The story of the Scottish Poetry Library begins in rooms in Tweeddale Court, in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, an area rich in literary and publishing associations. The founding director, poet Tessa Ransford, was determined that it should have a building of its own, and obtained Grant 001 from the National Lottery for capital arts projects, awarded by the Scottish Arts Council, as the core of the funding for her endeavour. The new building, designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects, was opened to the public in June 1999, and won several awards for its distinctive style, modern yet blending happily with the Old Town surroundings. There are two other poetry libraries in the UK, the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, older than the SPL by some thirty years, and the Northern Poetry Library in Morpeth, which is part of the public library system. We think that the SPL is the only purpose-built, independent public poetry library in Europe, perhaps in the world – no one has come forward to say that we are wrong!
The SPL turned thirty in 2014, and began a new chapter of its life in the Crichton’s Close building. Most people think of a library as a silent space, a place where hush prevails. It is true that the Library provides just such a space, away from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile: a place of retreat, reflection, and academic inquiry. But we also need to allow for sound, so that users can encounter poetry in different ways in the one building, the home of poetry in Scotland. Researchers working, people quietly reading poetry, people listening to poems being read and/or poets reading their own works, people interpreting and discussing poems, classes visiting, staff creating podcasts so that people can listen to them on the website – all these activities need to be catered for simultaneously. We understand that poetry has to exist off the page as well as on it, and that often it is only by hearing poetry that people will connect with it.
Our building was designed for what we were doing in the 1990s, and we need to plan for the 2020s, and even for what we can’t imagine doing yet. The original building had unused space for development, and several bespoke elements: an obsolete garage as there was no longer a call for a travelling library; an unused upper terrace, which had become unsafe; and a forestair meant to be used as an external reading and listening space, but rarely used for this purpose. Space for Sound was our campaign to refurbish the SPL, to provide a flexible and imaginative base from which to deliver our mission to bring people and poetry together.
We appointed Nicoll Russell Studios to extend and refurbish the building, and the work was completed in October 2015. Our aim was to create:
• An events and meeting space, sealed off from the open areas of the library, repurposing the redundant garage
• Increased and improved performance space
• Provision of a recording space
• An extended, sheltered terrace for reading, conversation and outdoor performance
• Additional shelving and storage for books and other items
• A variety of reading and study spaces
• A welcoming entrance and increased visibility of the life of the library.
We hope you will enjoy using and visiting this unique space.