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Friendly Shelves: Glasgow University Library reaches out with a celebratory illustrated history
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Friendly Shelves: Glasgow University Library reaches out with a celebratory illustrated history

Posted By Administration, 29 August 2019

Friendly Shelves: Glasgow University Library reaches out with a celebratory illustrated history

Glasgow University Library

Despite a mischievous rumour in the 1980s that the weight of all its books was making the University of Glasgow Library slip down the hill to which it relocated in 1968, today it still stands strong and tall against the skyline, its new external aluminium cladding and conspicuous neon sign hinting that internal developments are continuing apace too.

In the mid-1970s, an upwardly mobile Glasgow University Deputy Librarian, one Peter Hoare, suggested to his immediate boss, the outstandingly progressive yet modest Librarian Robert Ogilvie MacKenna, that Glasgow might follow the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh in creating a supportive local association of library users as a charitable body. Few people back then anticipated quite how successful the group would become over the following decades. Forty years on, the Friends of Glasgow University Library (FGUL) have celebrated their anniversary both by making a substantial contribution to the latest Library refurbishment and by producing a richly illustrated, multi-authored volume that is simultaneously aimed at general and academic readers and is ─ like the Library itself ─ the product of collaborative teamwork.


After a wide-ranging contextual introduction summarizing the cultural and social history of Glasgow (including its libraries), five opening chapters trace the 541-year history of the University Library and its branches, charting the progress of the key component of Britain’s fourth oldest university from modest beginnings in the Renaissance and the Reformation, through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, followed by the Victorian relocation of the campus from central Glasgow to the city’s leafy West End and, finally, to the further 1968 move of the main University Library into its current premises. Here, in recent decades, digitization has both enabled the optimum use of available space (as elsewhere) and allowed the Library to unlock its many treasures for a worldwide readership as learning is democratized. Frequent reference is made throughout to changes in the all-important task of cataloguing. A sixth chapter studies ten key illustrated manuscripts and books selected from the Library’s unique and distinctive collections, whether named or unnamed, which are more fully surveyed in an appetizing and extensive seventh chapter. There follows an account of the aims, history and activities of FGUL, completed by an Afterword by the current Librarian, Susan Ashworth, who looks to the future as the University embarks on an ambitious programme of expansion. Finally, an appended list of its librarians across the centuries bears witness to the gradual enhancement of their tenure and status from the lowly rank of ‘library keeper’.

University of Glasgow library booklet front and back cover


Local variations on familiar overlapping themes recur throughout the narrative, principally the perennial and predictable question of funding and its ramifications, but also the sometimes unexpected effect of political and religious developments upon Library holdings. Offsetting these, another leitmotiv is the constant stream of donations received partly from British and foreign institutions, but mainly from a wide variety of individual benefactors, whose touching generosity is apparent throughout the volume and especially in chapter 7, which explores the acclaimed Special Collections and Archives including the Scottish Business Archive.

Funding issues

Unlike at St Andrews, where book purchasing was prioritized from the outset, the first generation of Glasgow students probably relied on Glasgow Cathedral Library for two decades after the University’s foundation in 1451, a University Library first being attested in 1475, when two donations of manuscripts and books are recorded. Indeed, for the following three centuries at least its acquisitions would rely more on donations than on purchases funded by the University (the legal deposit scheme resulting from the Copyright Act of 1710 until its surrender in 1836 being a mixed blessing), so that acquisitions were largely haphazard rather than geared to teaching and study. Partly to palliate chronic Library underfunding, fines for overdue or lost books were introduced in 1659 and students were charged for borrowing privileges (two shillings annually in 1768 and rising thereafter, sometimes inconsistently, via fees for matriculation and graduation). Uncongenial Library conditions and congestion evidently prompted the building of new premises designed by William Adam in the 1730s, ten years after the emergence of alternative, more student-friendly and dedicated class libraries. (Some of their indirect descendants survive today, albeit largely assimilated into the central system.) Noting how in the 1870s and 1880s the relocated University prioritized new buildings, Chairs and bursaries over funding for Library acquisitions, William P. Dickson, the august Curator of the Library (who, together with the Librarian, oversaw its move to Gilmorehill), campaigned for the University authorities to meet their obligations by increasing the annual budget for current publications, especially scientific periodicals. Only in 1900, however, did a new Principal include the Library in a general funding appeal and student recruitment drive; and despite support from the Carnegie and Bellahouston Trusts, the underfunding of Library acquisitions would persist throughout the twentieth century, even though the University Grants Committee approved the construction of new Library premises, half of which opened in 1968. Despite later extensions, the originally planned other half was never built.

Repercussions of political and religious developments

While it is well known that the Scottish Reformation caused massive disruption (and opportunities) to administration and teaching at Glasgow University (Brown and Moss; Durkan and Kirk, etc.), the Library’s retention and ongoing acquisition of Catholic works in a Presbyterian environment, noted especially in Stephen Rawles’s coverage of the Library’s 1691 Shelf Catalogue (pp. 34-45), is remarkable and merits further study. By comparison, the University navigated the political turmoil of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries relatively unscathed as its national and eventually international standing grew, attracting donations from various sources, e.g. £200 sterling from the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (when King Charles I failed to keep his promise in 1633) for building maintenance and the ‘advancement of the Librarie’ and a stream of libertarian books advocating the new ideals of tolerance and freedom, provided by the wealthy Whig Thomas Hollis (1720-1774) and his lifelong friend, the radical dissenter Thomas Brand, later Brand-Hollis (1719-1804). Less satisfactorily, following the Treaty of Union of 1707, the Copyright Act of 1710, which gave all Scottish university libraries the right to a copy of each work entered at Stationer’s Hall in London, never fully delivered on its promise and involved the relevant institutions in unwelcome expenses.


Foremost among individual benefactors is the celebrated Glasgow alumnus Dr William Hunter (1718-1783), the leading London-based anatomist, physician and teacher, whose wonderful and unrivalled collection of manuscripts, incunabula, books, coins, archaeological finds and anatomical and natural history specimens was bequeathed to the University and housed, initially in its entirety, in the Hunterian Museum, Scotland’s first purpose-built public museum and star attraction, opened in 1807. (The Hunterian books and manuscripts were transferred to the Library in 1905.) The many other philanthropic donors range from Catholic bishops and archbishops of Glasgow (who were ex officio chancellors of the University) to later Presbyterian ministers (who were also professors), from Victorian Glasgow businessmen to internationally recognized academics remembering their alma mater, and from Trotsky`s bibliographer to a recent left-wing Glasgow schoolteacher. Perhaps most significantly, they include: firstly, the lawyer Thomas Hutcheson (1590-1641) of Lambhill, whose bequest of two thousand merks (then worth £111 sterling) for the creation of the post of ‘library keeper’ in 1641 kick-started the ongoing sequence of appointments to the post of Librarian (studied by Peter Hoare in his seminal 1991 article); and secondly, the wealthy landowner Sir John Stirling Maxwell (1866-1956), who bequeathed some two thousand volumes from his father’s large library of emblem literature and other material, leading to the creation of two internationally renowned Glasgow University centres, one for Emblem Studies in 1995, the other for the study of text/image culture in 2011.

University of Glasgow cafe


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The University of Glasgow Library: Friendly Shelves, edited by Peter V. Davies, Lesley Richmond, Graeme Smith et al. (Glasgow: The Friends of Glasgow University Library in association with the University Library, 2016).  288 pages, art paper, 250 illustrations, full colour, 16 text boxes. Hardback, £25 (ISBN 9780993518508); Softback, £20 (ISBN 97809935185).

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