The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

IMG_4329

Before I set out to find the Writers’ Museum, I had passed by it several times, never knowing it was there. When I looked up its location on a map, I had a moment of worry that this museum dedicated to Scottish writers – in particular to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson – was like Diagon Alley and completely hidden to Muggles (non-authorial legends, in this case?). As it turns out, I needn’t have worried, because once I knew where to look, I quickly found a tiny passageway that opened into a stone courtyard dominated by a stone house at one corner, a turret rising in elegant arching lines over the door.

The house is called Lady Stair’s House after a famous owner during the 1700s, but it was built in 1622. Information on the house, its history, and its restoration is found on the first floor.

Upon entering the building, I was met immediately with a winding staircase, headed upstairs on the left and downstairs on the right, and a door leading into the main floor. A sign indicating the downward stairs pointed the way to the Robert Louis Stevenson collection. As RLS is the general subject of my research paper, I headed for his collection first. The display was organised chronologically, moving from RLS’s birth onward through his life toward his death. The first room included photographs, paintings, and other relics from his early life, ending with the pivotal event of meeting Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, the married woman who would later become Stevenson’s wife. The second room continued the chronological arrangement, moving on to cover his later life.

This collection included both original materials and reproductions of photographs and paintings housed elsewhere, as well as items belonging to Stevenson. Some of the most remarkable of these items are a dresser belonging to the Stevensons which was made by the infamous Deacon Brodie, Stevenson’s riding boots and whip, and his fishing rod.

One of the most notable aspects of the Robert Louis Stevenson collection at the Writers’ Museum was not part of the collection at all, but rather the friendly and helpful gentleman who was working there, welcoming visitors, taking note of where they come from (while I was in the museum, I heard notes of Tennessee, France, and Honduras – clearly RLS has a great deal of international appeal), and giving visitors information about how the collection is arranged, about Stevenson and his life and works, and about specific items in the collection. This knowledgeable gentleman, as it turned out, has studied Stevenson extensively in collections and museums all over the world, and is in fact in the process of transcribing an unpublished manuscript by RLS. When I told him that I was writing a paper on RLS, but that I wasn’t sure what my topic would be yet, he was able to tell me what subjects had and had not been covered, and where I could find pertinent resources. It seemed he had utilized just about every RLS collection in existence! I was very lucky to meet him in the course of my research!

After my exploration of the Stevenson collection, I headed upstairs to the upper floor, which had a display of photographs of Scottish writers outside of the great trio that was the main focus of the museum. There was another display dedicated to forgotten female writers, and information on Lady Stair’s House. The main floor contained the Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott collections, which included mostly paintings and letters, and a few personal affects and some furniture belonging to the authors. This floor also included a small shop selling books by Scottish authors.

In the courtyard outside of the museum were paving stones engraved with quotations by Scottish authors – a nice touch to lead the way to this charming museum.

IMG_4330

Edinburgh Central Library

The Edinburgh Central Library is a lively, active establishment right in the heart of Edinburgh. It got its start as a Carnegie library, meaning that, like all Carnegie libraries (with the notable exception of the one in Stratford-upon-Avon) it was a new construction building at the time of its founding. For this particular library, that meant 1890 – a good time to have a new library built, anyway, as the Victorians were good at designing large, public buildings that were still elegant and beautiful. It is also fitting in that the public library itself is a Victorian institution; though features have changed over the years and the architecture and layout of the buildings may be different, it was at this time that the nature and role of libraries really became the one that we still hold to today.

The Central Library has changed and modernized since its foundation, of course, expanding to create a new children’s library. This area is thoroughly modernized with child-sized furniture and murals of trees and fantastical animals by children’s book illustrator Catherine Rayner.

IMG_4241IMG_4242

Besides providing the children of Edinburgh with free access to books and other resources, the library encourages them to utilize these resources through the “Book Bug” initiative, which encourages children under five to engage with books and literature from a young age. Not only are books fun for kids, but more interaction with books and literature helps them to be better prepared for school.

