagination We present poetry to the public in many different ways, through our collections, events, education programme, publications, and our work with partners to produce innovative pairings of poetry with other arts and activities
  • Knowledge We have the professional skills to open up the world of poetry to readers, researchers and writers, through librarianship, educational services, and in an advisory capacity whether on an individual or institutional basis; we promote knowledge of Scottish poetry and poets nationally and internationally
  • Openness We are committed to maintaining the accessibility of our resources, by ensuring that they are freely and widely available, and by providing a courteous, friendly and non-discriminatory service

Our past

The Scottish Poetry Library was dreamed into existence by the founding director Tessa Ransford. A poet herself, Tessa was aware that few public libraries could afford to cover more than the obvious giants of 20th century poetry, and that publishers had little financial incentive to publish or promote it. A poetry library could be the missing centre; it could be both a resource of written works and a channel for the enthusiasm to read and write poetry; a place to house the written and encourage the spoken form. Gathering hard-working enthusiasts around her, she managed to get funding for that modest start: some rooms off the Royal Mile in the Old Town of Edinburgh, 300 books – mostly donated – and a part-time staff of two.

In 1999, the Scottish Poetry Library moved into custom-built premises further down the Mile, an award-winning building designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects and chiefly funded by a Capital Lottery grant. The stock had grown to about 30,000 items, and there were six members of staff.  The elements remained constant: free access to lending and reference collections, a national core but an international outlook, and the pleasures of poetry shared in schools and through an events programme.

You can read more about the first 25 years of the SPL in our anniversary history.

Our present

The SPL is one of three poetry libraries in the UK, but the only one to be independently constituted and housed. It is the only poetry house in the world to have an extensive lending library at its core. Books remain central to our mission to bring people and poetry together: we run our own reading groups and support public libraries with resources to promote poetry. The SPL has over 2,000 registered borrowers. Our annual ‘By Leaves We Live’ fair, begun in 2006, attracts hundreds of visitors and showcases the beauties and individuality of printed texts. We opened the Edwin Morgan Archive of the poet’s published works in 2009, and work with the academic community.

Visits and audiences for SPL events in Edinburgh and partner locations such as Shetland and Dumfries numbered over 10,000 during 2008-09; in the same period, 3,500 school pupils throughout Scotland took part in SPL workshops; over  300 librarians, teachers and poets benefited from SPL professional development opportunities. Partnerships with organisations such as the National Museums of Scotland, the National Trust and Holyrood have added new dimensions to our engagement with poetry in the curriculum. We work with libraries and librarians across Scotland to promote poetry.

Through the SPL, the work of Scottish poets has been presented in locations as diverse as Brussels and Kolkata, and the Library is building connections worldwide, from Melbourne to New York to Berlin.

The SPL has embraced new technologies to extend our services: the catalogue is online, we converse with people far and wide through email, Facebook and Twitter; podcasting began with our Reader-in-Residence in 2010. In 2011, the SPL’s Twitter feed was judged to be the fourth most influential in the library world, after giants such as the NY Public Library and the British Library.

You can read more about current activities in our Annual Report.

Our future

The SPL is a constantly evolving organisation, seeking to fulfil its national remit in the most imaginative and cost-effective ways it can devise. Our concerns will be to make poetry available to the widest audience by the means most suited to them; to maintain the SPL as an authoritative resource for Scottish poetry nationally and internationally; to support the teaching and writing of poetry in the curriculum; and to promote the pleasures and benefits of poetry in community settings. As Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘we dwell in possibility / a sweeter house than prose’.

Our funding

The SPL is one of the 41 foundation organisations whose core investment comes from Creative Scotland (formerly the Scottish Arts Council). This status recognises the unique and dynamic contribution the SPL makes to Scotland’s rich cultural and creative life. The SPL also receives an annual grant from the City of Edinburgh Council, a recognition of its important contribution to Edinburgh’s status as the first UNESCO City of Literature.

The contribution of our Friends to annual revenue is essential to our work. We are also able to generate income from our shop, and from events and workshops.

We have had significant support from various trusts and funding bodies for specific projects, for example: from the National Lottery through the Scottish Arts Council, and notably from the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, for the Crichton’s Close building; from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation for education development; from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for audience development and our partnerships with libraries in particular; for the Heritage Lottery and the Binks Trust for the acquisition and development of the Edwin Morgan Archive; from Creative New Zealand and from the GB Sasakawa Foundation for development of particular areas of our collection.

We work in partnership with organisations that have also contributed to strands of our work, for example: Dumfries & Galloway Arts, Glasgow City Council, Literature Across Frontiers, Oxfam, Shetland Arts Trust. These and others are acknowledged in our Annual Report.