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Library of the Month: New College Library, University of Edinburgh

Posted By Emma L. Laws, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: New College Library, University of Edinburgh

Scotland is the destination for this month’s feature. Thanks to Christine Love-Rodgers at New College Library, Edinburgh, for the contribution.


Originally founded in 1843 as the Library of the Free Church College, and now serving the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, New College Library is one of the largest theology libraries in the UK.

New College emerged out of the Disruption of 1843, when over a third of the ministers left the established Church of Scotland in protest against what they perceived as state efforts to undermine the Church’s spiritual independence and integrity. One of the first actions of the newly established College was to form a library, and an appeal for donations resulted by 1850 in a collection of 13,000 volumes given by supporters and sympathisers. Many of the gifts in the early Donations ledger are rare or valuable books which still form the core of the Library’s outstanding historical collections. In 1900, the United Presbyterian Church amalgamated with the Free Church to form the United Free Church, and bringing its College’s Library with it. Following the further reunification of the United Free Church and the Church of Scotland in 1929, New College merged with the Faculty of Divinity in 1935. This resulted in a large expansion of New College Library stock, and a new home for the library was needed. It was found in the former Free High Church, whose congregation had relocated in 1934, and the architect Lorne Campbell adapted the original Playfair design for Library use, with the magnificent Library Hall formally opened in 1936. Wood from the original church fittings was re-used and can be seen in the many delicate woodcarvings that decorating the Library. The Library also retains the church’s original stained glass windows donated by Grace Warrack and designed by Dr Douglas Strachan. The earth under the church floor was excavated to allow three stackrooms below the Library Hall. The New College Librarian’s Office is the converted church’s session room, a bay window having been inserted so the activities in the Library Hall can be observed at any time. Further staff accommodation on the top floor is adjacent to the David Welsh Reading Room (named after New College’s first Librarian), which is set aside for quiet study. The proud opening of the New College Library in 1936 also included the introduction of a new sheaf catalogue, typed and arranged by Union Theological Seminary Classification. New College Library moved to online cataloguing in 1986, and to Library of Congress subject classification in 2002. Today the larger part of New College Library’s stock is catalogued online, with the remainder accessible via the old sheaf catalogue or, for manuscripts, handlist catalogues. New College Library has benefited in recent years from a donation from an American alumni, Robert Funk, with the aim of supporting Special Collections at New College Library, enabling us to undertake significant rare book cataloguing projects.

With major rewiring, redecoration and refurbishment in over the last eight years, the whole building has been updated to meet the highest modern standards. Most recently in 2010, the Funk Reading Room was added to the Library Hall as a purpose built reading area for Special Collections. Wireless network access is available throughout New College Library and laptops are available for loan to students, making a 21st century study environment.

Printed Book Collections:

In the historic printed book collections which number approximately 90,000 volumes, the legacy of the Protestant and Reformed Christian traditions in Scotland are strongly represented by many early Bibles, prayer books, catechisms and sermons. One of the most significant collections is the Pamphlets, numbering over 30,000 items, now all catalogued online. With a particular focus on religious controversies, the Pamphlets cover the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, and form an important source for historical research. Other collections include one hundred incunabula, a 53-volume set of Acta Sanctorum, the Dumfries Presbytery library (17th & 18thC), the Hymnology Collection of psalms, hymns and sacred poetry and the Paterson Bible Collection.


While New College Library does not hold the archives of the Free Church of Scotland or Church of Scotland, it has important manuscript holdings of the papers of ministers and theologians who have been associated with New College in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The largest is the Thomas Chalmers Collection, a large collection of the personal papers of the man who was the driving force behind the Disruption, and the first Principal of New College, and his papers are joined by those of other former Principals such as Robert Rainy. The papers of theologian and preacher Professor James S. Stewart, ecumenist Archibald C. Craig and International Missionary Council leader J.H. Oldham, and the recently acquired papers of Norman Porteous and John McIntyre, make a rich ground for research.

New College Library’s collections now number over 250,000 volumes, including several hundred periodicals. Current collecting supports the current teaching and research activities of the School of Divinity in Biblical Studies, Ecclesiastical History, Religious Studies, Theology and Ethics and World Christanity. The collections continue to develop in new areas such as Buddhism, Catholic social teaching and Religion and Science. Much collection growth now never appears on the library shelves but takes the form of digital collections, including ejournals, ebooks, online reference resources and databases.

New College Library is open 6 days a week in semester time and 5 days in vacation to staff and students of the University of Edinburgh. We are also open to the wider public for free reference access and for borrowing (at a charge).

Christine Love-Rodgers


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