The Scottish Poetry Library has always been part of my cultural life. I’ve read there, launched books there, attended events and gatherings, shared discussion, debate and many glasses of wine. It brings people and poetry together. It feels so much part of Scotland that it is easy to overlook its uniqueness…
Unique institutions need unique people to make them happen and a unique culture to nurture them. The Scottish Poetry Library (SPL), housed in a courtyard off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and nestled alongside the Scottish Parliament, offers poetic bonhomie in a purpose-built, modernist building that is both intimate and spacious. Here, poetry matters. It matters to each of us, to Scotland as a nation, its culture and the future.
I first came across the SPL as an incomer to Scotland, living over 100 miles from Edinburgh. The Library was young back then and based in Edinburgh’s Tweedale Court and still managed by its founder, Tessa Ransford, who was also editor of the poetry magazine, Lines Review.
“… She felt that a much greater audience for poetry existed than was apparent, but without a central forum there was no way for people to express their interest – poetry needed a place of its own,” states the 25th anniversary pamphlet available on the SPL website (www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk). It continues, “On 6 February , the premises in Tweeddale Court opened for business, with rug and desk and electric heater, and four shelves of donated books to make up the stock, all under the benign gaze of a bust of the poet Helen Cruickshank.”
Despite my distance from the Scottish capital, locals were talking about the “poetry library” even in those early years, and when I started a poetry magazine in Scotland’s south-west, I was advised to “let Tessa know” and get copies to Tom Hubbard, the SPL’s first Librarian. The advice was offered with a sense of pride, even a sense of urgency and excitement. The Scottish Poetry Library meant something to people.
An International Institution
Over 30 years later, it means even more. I am corresponding with Toni Velikova, the Assistant Librarian working from the SPL’s home in Crichton’s Close.
“We have over 47,000 poetry-related items,” writes Toni. “The main focus of our collection is 20th century Scottish poetry but we also stock a lot of international poetry. Our collection includes lending and reference books, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, pamphlets, junior collections, CDs, vinyls, cassette tapes, braille and large print material, periodicals, newspaper cuttings, special collections, artists’ books, ephemera and framed art. We also keep a small number of special items and works of art such as a table that belonged to W.S. Graham and Edwin Morgan’s writing desk and typewriter, alongside the Edwin Morgan Archive.”
Readers outside Scotland may or may not have heard of figures from the Scottish poetry world that mean a great deal to every student working hard for school qualifications from Galloway to Shetland. For example, the Library’s first Honorary Presidents, Naomi Mitchison, Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig who read at the SPL’s opening party on a night of blizzards and vegetarian haggis. But poetry is part of Scotland’s soul, as is evinced by the revered, legendary status of Robert Burns.
“The importance of Robert Burns’ legacy is something we are very aware of and we look at ways to engage with,” writes Toni. “Every year we have a special event programme around Burns night and receive many visitors, who are looking to familiarise themselves with Burns’ poetry. This year, the number of visitors on our website around Burns night even caused some server outages. We try to present a different side of Burns’ poetry in an engaging and modern way.”
Scotland is a country of three leids or languages: Scots, Gaelic and English and it has a rich poetic tradition in each. The linguistic melting pot defies simple geographical divisions of Highland, Lowland and Central Belt, as may be tempting from a cursory glance. The Ayrshire where Robert Burns was brought up still had pockets of the Gaelic and Dumfries, where he is buried, spoke a Northumbrian dialect of English. Today the language tapestry is incredibly varied which gives poetry in Scotland much of its colour and vigour.
“Collecting poetry in Scots and Gaelic is one of our key priorities when it comes to collection development,” writes Toni. “We have a strong selection of books in Gaelic and Scots and we are always looking to keep the collection current and relevant with new purchases as necessary. We also have a full archive of Gairm, one of the most influential Gaelic-only poetry magazines in Scotland, which famously published “Hallaig” by Sorley Maclean in 1954.”
Collecting doesn’t stop at the Scottish border, however and visitors to the library and many of its outreach initiatives, can enjoy poetry as a world culture. The great Czech poet, Miroslav Holub, when visiting the SPL, famously commented that he “wished there were something like it in Prague”, and in the early nineties there were four poets in residence, from Iceland, Singapore, India and Botswana.
A library is nothing without a catalogue which today is maintained by Toni following robust guidelines and the RDA manual. Originally named INSPIRE but now migrated to Koha, an open-source library management system, the catalogue is unique in its ability to provide a subject approach to poetry. INSPIRE was first developed by former Assistant Librarian Penny Duce, and IFLA medal recipient, Gordon Dunsire, then of Napier University. I wrote to Gordon and asked him about those early days.
