On this day in 1877 the Mitchell Library, now the largest public reference library in Europe, was opened in Glasgow.
The library was founded by Stephen Mitchell, who was born in Linlithgow in 1789, and took over the family’s tobacco business in 1820.
Legend has it that Mitchell and his brother both courted the same woman, who eventually gave her hand to his slightly better-looking brother. A Unitarian, he created night classes for his employees which later became the “Tobacco Boys’ Night Schools”. He never married, and had no children, and left his vast fortune to the Corporation of Glasgow to “form the nucleus of a fund for the establishment and endowment of a large Public Library in Glasgow, with all the modern accessories connected therewith”.
On his death in 1874, he left £70,000 – the equivalent today of £5 million – and the library was founded, originally above a cheese and ham shop on the corner of Ingram and Albion Streets.
Although there was space for 350 readers and 14,400 books, demand and acquisitions soon outstripped the building’s capacity.
In 1891, the library was moved to new premises in the renovated council offices on 21 Miller Street, now with room for 400 readers and 150,000 books. Within a few years it too was judged too small.
In 1897, an article in the St Mungo fulminated: “It is high time the people of Glasgow rose in their might and demanded the abolition of the Mitchell Library. This foul plague spot, this malodorous, ugly, useless institution should no longer be permitted to fester in Miller Street, a retreat for the unclean and noisome loafer, an encourager of laziness and a propagater of disease”. The library was a haunt of “bemufflered vagabonds” and according to the journalist, “if the Mitchell Library were really designed for the good of the public, all novels and picture books would be set aside in a hall lined with enamel tile that could be flushed out with water twice a day”.
It was eventually decided, in 1904, that the Mitchell required a purpose-built home. A public competition for the design was won by William B Whitie, and construction at North Street began in 1907, with Andrew Carnegie, the great American benefactor of libraries, laying the foundation stone. The copper dome was topped with a statue representing “Literature” – sometimes wrongly thought to be the Greek goddess Minerva – designed by the Borders sculptor Thomas Clapperton and modelled by Teresa Mackenzie, who was also the model for “Britannia” on pre-decimal coinage.
The 200,000 books were moved by 200 horse-drawn lorries and, the night before the opening, magazines were taken on an open-top tram. The third Mitchell Library opened on 16 October 1911, with the former prime minister, The Earl of Rosebery, making a speech.