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Marsack: 'The Scottish Poetry Library needs to shake off its aloofness and privacy'

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The director of the Scottish Poetry Library, Robyn Marsack, says the ‘carefully considered’ revamp of Malcolm Fraser’s building is about making it more welcoming

‘The existence of a library for poetry is a rare achievement. The Scottish Poetry Library (SPL) is one of three poetry libraries in the UK, but the only one to be independently constituted and housed. It is the only poetry house in the world to have an extensive lending library at its core. Since its beginnings in Tweeddale Court in 1984, the library has been in the heart of the Old Town in an area rich in literary and publishing associations. Having managed to establish purpose-built premises in 1999, the SPL naturally wishes to build on its success.

‘Those who planned the building 15 years ago could not have foreseen the changes in technology and user-expectation that have altered the library landscape world-wide. As part of our development process, we have explored libraries in the Netherlands, Denmark, New York and Chicago, and talked to colleagues across the UK and in New Zealand. Nor could they have envisaged the expanded national scope of the library’s work or its methods, at a time when the provision - and thus the garaging - of a mobile poetry van was innovative. It was anticipated that the book space would be filled within 10 years.

‘Most people think of a library as a silent space, a place where hush prevails. It is true that the Library provides just such a space, away from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile: a place of retreat, reflection, and academic inquiry. But we also need to allow for sound, so that users can encounter poetry in different ways in the one building, the home of poetry in Scotland. Researchers working, people quietly reading poetry, people listening to poems being read and/or poets reading their own works, people interpreting and discussing poems, staff creating podcasts so that people can listen to them on the website – all these activities need to be catered for simultaneously. They are what people expect of a twenty-first century library.

‘When we first identified these needs, and heard from Creative Scotland that there was a window of opportunity to apply for capital funding, we asked Malcolm Fraser, the original architect, for a proposal. He produced a plan, and on the basis of that plan, Creative Scotland awarded the SPL a substantial grant to change the building to meet our three main priorities: an enclosed and enlarged meeting space that could be sealed off (in terms of sound) from the rest of the building; more flexible ‘social’ space for users; and more space for books. There was also to be a small recording studio.

‘Returning to Malcolm when we received the grant, and after a meeting with City Council planners, we found him keen to look at ways of reconfiguring the interior space in particular so that the exterior remained untouched. The Board, the staff and I spent almost a year considering a variety of plans and solutions he proposed, but could not come to an agreement with Malcolm as to which one best fulfilled the SPL’s requirements, particularly the important priority of flexible space. At this point, to our regret, Malcolm resigned.

Nicoll Russell Studios' proposed Scottish Poetry Library overhaul - east and west elevations

Nicoll Russell Studios’ proposed Scottish Poetry Library overhaul - east and west elevations

‘We then invited four architectural firms to tender for the work on developing the building. All of the proposals received engaged with the existing space in interesting and sensitive ways. The one we have chosen, by Nicoll Russell Studios, meets our priorities for flexible space and preserves the spirit and indeed much of the Library as it currently exists (there will be no ‘loss’ of the existing artworks), while it  also opens up new possibilities for the life of the Library. It is not easy to anticipate what libraries will be or will need to be in the next ten or twenty years, so our concern has been to allow for the greatest flexibility of space while not predetermining the needs of our successors.

‘The much-discussed  forestair is used approximately 10 days a year, during the Festival period, for outdoor readings – even fewer days if the weather is not kind. The stone ‘lectern’ is positioned too far from the steps to be used except by those capable of powerful voice projection. For the rest of the year, it encourages visitors to climb up to what they think is the entrance, only to find fire doors they can’t open.

The stairs are not an architectural advantage but a substantial health hazard

‘Otherwise, people use the forestair as a public convenience – unfortunately literally, as well as leaving rubbish on it. For the library staff, it is not an architectural advantage but a substantial health and safety hazard. Converting the unused terrace space into a secure roof-terrace that could be used for outdoor readings but also simply as a sitting/meeting space when weather allows, sheltered and pleasant and with access restricted to users of the library, would be a huge benefit.

‘It has become very clear to us after 14 years in the building that its frontage, set back from the thoroughfare, does indeed mark out the SPL as a special place, but as a special place that is too special for many people to enter. We are engaged in a large consideration of access issues, which include not just whether wheelchairs can get in - of course they can -, but how the building is perceived. And the building is perceived rather the way poetry is perceived, as something special and apart, and really not for general use. We strive mightily to make the access to the artform as welcoming and generous and responsive to need as we can, having a passionate belief in what poetry offers to everybody, and we would like the building to reflect that. We believe that the sympathetic new design offers us a way of doing so.

‘Most of all, we would like our building to be seen as welcoming: for it to shake off its sense of aloofness and privacy (which is not the impression gained once inside – but how to get people inside?); to remove the barrier created by the physical crossing space and stone plinth outside; and by opening up the frontage, reveal our inner life to those in search of something that will enrich their inner lives.’


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