Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Mitchell

On Thursday (Jan 12) I went on a tour of the Mitchell Library, celebrating its 100th year on its present site in Glasgow. I went on the X74 coach from Moffat, and en route learned the answer to something that has been puzzling me for some years: what is the enormous unmarked encampment of sheds to the left going north on the A74(M), just north and west of exit 12, the A70 to Strathaven. The coach driver said that the consensus is that they are bonded warehouses. Unmarked lorries go to and fro. My fellow passengers at the front of the bus agreed that it was Dr Who, or perhaps James Bond(ed) territory. The Mitchell library (for further details see below) is a monument to private enterprise and Victorian philanthropy. The benefactor, Stephen Mitchell, was a tobacco merchant. I can't claim that the tour was a barrel of laughs. In two rooms, including one containing a rare books collection donated by another benefactor in custom-made elaborately carved wooden bookcases topped with the donor's coat of arms, the clocks had stopped. The Burns room, full of bibliographic rarities and display cases of dreadful commemorative plates reminded me of a neglected Soviet-era institute. We were a sizeable group, all authors, who nevertheless did not exchange a single word as we filed round. Not for the first time, I wondered what will become of 'the book', indeed 'the newspaper'. The modern (1960's) extension has a nice bright cafe, The Herald, and a very busy open space with dozens of desktop computers for internet users which was packed when I sat down for a belated lunch at 2.30pm - just before lunch service closed. After lunch, I found a helpful librarian on level 4 who fetched a reference book for me to discover the dedication of the pre-Reformation church in Moffat, of which one ruined gable end still stands in the graveyard: it was St Mary's. I love Glasgow, whence my forefathers on my mother's side set out to seek their fortunes - well to be tenant farmers for Tate and Lyle - in Kent. As a result, I am a staunch Unionist.

According to Wikipedia:

The library was established with a bequest from Stephen Mitchell, a wealthy tobacco manufacturer, whose company, Stephen Mitchell & Son, would become one of the constituent members of the Imperial Tobacco Company. It contains the largest public reference library in Europe, with 1,213,000 volumes. While composed mainly of reference material it also has a substantial lending facility which began in 2005. The original North Street building with its distinctive copper dome surmounted a bronze statue by Thomas Clapperton, entitled Literature, often referred to as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, opened in 1911. The architectural competition for the library's design took place in 1906 and was won by William. B. Whitie. The Edwardian Baroque building is protected as a category B listed building.[1]

The vast majority of the library's collection however is housed in the Extension Building, which was built between 1972 and 1980. Located to the west of the original building. It was originally known as the St Andrew's Halls, which were designed by James Sellars and opened in 1877. It was Glasgow's pre-eminent venue for concerts and meetings at the time. It had a massive and striking classical facade and included a Grand Hall which could hold 4,500 people, and a large ballroom. The building was however gutted by fire in 1962, although the facade survived and was later incorporated into the extension of the Mitchell Library.

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