Edinburgh Central Library — 15 July

The Edinburgh Central Library was a wonderful visit for our class. We were first split into groups for library tours and then treated to a presentation that covered various departments and initiatives, including Special Collections, Outreach, and Digital Projects. We even were allowed a tea and coffee break — complete with biscuits, of course!

Heading into the busy Central Library main entrance.
My Central Library experience began with a tour by Graham, who took us up the original, well-worn steps to the Boardroom (which used to be the librarian’s office) and started the story of the library at the beginning, when it opened as a Carnegie library in 1890. He pointed out the original separate entrances and spaces for men and women — the women’s included a fireplace “in case they would get cold” — in the old area of the reference library where people would come to study. People still come to Central Library to study the 1/4 million items in their collections, spread over 10 floors of stacks. Just glancing around the space it was clear that the public access computers were also very well used. Graham led us into the beautiful Reading Room, and even pulled out a cupboard door to show us a secret staircase leading to a level that was never completed. Given the charm of the space, various events are regularly held in the Reading Room, he explained, and even some television series have filmed scenes in the space. 


The secret staircase to nowhere!
Unfortunately we did not have time to visit the Art and Design Library, but we were able to view the Children’s Library. Originally a computer lab and a resource center for the visually impaired, the Children’s Library moved in back in 2014. No need to worry over the loss of equipment or programming for those folks; instead, the library bought iPads for their community branches and now have an active outreach program helping visually impaired patrons access materials using these iPads. In fact, the library won a national award for this work! Very impressive. Now that the old space is transformed, the Children’s library hosts a Lego Club, a Summer Reading program, and has a charming Art Project room and cozy reading nooks. 


Lots of books at easy reach for little hands.
Graham told us that originally citizens had voted against establishing a public library; in fact, Edinburgh was the last city in Scotland to get one! However, you would never know it today. The busiest room in the library was right past the main entrance, which was bustling with people heading in and out to select and check out popular books. He estimated about 20,000 books are issued every month from this department. The Readers Advisory and Help desk was centrally located in the middle of the room and staffed with two librarians, who were surrounded by open access shelves. The 26 community libraries (branches) rely somewhat on the Central’s collections, Graham explained, as you can reserve books from here to collect at other locations. Essentially, when you join one library, you become a member of them all. 
Next we viewed the teenage section (Graham aptly noted, “if you’re looking for books about a dystopian future, come here”) and the break-out area, complete with comfy chairs and a coffee machine. We also got to see the Music library, the group work space, and the Edinburgh/Scotland collection, which has just about every novel set in Edinburgh and most that are set in Scotland, Graham explained. He also told us about the huge collections of International Festival materials and the walking maps, both of which are used often and well-loved. Library of Congress shelf numbers keep things organized in every section of the library. 
Graham said a few things that stuck with me, including that bare fact that “libraries have to change and adapt” in order to “provide the community with what they want — books or otherwise.” This was a nice segue way into a brief discussion of his work, which mostly involves their digital resources. 

After the tour we were offered tea/coffee and treats as we listened to a series of presentations. Karen talked about the Special Collections at the Central Library, which is 125 years old and still collecting! She estimated that there are about 1 million items in the building…and essentially everything in the building is accessible to the public in some form or another. That’s amazing. She shared some information on the oldest materials in the collections (which go back to about 1465, give or take) and on some interesting and usual items (including Jacobite pamphlets, instructions on how to build golf courses, and censored and uncensored copies of Maitland’s controversial History of Edinburgh which was published in 1753). Karen explained how they collect in all formats (illustrations, paper maps, etc.) and are always looking for materials that add to existing items in their special collections. However, she said to always be careful not to take any things that you as an organization cannot cope with, adequately care for, or make sufficiently accessible. Central Library sometimes buys materials, sometimes gets donations, and sometimes find things by accident (by looking carefully through their books!), Karen told us, and she noted that if you have really strong collections, they can “earn money” to save for future development and protection. She made some interesting points about the relationship between the special collections and digital resources, in that the collections feed the digital resources and the digital resources help to protect collections. You have to use print and digital together, she stressed, as collections have to work hard but you also have to make them fun. I agree!
The next presentation was by Sarah, the business development manager. A permanent post since 2011, Sarah does not come from a background in libraries but has knowledge of business practices, marketing, asset management, and other relevant areas. She is charged with helping to increase readership and the “value of their stock”, in a way, and also heads a small department. One of the main initiatives currently underway is Dyslexia Scotland, a program aimed at increasing awareness, engagement, and support/resources for some of the 10% of people in the UK diagnosed with dyslexia. They are working on mainstreaming aspects of the program (moving it from a pilot program into a general, long-term service). Among other things, Sarah also talked about reading groups for children called Chatterbooks that help support those with reading difficulties and the Edinburgh Reads programs, which is a series of reading and events programs that take place monthly. The last year saw an increase in visitors (3.4 million!) and this hopefully bodes well for Central’s goal of helping every child to become a library member by making the library the “go-to” space after school. 
The series of presentations ended with Allison, who talked about the work of the Digital Information Team established five years ago. She quickly told us about the different online services/channels/platforms run by the Central Library, of which there are many — all quite incredible! “Your Library” is a digital portal for all library services (one of the first in the UK) that highlights all e-resources offered online (e.g., reference, skill-building, learning tools, etc.). The most popular, Allison told us, was the driving test review, which costs the library less than 1p to provide per person. Other digital elements, such as OverDrive and Eventbrite (used for Edinburgh Reads events to manage bookings), need relatively little interference from staff on a regular basis. The library is always looking for free ways to promote what they’re up to, Allison explained, and so social media and blogging is a fairly stable part of the digital team’s activities. The “Tales of One City” blog, the “Edinburgh Collected” Twitter account, various Facebook pages, etc. are somewhat managed by one person, who spends about half of his or her managing social media channels via HootSuite (although all staff can feed in information to place on those platforms and each library manages their own accounts thanks to training sessions). 

The Central Library also uses Library 2Go, although Allison noted that they are somewhat moving away from being just an “information provider” and are rapidly becoming interested in trends and methods of various ways of lending resources. She showed us “Your Edinburgh”, which is a community information website; “Capital Collections”, a heritage collections portal online since 2008 that sees 100,000 visitors a year; “Our Town Stories”, a curated experience for readers complete with images, maps, and written narratives; and “Edinburgh Collected”, a platform for people to submit their own images (and essentially do their own cataloging) by adding to the collections online. All of these are accessible on mobile devices and all of these help to collect history as it happens, making it as easy as possible for everyone to contribute if they wish. Allison ended her presentation by talking about the library’s mobile app, which is a comprehensive snapshot of the library’s services (e.g., catalog and reservations access, locations and hours, etc.), always provided 24/7 at the touch of a fingertip. What a fun visit and a very comprehensive introduction to the library! 


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