Andrew Carnegie is a word famous Scot. Born in Dunfermline, across the Firth in Fife, he emigrated to America in 1835 with his parents when he was just a child. He went on to make a vast fortune there in the steel industry. A great believer in philanthropy, he used his fortune for the betterment of mankind. I have read different accounts of how much he gave away in his lifetime. The plaque in Edinburgh Central Library – which brought him to my mind – tells me it was an £70 million, and another source says £150 million. At any rate, he knew how to divest himself of his wealth via projects promoting peace, education, and science. But his most famous legacy is probably the library. Carnegie made endowments to some 3,000 public libraries throughout the UK, Canada, the USA, and many other English speaking countries. The first Carnegie Library was opened in 1883, fittingly, in his homeplace of Dunfermline.
Edinburgh Central Library, on George IV Bridge, was built with Carnegie money and opened in 1890. It is somewhere I spend quite a lot of time these days. On the second floor there is a large room with banks of old heavy wooden desks, maybe oak. Wide, so you can spread books across them, with a little open shelf for baggage. I’ve noticed, just since the turn of the month, that most people working at these desks keep their coats on – it is cold. Clearly Carnegie’s philanthrophy did not extend to ensuring there was sufficient contingency fund put aside to heat the library 130 years on. I will forgive him that!
Mostly, people are working on laptop computers, but a few have old-school textbooks, manuals, notebooks and pens. Some are operating three devices at once, like the lady in front of me: texting, laptop open and kindle on the go. Beside me, a stressed looking man is poring over a thick official-looking document. I imagine it is a 365-point affidavit from an angry wife he is divorcing. Hopefully I’m wrong. Next to me, on the other side, an older woman is marking stacks of old reference books about East Lothian. I decide she is writing a historical novel. Some must be students, (the ones wearing headphones?) although I know they have their own university libraries nearby. I concoct a story that they’ve come here because they don’t want to be in their own library, close to whomever they snogged last night at the students’ union in a drunken haze. Hence the headphones – to block out any noise that could aggravate a hangover (and, by the way, it is a silent place). Not at a desk, but seated in something approaching an armchair, just at the edge of the stacks, is a homeless man; there to take shelter from the rainy day, or for a change of scene, of because he likes reading. Right now he is slumped in his chair with a half-eaten jar of value-brand peanut butter in his lap. He naps, occasionally waking to take a scoop with his finger.
It is a place full of stories: bursting out of the shelves, and quietly contained in each person sitting at these desks. I think of how, especially in libraries, stories begin in the middle, and can radiate forward and backward at the same time: readers absorbed in history and the past, others there to work towards dreams for their future.
The Librarian rings a hand bell ten minutes before closing time, and then again at the five-minute mark. It is a rather charming antidote to the urgent city noises outside. I’m stiff with the cold after sitting for a few hours and I lean back in my chair to stretch: my legs forward in a plank, arms above my ears, head rolled skyward. My bones are glad of it, but so are my eyes when I look up to an ornate dome painted in red and gold and mustard. Paint flaking a little, I wonder again if Carnegie’s contingency fund has run out.