Discovering the Old at the New College Library

Tenth Class Blog Post:

We started our day off at the New College Library, part of the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh.  I really enjoyed looking at the beautiful room the main part of the library is housed.  The library space actually used to be a church, which one can still see evidence of in the architectural elements of the room, especially the stained glass below.

Beautiful Stained Glass at the New College Library

Beautiful Stained Glass at the New College Library

The library itself houses about 250,000 items, which is the largest theological collection in the United Kingdom.  Within the library, they have a substantial special collection of rare books.  Much of the special collection items are housed in their closed stacks, but they do have a space cordoned-off within the main part of the library for use and minimal storage.

Special Collections Area

Special Collections Area

Above is not the best picture, but it does illustrate how the area is separated by glass from the rest of the library.  The area looks much like an afterthought. I imagine that it can be difficult trying to negotiate modifying older spaces.  One wants to be respectful of original structures, while maximizing function and efficiency.  It can be difficult finding the right balance.

In the special collections area, the librarian laid out a variety of materials for us to browse.  We saw all kinds of things from old bibles to a copy of the The Common Book of Prayer  to a copy of a Torah scroll.  It was nice to learn that the New College Library does not focus on one particular type of theology.  In fact, we learned that they have three main special collection areas which include hymn books, books from 1850 and older, and pamphlets.  These are very broad categories that can expand in many ways, regardless of the subject matter, though perhaps the hymn books are quite subject specific.   Outside of the special collections, the collection mostly depends on whatever the faculty focuses on, since the library is for the use of the Divinity School students and faculty, in addition to the broader university and public.

The librarian in charge was the only one on our trip who remarked on her library’s weeding process.  Every year, the librarians and the students work on a book sale, which sell donated book as well as weeded books.  The proceeds of the sale mostly go towards conservation.  With such a large number of rare and old books, conservation must be a big issue.  Some of their funds do come from the Church of Scotland, but that money is often specifically allotted for things such as journal purchasing.

I took a course on special collections last spring, so I know a little about some of the issues associated with special collections.  They can range from the pros and cons of having a collection development policy; security, fire suppression, and general preservation issues; conservation; access including finding aids and content management systems among a variety of things.  It can really vary from collection to collection or library to library depending on the available amount of funds and staff.  I wish that I thought to ask more about access and conservation at the time, but it just did not occur to me.

Overall, I really enjoyed this tour of the New College Library because of its particular focus on theological materials and its unique position as a college library with funding from the Church of Scotland.  As with other libraries, we learned that cataloguers here are often temporary or part time. I believe that they employ one full time cataloguer, who splits his time between libraries.  I am constantly amazed with how institutions don’t value cataloguing.