Dunfermline Carnegie Library - yesterday and today

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Published: Thursday 21 Nov 2002 by Fife Council

A World First


On 29th August 1883 the world''s first Carnegie Library was opened in Dunfermline. In the same year, Karl Marx had been buried in London and Mussolini was born in Italy. Across the Atlantic Buffalo Bill was presenting his first Wild West Show while, in Britain, the Post Office had just introduced its parcel delivery service. Nearer to home, work was beginning on the construction of the Forth Bridge, while in the countryside, foot-and-mouth disease was rife.


In the town of Dunfermline itself, the public meetings of Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the local Member of Parliament and future Prime Minister, were attracting large crowds but not quite so large, perhaps, as those which flocked to the  new racecourse at Urquhart Farm.


New Public Library


The opening of the new public library was regarded as the most significant local event of the year. Two years previously, the foundation-stone had been laid by Andrew Carnegie''s mother. A public holiday had been declared and thousands of Dunfermline people welcomed Carnegie back to his home town. The millionaire and philanthropist had contributed £8000 to building and stocking what was to be the first of over 2,500 thousand Carnegie-funded libraries in the English speaking world.




The architect chosen to design the new library was J.C. Walker, an Edinburgh man whose firm was also responsible for the recently completed Town House.  His building, executed in a style described as ''''Domestic Tudor'''', was intended to blend with the existing architecture of an historic part of Dunfermline.




It consisted  of a library room, a gentleman''s reading room, a ladies'' reading room, a recreation room, a smoking room and a librarian''s dwelling. It took over two years to build and was described by the local newspaper as ''''an architectural, as well as an intellectual, acquisition to the town''''.


Alexander Peebles, an Edinburgh bookbinder, was chosen from over 250 applicants to be the first librarian. His salary was the princely sum of £70 per annum, with a house and free gas and coals. John Carmichael, the Town Drummer, was engaged to supervise the reading rooms in the evenings and a boy was employed, at four shillings per week, to assist the librarian.




In its early years the library was an undoubted success.  At the end of its first day, the library had issued over 2,000 books. The Dunfermline Journal commented, ''''For the first couple of hours Mr Peebles, the librarian, and his assistant could not supply the demands to keep the counter clear while, in the evening, when the work people were set at liberty, the crush was even greater.''''


Penny Rate


The success continued and, for a number of years the annual statistics showed a steady increase in the number of books issued.


However, there were problems too. The building was soon found to be lacking in space and its layout unsuitable. Despite occasional contributions by the library''s founder, the amount of money available to buy new books was insufficient. Government legislation restricted library expenditure to the product of a penny rate and there was little the Town Council could do to maintain and improve the service.


By the early years of the 20th century the Carnegie Free Library was a grim and cheerless place adding little to the amenity of Dunfermline. One writer called it ''''the most forlorn institution which the town possesses.''''




In 1904, the recently formed Carnegie Dunfermline Trust offered to share the management of the library with the Town Council. The flow of funds soon improved matters.  A professionally qualified librarian was appointed and plans were laid for an extension to the existing building. Although described as an ''''extension'''' the design by architect James Shearer gave the building more than double its original space and was virtually a new library. Away went the librarian''s house and the recreation room to clear the site for a large ground floor lending hall and staircase tower to be added. Of the original building only the entrance hall and Abbot Street frontage were retained. The old ''''library room'''' was converted into the present Reference and Information Services Room and a special room was prepared to house the newly presented Murison Burns Collection. The outbreak of the Great War resulted in this extension not being completed until 1922.


The Library Today


70 years later, in 1993, another large extension to the building was opened. The new facilities included exhibition and meeting rooms, a separate and well-equipped Local History Room, and brand-new Children''s and Music Libraries.


Dunfermline Carnegie Library, as it is now known, is also the headquarters for the West Fife library network. There are 14 libraries in the larger towns and villages and a mobile library visits the smaller communities. A service to housebound residents is also run from the Carnegie Library.


In recent years, further changes have been necessary to accomodate the growing demand for electronic information,  learning materials and cultural resources. Combining the needs of the computer age with an historic building and its historic fittings has required careful planning to ensure that the new blends in with the old as much as possible.


Library Services for the 21st Century

  • Reading for all ages
  • Information and reference services
  • Computer facilities and learning materials
  • Free internet and e-mail
  • Resources for Local Studies and Family History
  • Author events, reading groups, family history classes

Archived Feature originally published 21 Nov 2002 - 28 Nov 2003

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