Our story

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

What is the purpose of a poetry library? That’s something we often discuss , and our views of what is most important are as individual as our tastes in poetry, but there’s one thing we all agree on: the Scottish Poetry Library exists to bring people and poems together.

Our aims

  • To provide a unique national resource centre of recognised excellence for poetry
  • To enable as wide an audience as possible to access the pleasures and benefits of poetry
  • To nurture creative language and reading skills
  • To engage with the national and international community, building a worldwide audience for Scottish poetry, and building an audience for international poetry in Scotland

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,  formal and informal learning opportunities, publications, our online presence and our work with partners to produce innovative collaborations  with other arts and activities
  • knowledge we have the professional skills and expertise to open up the world of poetry to readers, researchers and writers, through librarianship, learning services, and in an advisory capacity;  we chair and facilitate discussions, events, workshops and reading groups in a variety of settings
  • 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 ‘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.
The SPL now has over 40,000 items. The shelves cannot hold many more, so we are in the process of altering the building to make room for expanding the collection and the range of our activities. We want to maintain the SPL’s unique capacity to hold its collection under one roof for as long as possible – it is best for readers, borrowers, researchers, and enables us to answer all kinds of inquiries.

Once they enter the Library, people comment on its atmosphere – ‘a haven’, ‘something magical’, even ‘my favourite library in the world’ (from a New Zealand visitor). Our ambition is to get more people through the physical doorway, and alterations to make the entry more welcoming will help there. Extending outwards, letting more light into the building, will make the life of the Library more visible – and approachable – to passers-by.

Not everyone can visit a building in the centre of Edinburgh, so we are exploring ways of making the poems we have easier to access beyond the building. We already offer postal loans – our catalogue is online. People can download our poetry posters wherever they live. The website is full of poems, too, and we are planning to increase our broadcasting: the fortnightly podcasts and recordings of the annual Best Scottish Poems are a good start. We converse with people far and wide through email, Facebook and Twitter: 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. So the virtual door is always open, and we need to keep up with the changing technology that will keep it open.

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. How libraries will be functioning in 2020, let alone 2050, is very hard to predict. Let’s say that at present, we imagine that the Scottish Poetry Library will still have a physical collection of books at its core in 2020, and that those who read poetry will still want to see it on a page – though that will not be the only way they access it.

We hope that the Library building will be a source of calm and a source of energy, that reading, writing and listening will be going on here in traditional and newly imagined ways. We hope that the SPL’s online presence will be expansive and responsive.  We hope that as a result of the changes we’re making  – to the building, to our accessibility, to our ways of thinking –  readers, writers and listeners will be both more numerous and more diverse, that they’ll feel welcome and enriched by their encounters with poetry. 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.