“It was fully hierarchical, displayed to give context to the topic and provide cross-searching at a broader level,” writes Gordon. “The SPL collection and its catalogue was a unique and valuable contribution to Scotland’s culture, a necessary contribution to the cultural and intellectual health of the nation. I love the marriage of technology and poetry, it’s a health service for the soul.”
Gordon goes on to remember, “… being told of many instances where telephone enquiries for ‘have you got a poem I can quote in relation to x’ were answered in real time, to the astonishment of the enquirer. I think there was even a small article or letter about it in the Scotsman.”
Much has had to change since those early days due to the limitations of time, resources and the demands generated by the Library’s success.
“Our current catalogue contains a fully searchable database of our collection with both a staff view and a user-friendly OPAC” writes Toni. “The Scottish Poetry Index – a poem-by-poem record of the contents of 22 leading Scottish poetry periodicals from 1940 to 1992 – was migrated into Koha and is a unique resource to this day. The catalogue also has a full listing of the Edwin Morgan Archive. We have also migrated and updated our unique subject thesaurus from INSPIRE, which contains over 6,000 subjects.”
The Catalogue and Lockdown
Since the beginning of lockdown, use of the catalogue has increased further to facilitate the SPL’s Click and Collect and postal loan services.
“Considering the interest we have had in the collections during lockdown, we are confident that Scottish readers appreciate the comfort poetry provides more than ever before,” says Toni, commenting on Scotland’s relationship to poetry through the Library and its catalogue. “The SPL’s independence has always characterised us but we would not have the success we do now without the community we are so deeply embedded in.”
A Culture of Community
Toni’s words take me back to the sense of community created by the Library over the years that I have known it. The way the poetic greats effortlessly rub shoulders with newcomers at events, its projects that aim to bring poetry into environments where one may not find it easily such as the poetry collection, Tools of the Trade, produced for all graduating doctors and now in its third edition.
“We are currently working on similar collections for nurses, midwives and social workers,” writes Toni. “Community engagement has always been a big part of the work we do and is achieved through things like workshops and writing groups that welcome poets of all levels and abilities, for example the Mothers Writing Group and Creative Writing for Health and Wellbeing.”
As Gordon Dunsire remembers with amusement, “I would go to the SPL Christmas party with a bottle and have interesting chats with people I didn’t know but I would slip away when Tessa Ransford clinked her glass and announced that the readings were about to begin. Over a couple of years, it slowly dawned on me that some of the greatest poets on the planet were involved. That didn’t alter my behaviour, but it made me feel privileged to be there.”
Personally, I think the best way to appreciate the Scottish Poetry Library is to pay it a visit. My first visit was marked by a sense of awe and wonder. At the very heart of a nation, next to its new and ambitious parliament, is a collection of poetry books and you’ll bump into everyone, famous poets, mums with kids, the tech guy – you’ll bump into Scotland today.
Toni Velikova, Assistant Librarian – a personal view
Originally from Bulgaria, Toni graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Book History and Material Culture in 2018. She now works as the Assistant Librarian at the SPL and sits on the Board of Trustees at CILIP Scotland. She is also the Secretary of the CILIP LGBTQ+ Network.
She says her favourite poetry quote is drawn from the work of Bulgarian poet Nikola Vaptsarov, a poem entitled ‘On Parting:
I’ll enter quietly, softly sit And gaze upon you in the dark. Then, when my eyes have gazed their fill, I’ll kiss you and depart.
Her favourite poets are Anne Crason, Richard Siken, Douglas Dunn, Petya Dubarova, Edwin Morgan and Blaga Dimitrova,.
I asked Toni what her favourite item was in the SPL collection.
“My favourite item in the collection is one of our visual poetry items, “Echo: Droppt Sapphics” by Heather H. Yeung. The work is Sapphic lyrics translated and reimagined on hand-written papyrus fragments, on a cotton handscroll bound with waxed cotton thread. It is a perfect representation of our collection of visual and concrete poetry, which places just as much emphasis on form and presentation as it does on text. I like how tactile and interactive Echo: Droppt Sapphics is and how meaning can be derived from each individual reader’s interaction with it. The SPL has one of the richest visual poetry collections with works by Heather H. Yeung, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alec Finlay, Thomas A. Clark, Julie Johnstone, and many more. They represent a real hidden treasure in our collection.”