The Main Library is the largest of Edinburgh University's Libraries. It holds the primary collections in arts, humanities, social sciences, medicine and informatics. It also houses the Library's general collections of books and periodicals, older books in all subjects, most of the special collections of rare books and manuscripts, the University archives and the Lothian Health Service Archive.
By the mid-20th century, it had become evident that Library accommodation within the Old College complex was inadequate for the future needs of the university. In 1949 the Library Committee began to look into what might be needed for an entirely new building. Plans for a new library were soon incorporated into the massive redevelopment of Edinburgh University’s Arts Faculty centered on George Square, originally a Georgian residential square with a large central garden. A layout was devised for the new Arts campus by architect Sir Basil Urwin Spence (1907-1976) in 1955, and, in the same year, Percy Johnson-Marshall (1915-1993) was appointed as Planning Consultant with responsibility for the overall layout, designation of sites, harmonisation of finishes, landscaping and external works.
Sir Basil Spence was nominated as the architect for the proposed new library by the Principal of the University, Sir Edward Victor Appleton (1892-1965), in 1954. The library was to be the very hub of Spence’s campus scheme, occupying a one-acre site on the south-west corner of George Square. It would be several years, however, before an official library commission was awarded and design work could get underway, as these depended upon the award of a capital grant from the University Grants Committee and the building of replacements for the student hostels that occupied the library site.
The new Library was designed by Spence’s Edinburgh office of Spence, Glover & Ferguson. This was the firm’s first library building, and their first encounter with the unique challenges of library design: provision of sufficient storage space for books which entails a massive floor loading; adequate lighting for readers but which presents no threat of heat-damage to books; the need for large open floor spaces, and easy access to stacks. These requirements were met through reinforced concrete construction and reliance on mechanical services: heating, lighting, air conditioning and extraction systems.
The design process was extremely rigorous, involving extensive researching into existing library structures, and close consultation with the university librarian Richard Fifoot (1925-1992) as the team sought to provide space for 2,500 readers, 114 staff and 2 million books.
Spence did not personally produce a design for the library. His partner John Hardie Glover (1913-1994) was put in charge of the job and appointed Andrew Merrylees (1933- ) as project architect. Merrylees had developed a sketch plan by February 1963 which was approved by the University Grants Committee in June of the same year. Glover, however, was unhappy with the proportions of the front elevation. He consulted with Spence who devised a suspended fascia across the entrance to amend the proportions.
Planning consent was granted in November 1964, and construction began working with a budget of £1,700,000, a considerable sum for the time. When completed in August 1967, the Library was the largest building of its type in Britain. It was met with immediate acclaim, earning a RIBA award in 1968 and a Civic Trust Commendation in 1969. Today it is recognized as one of the major modernist works in Scotland is a category A listed building. The experience gained by Spence’s team in building the Main Library was put to further use in their designs for Newcastle Central Library, University College Dublin Library, the Sidney Jones Library (Liverpool University) and the Cameron Small Library (Heriot Watt University).
Between 2006 and 2012, a major redevelopment of the Main Library was carried out by the architects Lewis and Hickey, preserving all essential details of the Spence team’s design but creating a more open and flexible study space in response to changing student and research needs. This also created a new space for the library’s historic collections in the Centre for Research Collections.
- Clive B. Fenton, 'The Library Designs of Sir Basil Spence, Glover & Ferguson', Architectural Heritage, 24.1 (2013), 87-102.