A Carnegie Jewel – West Calder Public Library

The first Carnegie library in the old county of Midlothian opened at West Calder in November 1904. With a ceremonial golden key, the former British Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, unlocked the door to a world of free books. The many invited guests – members of the parish and county councils, school board members, library contractors and representatives of the local community eagerly entered, itching to see and marvel at their finished library. After hearing a Dedicatory Prayer by a local minister, the guests looked on as Lord Rosebery presented a number to the librarian for a book – thereafter declaring the library open. Refreshments of tea, cake and wine in the new library rooms followed and that evening, the whole community celebrated at a Ball in the Polytechnic Hall.

The library, a Category B listed building, described as “a jewel of a Carnegie Library” in the Illustrated Architectural Guide to West Lothian, stands in neat, landscaped grounds on a hilly site wedged tight between the A71 and the town’s Harburn Road. West Calder, current population approx. 3,200, and now in West Lothian since a boundary change in 1975, lies four miles west of Livingston and a mile from the distinctive Toblerone-like bulk of the Five Sisters Bing, legacy of the area’s shale-mining industry.

The passing of the Public Libraries (Scotland) Act of 1853 gave burgh councils the chance to have free public libraries – to finance them, councils were granted powers to raise their local rates by 1d in the £. Up to this point, the earliest libraries in old Midlothian were private subscription libraries where book borrowers paid a regular fee to get access to the books. A subscription library had been running in West Calder for many decades but by the 1900s, even with stacks (2,000) of books, only a tiny handful of subscribers used it. The Act was a golden opportunity, decided West Calder’s parish council.

Exactly two years before the new, free library’s eventual grand opening, at a public meeting held in West Calder’s People’s Hall, the parish council’s ambitious proposals for a new, public library were passed by 178 votes to 146. The close vote shows the proposed added burden in higher rates to pay for the project wasn’t a popular or affordable decision. Meanwhile, the parish council knew that, despite winning the vote, it still faced a major financial stumbling block because of the area’s small, rural population – raising local taxes alone wouldn’t be enough to build, equip, maintain a library and employ a librarian. More funding was desperately needed.

Then, like Cinderella, its wish came true. A written request to Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – the Scot who made his fortune in the steel industry in America – proved a trump card and he donated £2, 500 to the parish council for the construction of a new building. (The Carnegie Foundation helped fund almost 3,000 libraries worldwide).

The dream of a free, public library now tantalisingly within its grasp, the parish council speedily formed a Library Planning Committee, chose a site, and in the New Year, launched a competition for the design of the new library and librarian’s house. The winning design, from six submissions, was the brain-child of Glasgow-based architect, 28-year-old William Baillie. A two-storey design, Baillie’s plans showed the library perched on top with the librarian’s house beneath built into the hill creating a now-you-see it, now-you-don’t effect. A wrought-iron, black spiral staircase inside the library linked both levels. Andrew Carnegie’s crucial contribution in place, the local community rallied to the cause raising £300 for their new library at a fundraising bazaar.

West Calder library and librarian's house below
Several months later, the gala occasion of the laying of the library’s memorial stone took place with Mr John Fyfe, managing director of Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company, the biggest employer in the area, invited to do the honours. Speeches done and dusted, a bottle filled with coins of the realm was placed in the cavity of the memorial stone. “Another landmark,” the local paper reported, “And that a very important one in the history of our Village and Parish.”

Baillie’s symmetrical building is full of character and period details. The exterior’s red and sand-coloured ashlar (cut and dressed blocks of stone) has the words ‘poetry’, ‘science’ and ‘history’, carved in fat letters above the windows, and Art Nouveau smooth, curved detailing frames the doorway between pedimented Venetian windows. Local firms and tradesmen did the work – masonry work by Wilson and Wallace of West Calder, cost £798 13s 7p. Inside the entrance are original cream, green and yellow glazed tiles. Half-a-dozen steps lead to a wood-panelled vestibule with etched glass panels, a time-capsule crammed with the library’s history. On its walls hangs a framed, faded photograph of the laying of the memorial stone, the memorial stone itself, a bronze plaque “to commemorate the usefulness of the old subscription library” and, off to one side, the 1904 Ladies Reading Room, just feet from today’s library’s modern technology.

The newly-built library received many generous donations of books from local people and businesses. It also welcomed with open arms piles of books (1600 volumes) from the original subscription library. On top of this, an annual budget of £320 had been agreed for the purchase of new books. An approved list was sent to suppliers, inviting quotations from James Thin and Douglas and Foulis in Edinburgh, Maclehose in Glasgow and Mudie’s in London but in the end, small, local firm, James Brown of West Calder, landed the contract.

By the end of its first year, the fast-growing library membership stood at over 800, with 15,500 issues recorded. Book-hungry borrowers were not put off then by the first librarian in post – a stickler for rules – and nicknamed “Auld Wheesht”.

Information from:
A History of West Calder Library by West Lothian District Council Dept. Of Libraries
West Lothian – An Illustrated Architectural Guide by Richard Jaques and Charles McKean

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