IMG_4243 IMG_4244

The Central Library’s mission is to provide the best service possible while still preserving the organization’s rich history. With 400,000 visits per year, it is a busy place that must make use of modern advances to keep up. Self check stations speed the check out process for patrons, and give the library staff more time to design and implement programming for their diverse patron groups.

Central Library is not the only one in the city; there are thirty additional branches, many of which are gradually become parts of “Next Generation Hubs,” in which the library is part of a larger complex, including things like neighborhood centers, cafes, and meeting spaces. Central Library integrates with the Music Library, used by local musicians, and the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, which is used by people all over the world, for things ranging from genealogy to Edinburgh history. It is heavily used also by Edinburgh authors doing research for both fiction and nonfiction projects. People everywhere can utilize digital resources tied to these collections, such as Our Town Stories, which provides interactive guides to places and events in Edinburgh history.

“Let there be light” is written on the outside of the building, and this ideal carries through both figuratively in the effort to bring knowledge to all, and also physically in the natural light emphasized within this bright and beautiful library.

John Murray Archive – National Library of Scotland

After reading The Seven Lives of John Murray before leaving for London, I became a little bit obsessed with the story of the John Murray publishing dynasty; I was thrilled to learn that we would be visiting the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland. There are a lot of interesting aspects to its history, starting with the publishing house itself. It was begun in 1768 by John Murray I, a Scot who moved to London to seek his fortune. It was passed down through seven generations of John Murrays, moving early on from its first home on Fleet Street to its famous location on Albemarle Street, until it was finally sold 242 years later. It was the longest-lived privately-owned publishing house in the world, a feat which had become more and more difficult over the years as business changed with the times.

John Murray Fleet Street

The original home of John Murray Publishing on Fleet Street in London.

One of the most colorful characters in the Murray history came during the time of John Murray II: Lord Byron would prove to be not only one of John Murray’s most popular authors, but also a close friend of John Murray II. The letters between them have been a rich resource for Byron biographers as well as historians of the John Murray dynasty and publishing history. In addition to the many poems written by Lord Byron during his short life, John Murray had an opportunity to bring yet another Byron work to the public, but that manuscript met a mysterious end. Shortly after Byron’s death, there was some dispute over Byron’s memoirs, which he had instructed to be published posthumously. However, they were considered so scandalous by the few who had read them, that a small group, including John Murray II, met in John Murray headquarters on Albemarle Street to discuss the situation. The memoirs were burned in the drawing-room fireplace in order to protect Byron’s memory. One can only guess at the contents.

After the sale of the publishing house, John Murray VII insisted that the famous and priceless Murray archives should not go along with the rest. Instead, it should go to a special collection where it could benefit many people. Therefore, in 2002, part of the John Murray archive was donated to the National Library of Scotland. In 2006, the NLS bought part of it for 31.3 million pounds. Though this is a large sum that NLS needed a great deal of support to raise, it is a mere fraction of the actual value of the John Murray archives. In addition to that, the money raised from the sale went into a charity trust for the upkeep of the John Murray collection, the NLS, and others.

The four million items of the John Murray Archive are a great draw – they are exhibited so as to engage visitors with the stories of John Murray and the famous authors published by them. As well as the ever-popular Lord Byron, Dr. Livingstone, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley are popular characters, among many others. Some items are displayed in the NLS, while at times others go on tour or out on loan to other locations.

At the NLS, most items are in storage, but there are always some on display, with an interactive tablet program to help engage the viewer. Authentic artefacts combine with contemporary set pieces in large glass cases, where John Murray treasures are displayed in specially lighted and climate controlled conditions, where they can be carefully protected. They are very careful to preserve the items in the collection, but not at the expense of destroying accessibility. There is even a reconstruction of the infamous fireplace where Byron’s memoirs were burned, complete with bookshelves stocked with period copies of John Murray books for the public’s perusal. Though the original furnishings from the famous Albemarle Street residence are still in their original location, in Edinburgh they try their best to recreate the feeling of being in the legendary drawing room. They seek to draw people in with the perfect balance of history and drama, which is fitting, really, when you’re talking about a collection in which so many different cultural threads intersect.