Gavin Francis: Scottish Poetry Library is a unique treasure

As the Scottish Poetry Library launches a new fundraising initiative, award-winning writer Gavin Francis pays tribute to a remarkable institution

Scottish Poetry Library. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Scottish Poetry Library. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

I wasn’t taught Higher English – my allocated teacher quit during Autumn term, and it took the school the rest of the year to find a replacement. There were occasional stand-ins, and though Mrs Lamb in the next classroom did her best, we’d often sit for a double period without any instruction at all. We’d stare glumly at Romeo & Juliet – our chosen play – or The Great Gatsby – the novel – stunned by the impossibility of 16-year-old self-directed learning. As for poetry, we were left to make our own choices. Though I grew up in a home filled with books I had no idea where to begin. I asked at the local library – the first Carnegie Library, in Dunfermline – but the shelves there weren’t a great deal of help.

“What about Norman MacCaig?” asked a pal at the local Catholic School. “Give him a go.” I hadn’t heard of MacCaig, didn’t know if he was alive or dead (this was 1991 – he was doing fine) but I photocopied the offered handouts. The pal suggested some poems – I remember “Assisi”, “Visiting Hour”, “Aunt Julia”; I dictated them onto a cassette, and then played them ceaselessly on a Walkman. I’d somehow acquired the prejudice that poetry would be impenetrable, elitist or dull, yet these were anything but: a series of agile and emotionally aware ideas, elegantly voiced. The themes that they explored were compressed, but beautifully so: injustice, compassion, pity, wonder, regret, nostalgia, awe. They were accessible and eloquent about things I was ignorant of, and what’s more, they were a pleasure to read. Whenever I pick up MacCaig now I hear his words in my 16-year-old voice, alongside the crackle and hiss of magnetic tape: “He went through a company like a lamplighter/ see the dull minds, one after another, / begin to glow, to shed / a beneficent light.” I can thank MacCaig that I went on reading poetry – I saw how it articulated and dignified feelings I couldn’t express myself.

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No-one in Dunfermline told me, but in 1991 a dedicated Poetry Library in Edinburgh could have helped me out. It had been founded in 1984 by the poet Tessa Ransford, with the support of MacCaig and Sorley MacLean, and for the first 15 years was housed in a couple of rooms off the Royal Mile. MacLean, MacCaig, and Naomi Mitchison spoke at its opening. In 1986 a decommissioned Post Office van, driven by Ransford, set out on a tour of the North-East, promoting poetry in schools and libraries; the following year it toured Galloway and the Borders. The library grew branches – sometimes just shelves in other institutions: Glasgow, Dundee, Lerwick and, notably, the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool. The van took in not just schools but village halls, colleges, and writers’ groups.

Libraries exist to gather and make available the highest intellectual achievements of our culture; when they’re doing their job properly, they grow. And the Scottish Poetry Library did grow – it was soon obvious that new premises were going to have to be found. Malcolm Fraser produced a feasibility study in 1994, and identified a site in Crichton’s Close off the Royal Mile – an old brewery area. Between 1996 and 1998 the library took shape with Fraser’s award-
winning design, paid for with the first Lottery grant for Scotland: graceful and beautifully modern, but in harmony with its Old Town surroundings. It grew into a space of glass and light, its wooden columns echoing a tree-lined space.

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In April 1999 the new library opened for business; Tessa Ransford retired and was replaced by Robyn Marsack. The internet began to revolutionise the library’s operations. Academics and enthusiasts of Scottish Literature could get in touch more easily than ever, and enquirers from Australasia, North America, and all over Europe began to make use of the online library catalogue. It began to create anthologies of its own, and to commission more translations. The schools programme was expanded – by 2005 it was involved in over 90 events outside Edinburgh, reaching more than a thousand children across the country. Dedicated education officers and audience development officers began to reach out into North America and Asia.

To thrive, libraries must grow – after a decade in the new building it was clear more space was again going to be needed. This wasn’t just for the shelves of poetry, but for events, outreach work, as well as staff and an increasing number of readers. It needed improved access for those with disabilities, and wished to improve its facilities for those with small children. On Wednesday 28 October, the refurbished, expanded library opened to the public.

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Even if someone doesn’t habitually read poetry, they may turn to it for the most meaningful moments of their lives: birth, christenings, marriage, bereavement. The library receives around 300 enquiries a month; being accessible and approachable, an ambassador for poetry, is among its most important functions. All enquiries are answered free of charge, and around 10 per cent require in-depth research: copyright questions, teaching resources, how to get published, how to start writing your own poetry. The library lowers barriers, kindles enthusiasm and brings people together with the poems that articulate what they may not be able to say themselves. The library is a resource for the whole of Scotland, as well as a creative hub in its own right.

In 2016, the library will be extending its online facilities, and begin experimenting with live streaming. Its audio room holds hundreds of recordings of poets reading their own work. It creates podcasts for free download, and this year will see expansion of a programme called Living Voices which takes poetry, storytelling and music into care homes, engaging and participating with the elders of our own communities, keeping poetry in touch with its oral roots.

It will consolidate its attention on Scots and Gaelic poetry, and begin a new strand of work around British Sign Language and lip-readers – celebrating and promoting the uniqueness of visual language.

When I wanted to memorise some MacCaig I was on my own: now I’d likely have met the idea through the library’sPoetry By Heart Scotland schools programme, which enthuses senior students beyond the English curriculum. Teachers of all years can order educational materials through the library; writing and reading groups are supported. For National Poetry Day in 2015 the library distributed over 320,000 cards in venues across the country. The 2016 programme, on the theme of “Messages”, promises to be even more successful.

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I managed to pass my Higher English and went on to study medicine, not literature; if it hadn’t been for that early engagement with MacCaig I might never have read poetry again. Doctors qualifying now are luckier: in Scotland they receive a pocket-sized poetry anthology called Tools of the Trade, to carry with them as they begin their professional confrontation with suffering, anguish and bereavement. The editors are working towards a second edition. Other planned projects will interleave poetry with health and wellbeing: collaboration with ArtLink Edinburgh and the Lothians is planned, as well as the use of poetry to aid recovery from stroke.

As an institution the Scottish Poetry Library is unique in Europe, if not the world – Poet’s House in New York doesn’t lend, and the Poetry Library in London hasn’t purpose-built premises. In 1997, when construction on the Library began, Catherine Lockerbie wrote in Scotland on Sunday: “It is hard to think of a better symbol of the kind of searching, dynamic nation the new Scotland might become.”

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As a boy in Dunfermline I took it for granted that a community’s library should be one of its grandest buildings, built for the benefit of everyone. Edinburgh’s Carnegie library is engraved with the words “Let There Be Light” over the entrance; libraries, Carnegie said, “outrank any other one thing that a community can do to benefit its people”. The community of the Scottish Poetry Library includes everyone in Scotland, and a great many beyond its borders: it illuminates and invigorates our culture. Let’s celebrate it.

Gavin Francis’s Adventures In Human Being is this year’s winner of the Saltire Society Non-Fiction Book of the Year,

The renovations and building work for the Scottish Poetry Library were ambitious but have been completed successfully. Delays in commencement of the work, however, as well as unforeseen snags in the redesign, have meant the expected cost was exceeded. The library has now launched an appeal to meet a deficit of £40,000. It is hoped the SPL will go forward into 2016 strengthened, recharged and with sufficient funds to take its new projects forward with confidence. Anyone who wishes to support the work of the library is warmly encouraged to donate at