Edit Magazine

Landmark: University Main Library, George Square

At almost 440 years old the University of Edinburgh Library is one of the oldest libraries in Scotland. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Main Library on George Square, we share some of our alumni’s fond memories of the iconic 1960s Basil Spence building.

Main Library in 1960s
The University Main Library in the 1960s, © University of Edinburgh.

Ian Rankin: English Language & Literature, MA (1982)

Ian Rankin

I arrived at the University of Edinburgh in October 1978 to study English Language & Literature. As the first member of my family to go on to further education, I was ill-prepared. The city seemed huge and intimidating – the University only slightly less so! The workload was huge and I was studying one subject (philosophy), which was brand new to me and utterly bewildering.

The University Main Library on George Square quickly became my HQ. I would see fellow students from my course there, and discuss topics and problems with them in the subterranean café. I would sit with a group of ex-pupils from my old high school at desks on the first or second floor and (between studying) make plans for extra-curricular activities. I would hear about bands being started, magazines looking for submissions, opportunities for new playwrights. The whole building was a meeting place and creative cauldron. And it was lovely not having to spend all my first term’s grant on textbooks.

Later on, when I became more serious in my studies, I moved to the upper, quieter floors, ending at one of the prized carrels on the fifth or sixth floor. I could sit there in splendid isolation to write my essays, poems and short stories. Back on the ground floor, the librarians were ready to help me find obscure texts, even if it meant borrowing them from overseas institutions. Oh, and there was a fairly rudimentary photocopier on one of the floors too. It was where I painstakingly copied my first novel, one sheet at a time.

I always enjoy revisiting the building, remembering those far-off days and hopeful that another generation of novelists, poets, musicians, actors and artists is somewhere hard at work.

Photo by Hamish Brown

Stephanie Gibson (née Kelly): French & German & European Union Studies, MA Hons (2013)

The University Main Library was my go-to place for studying throughout my time in Edinburgh.

In my final year, I started considering librarianship as a career and, luckily for me, a volunteer post came up in the Centre for Research Collections in the University’s Library. I got to work with some amazing pieces from the collection, and got an insight into the lives of former students while looking through old records.

I am now Information Literacy Coordinator at the University of Essex library, and am finishing an MSc in Library & Information Studies. I can safely say that without the University Library, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Ella Hickson: History of Art & English Literature, MA Hons (2008); Creative Writing, MSc (2010)

Ella Hickson

The University Main Library was always a very happy place. It was always a mad dash to the bookshelves at essay time to grab the right books before someone else did. Then there were the hours spent in the University café eating paninis and snack bars while avoiding work.

My best memories were the late night sessions. We would sit in hoodies and track-suit bottoms watching the clock tick up to midnight, passing funny notes and trying to laugh as silently as possible so as not to get told off.

Around essay and exam time there was, of course, lots of actual work to be done – but those memories are definitely second to the good times spent with great friends having a bit of a giggle.

Photo by Peter Hickson.

Joanne Bell: English Literature, MA Hons (2005); Secondary Education, PGDE (2013)

Joanne Bell

I remember always going to the library early to get a spot by the window where I could watch the sun or snow on the Meadows. When exams were coming up I’d stay all day, with my Discman and a stack of CDs helping me concentrate.

The mood was always thoughtful. When I first went to look at the English literature collection the number of books seemed wonderful – I went home with my arms full.

For the record

As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, the Centre for Research Collections is building up its archive collection to tell the story of the Main Library. We are particularly interested in material from the years 1980 to 2000, including photographs of people and places at the University; diaries and correspondence of people while at Edinburgh; records of student societies; items about events such as posters, tickets, leaflets; certificates and awards; and lecture notes.

If you have material you would like to gift to the University for this appeal, please email Rachel Hosker, Archives Manager.

Email Rachel Hosker