‘This southern oasis, where once a temple stood.’ Thus ran the description of the library, penned by
a local newspaper columnist as he sat waxing poetic in the sun on the rear patio of the newly opened
Newington Library was officially opened on Thursday 13th March 1975 by Councillor Robert Lorimer,
Chairman of the Libraries and Museums Committee of the then Corporation of the City of Edinburgh.
The opening ceremony was attended by representatives of interested parties from within the community
including the East Grange Association, the congregation of Mayfield Church of Scotland and the
Mayfield Book Group, all of whom had campaigned vigorously for the provision of a library service
point in the area.
From the outset the library proved a tremendous success. Its advent had been eagerly awaited as evidenced
by the stream of enquirers trying the doors during the final stages of fitting out and by the
queue of people which had already formed outside by 9:00 a.m. on the first morning of operation. This
enthusiasm was reflected in the initial reader registration and book issue statistics which surpassed all
expectations. Many elderly residents of the area who, due to problems of mobility and transport, had
been unable to make use of the facilities of the hitherto nearest service points of Morningside Branch
and the Central Library found the new library particularly welcome. This latter point was borne out
in the case of one senior citizen who presented a borrowers’ ticket issued and last used at Morningside
library in 1948!
During the first year of operation the audio library alone attracted in excess of 6,000 members whose
borrowing habits reflected a broad cross section of contemporary taste in music. The initial collection
of some 7,000 records and cassettes provided a wide choice of classical, jazz, folk, ‘pop’ and light orchestral/
instrumental music as well as spoken word recordings in the fields of both prose and poetry
and foreign language courses. Grateful parents made good use of the attractive collection of recordings
for children as this service appeared to relieve them of the onerous task of reading bed-time stories! A
public listening area furnished with sets of headphones allowed users to sample their choice of music
prior to borrowing and this proved popular for those with time on their hands.
Shortly after the opening of the library a special ‘At Home’ was held on a Saturday afternoon for the
elderly and handicapped. Parties were brought along by staff of the Simon Square Centre, the WRVS
and members of local community organisations. After a cup of tea, the visitors were shown the resources
of the library and themselves contributed some interesting observations on points which might
be considered in future design. Within a year of opening, and in recognition of the provision it made
for disabled people, Newington Library was awarded the prestigious ‘Building Award Scheme 1976’
certificate by the Scottish Council on Disability. The publicity generated by this award brought librarians
and architects involved in similar projects from far afield to view our facilities. One such visitor
arrived on a Wednesday afternoon to find eight elderly wheelchair users from Liberton Hospital deftly
manoeuvering their vehicles around the bookshelves and a labrador guide dog waiting patiently as her
master was assisted in his choice of music.
Like any other public branch library Newington soon attracted its fair share of local ‘characters’. Users
of the library during its early days were regularly entertained by the retired army Major who spent
long afternoons in the audio ‘listening area’ vigorously conducting military brass bands with a pencil!
Another local worthy who had forgotten his library ticket offered to leave a hat and walking stick as
surety on the loan of his chosen thriller.
A further happy occurrence was the ‘adoption’ of the library by a neighbouring feline resident. ‘Licka-
paw’, the fluffy, snow-white library cat, strode into the library one autumn morning, perched himself
comfortably on one of the lounge chairs in the casual reading area and thereafter spent his days in
the building returning home each twilight to St. Alban’s Road for his evening meal. He was a great
favourite with the readers, especially the children, and the staff, whom he tolerated with equanimity,
and was sadly missed when his owner moved from the area.
The past fifteen years have witnessed the consolidation of the library as a community asset. The book31
stock has been continuously extended and enhanced, the audio provision rationalised (mainly due to
the opening of the Central Audio Library) and facilities within the building reorganised and improved.
The introduction of the automated book issuing system, the computerised catalogue and the sophisticated
information unit, giving free access to council information and the internet, have all added to the
value of the service. Recent innovations have included a ‘self-charging unit’ which allows library users
to personally record details of the books which they are borrowing, thus helping to relieve the pressure
on staff during particularly busy periods.
A measure of the affection and appreciation in which Newington Library as a community resource is
regarded was ably demonstrated in early 1998 when it was threatened with closure as part of a local
government cost cutting exercise. Almost immediately after the announcement a vigorous campaign
to save the library was mounted and letters of protest poured into the offices of the local councillors
and the Member of Parliament. Mr Albert Morris, the Scotsman columnist, a lifelong champion of
library services and a regular user of Newington branch, lent his valuable support to the campaign. In
a contribution headed ‘Ardent readers betrayed for thirty pieces of silver’ he put the case, in his own
eloquent and inimitable style, for the preservation of our service point. The local author Ian Rankin also
spoke out in defence of the library thus adding weight to the case for reprieve. The public outcry on
this issue led to a speedy reversal of the decision and a satisfactory outcome for the community. ‘People
power’ is alive and well and thriving in the Grange!
Bert Robertson – September 2003
(see Brief sketches of local churches)